WE ARE SEVEN

- October 14, 2019 -

To celebrate the achievement of our seventh birthday, I thought I’d post the text version of a talk I did this month for Ladies Of Restaurants. It was an amazing opportunity to think about my life in the world of hospitality, the journey so far, with its end destination of Margate, and some of the madness that occurred to get here.

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Ladies of Restaurants, Tuesday 1st October 2019, Hantverk & Found, Margate

I feel like a complete fraud writing this talk for Ladies of Restaurants. Not only because I’ve never classed myself as a lady, but also because of my accidental tourist status in the world of hospitality. And especially as I know that this talk will have to be delivered in front of Kate from Hantverk & Found, Natalia from Cafe Barletta (and founder of Ladies of Restaurants) and Simona from Bottega Carruso. Three women who have helped make Margate a serious food destination. 

I’m a pretend restaurant owner, you see. 

So I used to be a journalist and my career took place in the golden age of The Blag. I’ve been lucky to eat in some of the world’s best restaurants. Back in those glory days of travel journalism, I was flown all over the world to eat and to stay in luxury hotels. I was in my late 20s and early 30s and I was living the dream.

I’ve owned my own business since the age of 26 – firstly in marketing, branding and publishing, and then the strange, unexpected move into hospitality. In my life as an entrepreneur, I’ve lost everything, twice. And not just my business – and therefore my income – but also my home.

After the global crash in 2008, the publishing company I owned in Spain with my former partner, Rachel, went under. Like thousands of business owners on the Costa del Sol, we were left penniless. Along with that came another bombshell: Rachel was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour. One specialist gave her five years, if she was lucky; another shone a brighter beam of hope, but still wouldn’t talk about more than a decade. 

We limped back to the UK, homeless, penniless, hopeless, where she underwent two rounds of brain surgery. I went to work at ITV and while she was recovering, Rachel took a part-time job in a pub in Vauxhall so she could learn how to cook commercially – something she’d always dreamed of doing.

If you’re lucky – really lucky – a lack of hope means you have the balls to be a little more reckless, to take risks that perhaps you wouldn’t normally take, because… well, f*ck it, right?

Our first hospitality venture was a pub on the Wiltshire/Somerset borders near the Longleat estate. Something I had never contemplated doing – thanks to me not particularly liking people, not being a natural front of house host (I do not and will not suffer fools – especially fools who drink 10 pints of ale every night, moaning about their wives, their work, their family…), and also being the world’s worst waitress – an inherent clumsiness does not a good server make. My customers will attest to this. But for Rachel, it was a dream of hers, so we dove into the new venture with enthusiasm from her and scepticism from me.

We ran the pub, which also had five boutique B&B rooms – as tenants of the Wadworth brewery – for just over two years. A filthy old country pub when we found it (the previous tenants would mop the carpet in the restaurant on a Sunday evening, host heavy metal pool competition nights, and serve beer that required mastication), we stripped it out and Farrow and Balled it. We employed a lovely local chap who tended our kitchen garden and helped me learn the joys of owning chickens, and we tried to ingratiate ourselves – unsuccessfully – into the village community. My morning walks with Henry, my Great Dane, saw villagers crossing the street to avoid us both.

In that time we won Gastropub Pub of the Year (an award we failed to collect as we’d got the day of the glitzy ceremony in London wrong) and were runners-up as UK Food Pub of the Year. We also had a successful visit from the man from Michelin – who our waitress mistakenly assumed was a tyre salesman and tried to shoo him away after his lunch. He was amused. I was not. 

It was the stuff of dreams for Rachel: just-shot venison turning up at the kitchen door; rabbits delivered by our gardener; seasonal produce pulled out of our own earth each and every morning; freshly-laid eggs; grass-fed beef that we could hear munching in the fields behind the pub’s garden.

But it was two torturous years of graft, heartache and struggles. As we became more successful, the brewery put up our prices – as a tied pub, we had to buy all booze from them. Working from 6am until 11pm, six days a week, took its toll. 

I loathed it. And after two years, Rachel’s brain tumour reappeared. As our margins were so tight, we couldn’t afford to employ a chef of her calibre to replace her inevitable four months out of the business. 

So, we eventually walked away, leaving our cash investment in the pub’s refurb locked into the property. 

I swore I’d never work in hospitality again.

Rachel had a third round of brain surgery, followed by a gruelling course of radiotherapy. After a few months back in London for her treatment, we moved to the Cotswolds to live with her aunt, so she could recover. I got a job first as a food buyer for a National garden centre chain, and then as a content writer for a media agency; after months of recovery, Rachel got a job in a local pub.

My Nan died during this time, leaving me a bit of cash. 

One evening after my Nan’s funeral, visiting my parents, I was attempting to convince my father to go out for dinner – a man who is a fan of “simple fayre”, with money spent in restaurants being money wasted.  Finally he decided on “thin and crispy pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven like they have in Italy.” He had never been to Italy. Still has never been to Italy. So I googled “wood-fired pizza Birmingham” and this is a sign of those times (it must have been February 2012): not a single result came back. Apart from one, on ebay: a decrepit German army bus with a wood-fired oven retrofitted into the back of it. It cost the same as the lump of cash my Nan had left me and was for sale in the next town. We went to view it the next day – god knows why. Held together with rust, gaffer tape and string, it was a no-go – literally. But it got our brains whirring. 

A few weeks were spent researching the concept of a mobile food business.  Mobile pizza trucks were few and far between then and we felt as though we’d discovered something new enough that we could make it our own. 

I found a bloke in Telford who made portable wood-fired ovens, made out of fibreglass and clay, we bought a rusty old 1974 VW Campervan, and the Cotswold Pizza Company was born. We sold our first pizza at the Moreton-in-Marsh Farmers Market – the only one we sold that day, the rest were enthusiastically snapped up by Rachel’s family.

The work for each event was all-consuming: endless dough making and sauce prep. Loading the van for the event; unloading it at the event; making the pizzas; loading the van back up to take everything home, but having to wait for the oven to cool down; unloading it at home to clean down the van and all of the gear.

After a weekend festival was rained off in Bath, losing us the significant, non-refundable pitch fee we’d paid (such are the joy of mobile catering), we started to look at other ways to run the fledgling business. 

And so, to Margate.

Margate had always been a favourite day trip destination when we were in London. Every time we visited, we met another cool person doing exciting things – Stuart at the old and much-missed Fort’s Cafe was one of the first. And the lovely Jean from BeBeached, who was so generous with her help and support. 

In early 2012, after I found a small unit to rent on the Harbour Arm, plus a parking space next to it for the van, we moved. Research showed that there would be enough outdoor events in the spring and summer months to sustain a business.

As we paid our deposit and took charge of the keys for the little lock-up, the estate agent casually mentioned that the unit had its own alcohol licence – and that if we wanted to operate out of the unit, there was space that we could use outside for tables and chairs. It was June 2012, the start of the Olympic summer – although summer may be a term too far. 

The town’s calendar was packed with events, including art events along the Harbour, meaning, we hoped, a steady flow of potential customers. 

Using social media – just Twitter and Facebook back then – we amassed a decent following before we opened on a Friday night in June. Nearly 100 people were queuing. Our four picnic tables were full; Henry was joined in the Campervan by waiting customers, and we panicked. Rachel rolled and stretched the dough and topped it; I took orders, cooked the pizzas, sliced them, and took money. With just two of us and 100 people waiting, we needed to rethink our order of service and fast.

Customers were told to help themselves to drinks (I didn’t have enough pairs of hands!); they were asked to collect their own napkins;  come to the bar to order and collect their pizza once their name was called. The pub, amongst many things, had taught us that any hospitality business that was staff heavy wasn’t going to work for us. The “fast casual” concept hadn’t even been born yet – we did what we did through necessity, a lack of capital, and the scars of being burned by the pub and its need for high-skilled, highly-paid chefs.

The summer of 2012 was an historical one. Margate saw the Olympic torch arrive, carried by Tracey Emin in a very ill-fitting bra and a portrait of the Queen at the Turner drew record crowds, and there was a buzz about the town – not just from the people living in it and visiting it, but also in the national press. By the end of July, we had employed our first part-time member of staff, and each weekend we were serving hundreds of pizzas in the hot sunshine, sideways rain, freezing drizzle and gale-force wind.

By August, we’d put down a deposit on a restaurant unit across the water, on Marine Drive. Back in 2012, the stretch of handsome buildings that sit on the seafront, lay dark at night. No Glass Jar, Sands Hotel, Buoy & Oyster, Dory’s or Bottle Shop. Just the Rock Shop in the summer, Primark in the day, and Rokka when it could be bothered to open.

Our site used to be a Pizza Hut and the small area we rented was its basement and kitchen. With a tiny budget, we set about trying to turn it into a space that people would want to eat in. We had the views – that was for sure – and enough room for a small, wood-fired oven – the majority of our budget being blown on extending the oven’s flue through six storeys of an abandoned building. 

In the weeks in the run-up to our opening, notes were pushed under our door from people living locally, kindly letting us know of our stupidity and impending failure and doom. We also forged friendships and met some incredible people who supported our crazy venture.  

When we opened in a cold October, and when an even colder November arrived, including snow in December, there were sometimes hours before a person would even walk past our door. I began to question breaking my own rule of never, ever working in hospitality again. I had to question whether Rachel’s illness had made us pro-risk or perhaps just reckless?

In 2013, after a very shaky, terrifying first six months, the reviews in the national press started to happen thanks to the incredible Marina O’Louglin, who should be given the keys to this fine town.

So this month, GB Pizza celebrates its seventh year of trading. In that time we’ve had:

  • a two-year stint in London (successful on paper, unsuccessful in every other way); 
  • opened our first franchise restaurant in Didsbury in South Manchester; 
  • received lauded reviews in every single national newspaper and national food magazine; 
  • been featured in every edition of The Good Food Guide and Harden’s since we opened; 
  • parted ways, quite magnificently, with a toxic investor (whose nickname for me was the “foul-mouthed one”);
  • sold over three quarters of a million pizzas; 
  • been named, in various features, as one of the UK’s best pizza restaurants; 
  • garnered an enormous following on social media for my witterings and rants, and photos of dogs and pizza and sunsets;
  • almost lost everything, again;
  • have made life-long friends through the customers that have come through our doors;
  • felt out-pourings of love for mad-ass ideas like giving away free pizza for an entire week to all emergency services staff after the Manchester and Borough Market bombings;
  • supported a plethora of local charities, with raffle prizes, as well as our charity pizza;
  • supported talented, hardworking local suppliers;
  • met some incredible people whose businesses we adore and support; 
  • nurtured some incredible staff members

As you probably all know, we also lost our co-founder, Rachel, who, after a fierce fight, finally succumbed to that f*cking nasty brain tumour after nearly 15 years since diagnosis. It’s been a tough two years for the GB•PIZZA•CO family, but we’ve come out fighting.

So, what next? 

More sites – if this isn’t the time to expand, embrace this crazy little pizza joint and run with it, then I don’t know what is. It’s been hideous, heartbreaking, life-changing, brilliant, life-affirming, tedious and empowering. As a woman in business, it’s made me realise what I can achieve – I multi-task, I get shit done, I’m a girly swot and l learn more about my industry every single day, Im inspired by other women in hospitality, and I’m never afraid or too egotistical to ask how something works or why something went wrong.

So, seven years of making pizza, a relatively new-found gluten allergy (the irony is not lost), a sommelier course set to start at the end of the year and a ferocious need to succeed – for the sake of everything my little pizza joint stands for – whilst I never want to work in hospitality again, I’m going to see this through to the end. Whatever that might be.