How a farm-to-plate restaurant coped with Covid | FT Food Revolution

The coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic for the hospitality industry but some restaurant businesses are stronger now than ever before. Food writer Tim Hayward and the FT’s Daniel Garrahan travel to Bristol in England’s west country to visit Wilsons, which sources produce from its own market garden, and Little French, which used lockdown to support local suppliers and expand its operations

The coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic for the hospitality industry but covert restrictions have been lifted and restaurants are back i’m tim hayward i’m a restaurateur cook and food critic i’m daniel garagan 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 at we want to see how restaurants are adapting to all of this and what the future holds our first stop is wilson’s and a residential corner of the city tim kovid 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 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 wilson’s was my favorite restaurant of the year two years ago i think in the ft because there’s never like it it’s just 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 the buzzword at this place should we go and

Check out the farm see what they’re up to i think we should eighty-five percent of the stuff on the menu is from here so almost self-sufficient can you get it that’s the ambition yeah i mean the the ambition is to be totally a unique experience created from the earth 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 gonna have tomatoes on the menu for a long time and we’re gonna 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 this is that’s not why we do a restaurant right there’s a simpler way so why

Not go for the simple option why 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 to make it our little micro difference so what’s the business case for doing it better quality of product people will pay a premium i think 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 wilson’s initially i thought it was all about me

But quietly mary’s sort of steadied the mary’s the sort of the captain who doesn’t need to lots of attention she just steers the ship and it’s 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 of something you put it into preservation and storage and things like that

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 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 you know things like crop protection we have to do we’ve got deer we’ve got

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Rabbits we’ve got badger on top of everything else top of everything else so when you think back to the start of the pandemic obviously you were you were producing some spectacular produce here suddenly the restaurants are closed you don’t know when they’re going to reopen yeah what did you do next what happened to all this amazing produce we donated a lot of it

To the nhs um we cooked a lot of it and gave it away we just would prefer to to that it went into mouths and it went into bodies and went back into the livestream and then went into the bin we just kept on picking kept on growing he 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 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 as you were relying on other suppliers i mean to be honest with you like there’s effectively zero waste because it depends how you define waste is 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 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 over extending ourselves and what is possible for this plot to produce we’re trying our hardest not to bring um anything

From the outside in and you use it as a spray-on fertilizer 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 you know 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 the uncertainty inspire creativity and you 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 it what i do our next stop is little french a short drive up the road from wilsons we’ve got much busier i mean now it was almost i think there was that idea of latent demand but then it’s also just that late in demand as i just continued this sort of constantly busy

Um you know i always wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant and we still are a neighborhood restaurant but it’s also just attracting people from all over as well so the number of covers you can actually serve now on the either side of lockdown is more than you had in the original restaurant you went into it with yeah i mean so 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 and 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 yeah and

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They’re getting all the benefits of having a nice time with their families and living locally and finding out local and you’re you’re supplying to that group do you feel that that decision to be neighborhood has played well for you through this uh uh 100 the the most supportive people are our neighbours of course you know as a restaurant people come from far

And wide but through lockdown supporting us with our food boxes supporting us when you’re a shop supporting us it’s all been community and the one thing i’m really keen to do is always keep tables for locals that there’s always an opportunity always it’s going to ask that’s interesting yeah so if it’s my wife’s birthday and i live two streets away i can yeah

And it’s getting busy of course we’re full on the restaurant diary but call up drop in come and see us you live like we will do 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 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 all we seem to have people suddenly recognized what it was that was important to them in life and it’s sitting around a table with their with that with their 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 that would

Be gone that if they didn’t look after us there was going to be this homogenous high street where the big boys moved in later and you never get it back so you’re still using lots of suppliers just tight around bristol and spain and france and what 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 those alive the supermarkets want the ease of the most convenient and the highest profit margins whereas we’re looking for the interesting and the and the diverse and the and the 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 stories they want to know more about where everything they’ve got is 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 they’re never going to become enormous but that’s what’s going to give the diversity the excitement and look at the high street here the independent bookshop the fishmonger the butchers we’ve opened the bakery big wine selection cheese to be used in the restaurant the meat wine that you sell in the restaurant wine is it we’re sitting in the restaurant

This rewinds this sort of march last year what was going through your mind at that point the restaurant had only been open eight months it was right now there were people desperate to sell produce our butcher our veg man all these people that we wanted to keep working with we also people wanted bread people wanted flour they wanted the basics in life but they

Wanted the pleasures as well so we it was you know good bread people were always asking us can you make we couldn’t make enough bread for people so we weren’t baking bread i was buying bread in i thought hang on a sec there’s a there’s a market for this up here you can sell a good few hundred loads a day in our neighborhood this wasn’t just the charitable endeavor

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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 that we’d set up in a restaurant people were were more excited by it then we’d sort of started doing let’s 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 my goodness me this is 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 let’s stack that out 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 have a little let’s get it licensed it became a bit of a wine bar as well just kind of kind of grew like that in the middle of all of this i mean 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 ten people turns out that’s employing thirty down here we’re

Employing nearly twenty and the business has now a bit sort of a little mini beast if you like did you ever think you’d be doing something like this before the pandemic no 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 you know it’s an empty shop we haven’t got anything else to do with it we don’t like it being empty uh you know coffee is 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 i mean wilson’s are using pretty much 85 percent of their own produce whereas here um 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 but 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 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 their favorite 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 centers where the office workers to use the 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 my postcode but 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 yeah yeah there’s and there’s billions of pounds worth of office space they’re just not being used and yet the business lunch is now happening in the residential area we see it we’re seeing that oh god

You’re certainly here and it was terrifying in the early days but actually some of these businesses are emerging in a better place than they than they were before the pandemic you

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How a farm-to-plate restaurant coped with Covid | FT Food Revolution By Financial Times

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