How a farm-to-plate restaurant coped with Covid
The coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic for the hospitality industry but some restaurant businesses are stronger now than ever. Food writer Tim Hayward and the FT's Daniel Garrahan visit Wilsons, which sources produce from its own market garden, and Little French, which used lockdown to support local suppliers and expand its operations
Filmed by Carlos Homer and George Pagliero. Edited by Richard Topping. Produced by Daniel Garrahan and Tim Hayward
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The coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic for the hospitality industry.
But Covid restrictions have been lifted and restaurants are back.
I'm Tim Hayward. I'm a restaurateur, cook and food critic.
I'm Daniel Garrahan. I'm a Financial Times journalist and I love to eat out.
Today we've come to Bristol in England's west country, home of one of the UK's hottest restaurant scenes.
But the pandemic disrupted supply chains, led to staff shortages, and changed where we live, work, and dine out.
We want to see how restaurants are adapting to all of these and what the future holds.
Our first stop is Wilsons in a residential corner of the city. Tim, Covid has been a nightmare for restaurants up and down the country. Bristol is no exception. And it's not a city I know well, but we've come here today. It's got one of the most exciting restaurant scenes in the country.
It has. I've been coming here for, well, I was born here, weirdly. But I've been coming back here for years, because I just think it's had the most vibrant scene imaginable. Lots of exciting little places run by cool people in interesting communities and environments, and this is one of them.
Wilsons was my favourite restaurant of the year, two years ago, I think, in the FT, because there's nowhere like it. It's exactly what you want as your local. The food is absolutely superb. They've got a real farm-to-plate operation going on here.
Yeah, sustainability seems to be the buzzword at this place. Should we go and check out the farm and see what they're up to?
I think we should.
Let's do it.
85 per cent of the stuff on the menu is from here.
So almost self-sufficient. You're getting there.
That's the ambition. The ambition is to be totally a unique experience created from the earth in Bristol.
And does this mean that your menu is completely seasonal? How often does it change?
It changes when it's ready. Soon we're going to have loads and loads of tomatoes, and we're going to have tomatoes on the menu for a long time. And we're going to have tomatoes on one or two or three courses because that's what we've got. It would be simpler to buy it from somebody else, but you know, that's not why we do a restaurant, right? There's a simpler way to...
So why not go for the simple option? Why do you do this?
On a purely professional reason, when you pick something and put it on the plate within a 24-hour period it is stunning. You need to do almost nothing to it. When you eat a freshly picked and cooked beetroot it is unbelievable, the complexity it has. On a moral level, we need to do whatever we can in whatever way we can to make our little micro difference.
So what's the business case for doing it?
Better quality of product.
People will pay a premium?
I think people do pay a premium. We don't charge a premium, but people will pay a premium. When we said we wanted to open a restaurant it was always going to be called Wilsons. Initially I thought it was all about me, but quietly Mary steadied the ship. Mary's the captain who doesn't need lots of attention. She just steers the ship, and it's her restaurant, it's her name.
Russian capers, yeah, we'll pickle them once all of this turns into capers.
Like a big farm, if you get a big crop or something, you put it into preservation and storage and things like that if you can.
Yeah, exactly, if we can.
Oh, this is great. It's a really intriguing scale, isn't it? Because this is just so much bigger than amateur gardening.
Yeah, and we're just trying to kind of, because it's two of us doing it and we're not using machinery, and we're trying our best not to use any machinery. Things like crop protection we have to do, we've got deer, we've got rabbits, we've got badger.
On top of everything else.
On top of everything else.
So when you think back to the start of the pandemic, obviously you were producing some spectacular produce here. Suddenly the restaurants are closed, you don't know when they're going to reopen. What did you do next? What happened to all this amazing produce?
We donated a lot of it to the NHS. We cooked a lot of it and gave it away. We just would prefer that it went into mouths and it went into bodies and went back into the life stream than went into the bin.
We just kept on picking, kept on growing. You can't stop this. It's not like a restaurant that you can fire up in a week and you can close it down in a week. This is years of planning.
In normal times, in pre-pandemic times or post-pandemic times, does that mean that there's less waste in the restaurant than there would be if you were relying on other supplies?
I mean, to be honest with you, there's effectively zero waste, because it depends how you define waste. If waste is something that goes into a landfill, we don't create any waste from this. All the trimmings go into a bin, come back to the farm and get composted and go back into the earth.
I'm also fascinated by your tubs over here. What on earth are these?
So this is where we're making compost teas, as a part of not overextending ourselves and what is possible for this plot to produce. We're trying our hardest not to bring anything from the outside in.
And you use it like a spray on fertiliser?
Yeah, exactly. So we're using minimal inputs from outside. Something that is really important and something that I think people should really focus on is small scale local agriculture. It means so much more than walking into a supermarket and getting a certified organic produce, because it can come from anywhere.
When you think back and reflect on the last 18 months, did the uncertainty inspire creativity? It probably had to.
Yeah, I think we changed a lot of things. We did a lot of things differently. We started new things, we started a bakery, we started making videos, we started doing loads of stuff. When people ask me about the pandemic, I still say I wouldn't have changed it. It's given me a fresh insight into what's important and why I do what I do.
Our next stop is Little French, a short drive up the road from Wilsons.
We've got much busier. It was always, I think there was that idea of latent demand. But then it's also just that latent demand has then just continued to this sort of constantly busy. I always wanted to be a neighbourhood restaurant. And we still are a neighbourhood restaurant, but it's also just attracting people from all over as well.
So the number of covers you can actually serve now, on either side of lockdown, is more than you had in the original restaurant you went into it with?
Yeah, let me see, we were a 45-seater in here at its max, and we had to reduce that down to about 20 at the height of spreading people out there, so we put another 35 outside. Now as we've been able to get people closer together, we're doing more covers, probably half again, our covers every day.
I'm guessing this is the sort of place that professionals who aren't currently going to the office actually live. And they're getting all the benefits of having a nice time with their families and living locally and finding out local, and you're supplying to that group. Do you feel that decision to be neighbourhood has played well for you through this?
100 per cent. The most supportive people are our neighbours. Of course, as a restaurant, people come from far and wide. But through lockdown, supporting us with our food boxes, supporting us when we were a shop, supporting us, It's all been community. And then one of the things that I'm really keen to do is always keep tables for locals. There's always an opportunity. I always...
I was going to ask, that's interesting. So if it's my wife's birthday and I live two streets away, and I can get a table on a busy night.
Of course we're full on the restaurant diary. But call up, drop in, come and see us. We will work it out. And that to me is really important. They've looked after us, I want to look after them. And they're your bread and butter for life.
When you're not eating out and you see the quality of what you're buying in supermarkets, which is all we seemed to have had, people suddenly recognised what it that was important to them in life. And it's sitting around a table with their friends, with their family, eating incredible quality ingredients. And as soon as that's taken away from them, I think people were nervous that that would be gone. That if they didn't look after us there was going to be this homogeneous high street where the big boys moved in later, and you'd never get it back.
So you're still using lots of supplies just tight around Bristol?
Around Bristol and Spain and France, but it's the fact that I have people that I've got relationships with for the last 15 years. I have a relationship with a guy who's got a 15-year relationship with a guy who's got a 50-year relationship with these things. But it's the restaurants that keep those alive.
The supermarkets want the ease of the most convenience and the highest profit margins, whereas we're looking for the interesting and the diverse and sort of the more niche stuff where there's a story. And that's the other thing I think people have. Because they weren't eating out, they want the story. They want to know more about where everything they've got is coming from.
In amongst all of this, the small people are the people that are going to really grow. They'll stay small, I think, maybe we'll have two or three sites. Maybe we'll have two or three, but we're going to become enormous, but that's what's going to give the diversity and excitement. And if I look at the high street here, the independent bookshop, the fishmonger, the butcher's, we've opened the bakery. Good wine selection, the cheese that we use in the restaurant and the meats.
The wine that you sell in the restaurant?
Wines that we're selling in the restaurant.
So rewind to March last year. What was going through your mind at that point? This restaurant had only been open eight months.
The restaurant had been open eight months. It was, why now? There were people desperate to sell produce, our butcher, our veg man, all these people that we wanted to keep working with. People wanted bread, people wanted flour. They wanted the basics in life, but they wanted the pleasures as well.
So it was good bread, people always ask us, can you make bread? We couldn't make enough bread for people, so we weren't baking bread. I was buying bread in. I thought, well, hang on a sec, there's a market for this up here, and we can set a good 300 loaves a day in our neighbourhood.
So this wasn't just a charitable endeavour, right? This became a smart business response to a crisis?
It was. And people didn't want to queue outside supermarkets. They wanted to come to our shop and we'd set up in a restaurant. People were more excited by it that we'd started doing that sell online. So people could see beforehand, and it made the process a bit quicker.
They could come and just collect something and walk away with it, so it made the shopping experience quicker. And then it became, oh my goodness me, this restaurant quality produce. This is incredible value. Why am I going to the supermarket? And then we said, well, actually let's just build a shop, stack that out.
Then it was like well, if we're doing a bakery and we're doing a shop, we might as well do a cafe. And then we thought, well, let's get it licenced, so it became a bit of a wine bar as well. Just sort of grew like that. In the middle of all of this, we've gone from being a 45-seater restaurant, that when I first set out before the pandemic, I thought we'd employ six, eight, 10 people. Turns out that's employing 30. Down here we're employing nearly 20. And the businesses now is a bit of a little mini beast, if you like.
Did ever think you'd be doing something like this before the pandemic?
So, Tim, once again, we've seen how the pandemic is a crisis but it can also present opportunity.
I think that's the most fascinating part about this. It's not a great sort of admission that suddenly rents are going to be dropping down to sensible levels, but people are doing deals, quietly. It's an empty shop, we haven't got anything else to do with it, we don't like it being empty. Coffee's great, you can put it in, it's a really simple thing to set up. Do a little bit of woodwork around the outside and suddenly, I mean, this could be Sydney, this could be San Francisco. It's kind of lovely.
There are interesting things going on with the supply chain, too, which has been disrupted by the pandemic. Wilsons are using pretty much 85 per cent of their own produce, whereas here with Little French, they're supporting the local suppliers. They didn't want to see them go out of business in the short-term at the start of the pandemic. And what we're seeing now is actually an opportunity. They're not just serving the butcher's meat in the restaurant, they're serving it here in the deli as well.
The community is, again, it's a theme that we're seeing again and again. But if you're in one of those areas and you're lucky enough to have that loyal community, who don't want to lose their favourite restaurants, who are going out of their way to support them, these guys have got a much better chance than those who are perhaps stuck in the city centres where the office workers that used to support those businesses just aren't there anymore.
Yes, but this is the other thing that we need to think about in any analysis of this, which is, it's almost by postcode. You and I have been to the city in the last couple of weeks. We've driven through central London and it's like a zombie movie. And there's and there's billions of pounds worth of office space that's just not being used.
And yet the business lunch is now happening in the residential area. We're seeing that.
Oh god, yes.
Certainly here. And it was terrifying in the early days, but actually some of these businesses are emerging in a better place than they were before the pandemic.