Water, and too much of
it, was the recurring theme of my conversations with Mark Dorber who, together with his chef and wife Sophie, has for the past two years been skilfully reinvigorating the Anchor in the coastal village of Walberswick, near the coastal village of Southwold in Suffolk.
Too much rain was the conversation point as four of us walked into the warm, comfortable dining room
at the pub, where the skirting boards are hidden by a vast array of cookery books. What followed – generous
portions of a lamb curry, scallops
with artichoke puree, a fish stew
and a vast steak – warmed us sufficiently so that, when there was
a brief break in the clouds, we decided to venture out on to the terrace at
the back for dessert. Anyone who
associates holidays with lounging around in the sun would have been perplexed as the four of us huddled together over excellent steamed puddings – one date and walnut, the other ginger and rhubarb – and glasses of dessert wine, only a week before Midsummer’s Day.
Subsequent e-mail correspondence with Dorber revealed further consequences of the recent heavy rain. One apologised for the delay in replying but a power surge had knocked out not just all contact with the outside world but also the hand-held servers that the waiters use to send orders to the kitchen. A second e-mail added that his answer would be forthcoming “lightning permitting”.
When I caught up with Dorber over lunch in London, I thought that the reason for his looking so cheerful might be the relief to be away from that very wet, if distinctly beautiful, corner of rural England. But, as we talked, I realised that his constant good humour has far more to do with his love of his job, his family’s new life outside London, and his comment that he is now far happier playing second fiddle to his wife, whom he touchingly describes as “the most caring person I have ever met in the hospitality business”.
This is a business Dorber has been in since the summer of 1981 when, having turned his back on a PhD “just [about] wars”, he took over the tenancy of the White Horse in Parsons Green, west London. Over the next 25 years, Dorber built the White Horse into a beacon for wine and beer enthusiasts, a process that was enhanced in 1994 when Sophie Mellor applied for the job of head chef. This led not only to a significant improvement in the food but also to their marriage.
But the pull of Suffolk was too strong, not just because of his passion for Adnams beers (whose brewers own his rooms at the Anchor) but also because Sophie used to run a private catering business there. So when the opportunity arose to take on the Anchor on an 18-year lease, Dorber had no hesitation in offering the £200,000 asking price to move there.
He immediately recognised the gulf between town and country. “When I first took over at the White Horse, the pub’s front windows were broken on six different occasions by people who obviously did not want us there,” he says. “But when we moved here, we were greeted by a great group of surveyors, estate agents and curious locals who really helped us settle in and establish the vital contacts any new business needs. They made us feel very welcome.”
The most practical introduction came with Erica Clegg, a designer based in nearby Aldeburgh, who created a new identity for the pub that exudes the freshness of the food, and uses colours redolent of the sea and the open skies.
Fitting into a village community also brings with it an extra set of responsibilities for a publican and his team, among them providing hot meals for those in the village too ill to cook for themselves and putting on the menu a special Pensioners’ Lunch at £6.95 for two courses.
The Dorbers’ business plan has involved, most obviously, putting
fresh food firmly back on the menu, doubling the allotment at the back which now yields rocket, salad leaves, onions, runner beans, broad beads
and herbs, and opening up the
supply chain to many of the dedicated growers and producers in East Anglia. Dorber is looking forward to working with a local farmer to promote
salt-marsh lamb, but there is no hiding his despondency at the demise of
the local fishing industry and the
fact that he and other local restaurateurs are often unable to compete with the higher prices London restaurants will pay for such local delicacies as Cromer crab. A possible solution, Dorber says, may be to buy a share in a fishing boat.
So far, they have invested £250,000 of their savings into the Anchor, with another £200,000 to follow as turnover has doubled from £325,000 to £670,000, and the infrastructure has been put in place to run a pub with five bedrooms, six chalets, a 50-seater dining room, three small bars, and outside seating for up to 180 when holidaymakers leave the nearby beach, hungry and thirsty for a barbecue.
Recruitment for the kitchen remains the biggest challenge, however. Dorber is only too aware that his main role now is to keep his talented wife healthy and happy because so much of their business now rests on her shoulders. “Sophie has lifted the quality of the food that is served here significantly but, for the moment, it has to stay simple and easily reproducible until we can confidently build a team to take it on to the next stage. And until we manage that, I have to be patient with what fascinates me – matching wines and beers with the food we serve – and concentrate instead on managing the cash flow and paying the bills on time.”
A strong cash-flow is now allowing Dorber to look around for a second pub somewhere close by but it has to be one that meets two essential criteria. It has to have the space to allow him to fulfil his dream of building a micro-brewery. And, as the waters temporarily recede, it will also have to be on higher ground.
The Anchor, Main Street, Walberswick Suffolk IP18 6UA, tel: +44 (0)1502-722 112, www.anchoratwalberswick.com
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Get alerts on Food & Drink when a new story is published