Editor's lunch: Discussing restaurants and retail in Gloucestershire
PUBLISHED: 15:59 09 October 2018 | UPDATED: 15:59 09 October 2018
© Thousand Word Media
How better to gauge Gloucestershire's economic and social wellbeing than to talk to the people at the sharp end?
Business & Professional Editor Tanya Gledhill hosted a round-table discussion over lunch at Cheltenham’s Malmaison with the hotel’s General Manager Steven Wilmer, Oliver Bruce, founder of film production company PinPoint Media and John Tooth, Director of Paish Tooth Accountants. Subjects ranged from tourism to commercial property, the housing market and the changing face of marketing in this digital age.
Tourism is high on the agenda for the Gloucestershire economy.
According to figures released by GFirst LEP, the sector directly employs 25,600 people in more than 4,000 businesses.
The majority are micro-enterprises, accounting for 2,105 of the total, with food and beverage services - hotels, restaurants, pubs, coffee shops - claiming by far the biggest share of the market.
And in the jobs market, chefs and waiting staff are the most in-demand positions.
But what is the situation in Gloucestershire?
Are we doing enough, with our infrastructure and marketing strategies, to capitalise on the economic potential?
There are myriad dining opportunities here from Japanese pop-ups to Hong Kong noodle bars, to new openings like The Ivy, a regional branch-out from the celebrated London restaurant, and Caribbean chain Turtle Bay.
It’s this diversity, along with the Festivals and key sporting events - think The Festival and Gloucester Rugby - which makes Gloucestershire such a draw for weekends and short breaks.
The discussion started with the rise of low-key restaurants - relaxed dining options perfect for business lunches or dinner with friends, a move away from formal, structured dining.
One example cited by the trio is The Pyromaniac Chef’s Gloucester Studio: a unique eight-seater eating house created in a Scandinavian Kota hut, where guests sit on reindeer skins crowded round the central fire and eat off wooden plates.
Michel Roux Jr featured it on his Hidden Restaurants series, and said it was “bonkers but it works”.
In 2016, owner Kathryn Minchew successfully crowdfunded a Fire Kitchen for her venture. Since then, she’s appeared in publications from The Observer to the Daily Mail.
“It’s the sort of place you tend to come across in southern Italy,” says John Tooth, who spends his leisure time walking, cycling and even skydiving. “The kind of restaurant you find where granny is doing the cooking.
“It’s so interesting to think there are places like this in the back streets of Gloucester.”
Offerings like Cheltenham’s Coconut Tree typify this new style of dining - foodies looking to spend their money on something quirky and sociable.
Tucked away in St Paul’s, and a finalist in the 2018 Cotswold Life Food & Drink Awards, it does a roaring trade in Sri Lankan street food.
Cheltenham’s newest restaurant is Giggling Squid, a Thai tapas chain with branches across London and the south east, and up into Bristol. It’s just opened a branch in Montpellier.
“It’s inexpensive,” says Steven, who, when he’s not overseeing operations at Mal spends his evenings checking out the competition.
“You can get a curry for £8, but it’s more about the tapas. Ordering three or four dishes each, and sharing them round the table, is a really nice thing to do, and more and more people are doing it.”
So what of the new openings?
Has The Ivy, Oliver asks Steven, taken business away from Malmaison and other more established Cheltenham restaurants?
“We have lost some non-residents at dinner,” he says. “But that just means we’ve got to step up a little bit.”
The conversation moves from The Ivy to The Daffodil, and the number of chefs it takes to run a successful restaurant.
Mal has a team of eight behind the pass, though that will rise at particularly busy periods like Christmas. The Ivy, says Steven, has something like 44 - the numbers reflecting the fact it’s a new opening. But it’s not all about new openings. Some established Cheltenham names have gone, a reflection of not only the competition but also the economic situation.
Thai Brasserie and Montpellier Lodge recently closed their doors, along with The George Hotel and it’s Monty’s Brasserie - some only temporarily, though.
From hospitality businesses feeling the squeeze to parking charges, the conversation turned to the loss of free spaces in the centre of Cheltenham, notably Bayshill Road and Parabola Road.
“It’s a massive issue, particularly at weekends,” says Steven. “The majority of our guests are from out of town so have no idea where to park.”
Oliver said he used to encourage his staff to park there, since PinPoint only has three dedicated spaces - all of which are now policed by a parking enforcement agency, thus employees have to walk a considerable distance to avoid a £100 fine.
“It’s interesting how things develop,” John added. “Because not too far down the road, yellow lines were being drawn in Lansdown where a lot of our clients used to park.
“I end up driving along Hatherley Road in the mornings, just trying to find a space. Once those yellow lines went down, you suddenly found a massive number of people parking in roads that were otherwise empty.
“It just pushes the whole thing out.”
The changes to Boots’ corner were another subject for discussion.
“If you drive through there, that’s going to be a £60 fine,” said Oliver, referring to the charges due to be implemented in June, but which have since been pushed back by Gloucestershire County Council.
John bemoaned the fact drivers were still racing through there, despite it being a no-go zone for traffic, while Steven said traders were angry their stock delivery times had been disrupted.
And then the conversation moved to improvements needed for the Lower High Street and the Brewery Quarter - notably more “daytime” businesses, as opposed to restaurants and gyms and the rise and rise of retirement living blocks.
But the opening of the new John Lewis, scheduled for this autumn, was seen as a huge boost to the county and the region as a whole.
“I think it’ll be John Lewis that solves some of the problems,” says Steven, who spoke about the rivalry between Gloucester and Cheltenham for the bid. “Gloucester wouldn’t have been the right place for it. The Quays wouldn’t have been the right place for it.”
“There’s an interesting dynamic around it,” says John, as Oliver talked about the department store’s insistence on a one-way system before it started construction.
“They’re building the biggest Burger King in Europe,” adds Steven.
“The biggest Burger King in Europe?” asks Oliver, incredulously. “Why on earth do we need that?”
From food to parking, traffic systems to commercial property and back to food, the discussion has come full-circle. Even if we’d rather more Coconut Trees than burger joints.
Meet the guests...
Steve Wilmer, Malmaison
Steven joined Malmaison Cheltenham in 2016 as Deputy General Manager, and was promoted to the top job last September. He has worked for the group, which also owns the Hotel du Vin chain, since 2014 when he joined the St Andrews team as Bistro & Events Manager. From there, he went to Malmaison Harrogate as Deputy General Manager. The Cheltenham hotel, in Bayshill Road, was formerly Hotel Kandinsky before the Chapter group bought it.
John Tooth, Paish Tooth
John has been at Paish Tooth for the past 25 years, having spent the previous 23 as Accounts and Audit Manager for Deloitte Haskins and Sells in Gloucester. He is a fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, member of the Association of Tax Technicians and is a Chartered Tax Advisor with the Chartered Institute of Taxation.
Oliver Bruce, PinPoint Media
Oliver is the Founder and Director at British filmmaker PinPoint Media. He started the company in his bedroom five years ago and the company now boasts one of the biggest market shares in film production outside of central London. Working with clients including Barratt Developments Plc, British Gas, Ticketmaster and FlyBe, Oliver’s vision is to provide companies with Hollywood results on a regional budget.