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It’s no secret that the culinary industry is a cutthroat one. Research has shown that whether the result of bad management, too much competition, or the rise of the dining app, a large proportion of restaurants fail in the first couple of years.
So it was exciting to meet one food entrepreneur who has stayed the course, established a successful model, and developed business ventures outside his original niche. Galton Blackiston is the owner and chef patron of Morston Hall, a restaurant and hotel in the village of Morston on the U.K.’s north Norfolk coast and a thriving business that he and his wife Tracy started from scratch 27 years ago.
Without any formal culinary training the Norfolk native has seen his restaurant win countless awards, including a Michelin star that he’s held for almost 20 years. Last year it was named one of top 1,000 restaurants in the world by French group La Liste. He’s a regular on U.K. TV food shows, has written cookery books, and has a couple of side hustles. However, on the precarious world of the restaurant industry his view is that many of today’s chefs-turned-food entrepreneurs are not business savvy.
“I’m from the old school where the kitchen has to account for what it spends,” he says. “I am savvy on pricing and costing, but most chefs are not business people and a lot of them get into trouble.”
His own entrepreneurial flair emerged at an early age. A keen sportsman, he left school at 16 to play cricket only to find that he wasn’t quite good enough to turn professional. Instead he turned to food. “I did enjoy cooking at home and it was my mum who suggested that I made some money out of it by setting up a market stall,” he says.
He took her advice and started making produce for a local market stall. “It was called Galton’s Goodies and every Thursday I’d make cakes, biscuits, pies meringues, and breads and they always sold out.”
That experience helped him land his first job in a restaurant, the iconic Miller Howe in the Lake District run by John Tovey who was looking for a youngster to train in pastry. Blackiston, who’d never done any formal college training, applied.
He says: “In the interview he asked me to tell him my short crust pastry recipe. That was easy, because I’d been doing it for a year, and I think on the basis of that I got the job.”
His career flourished and within 10 years he was head chef. He then spent time working in the U.S. and South Africa, before returning to the U.K. ready to open his own place. And Morston Hall, an 18th century manor house, had just come on the market. The business had failed under its previous owners who’d had no restaurant experience. Blackiston had that in spades. What he didn’t have was the cash.
The previous owners had bought at the top of the market, paying £475,000, ($612,000) and were selling for £235,000 ($302,000). But this was 1992, a recessionary time in the U.K., and raising finance was difficult.
“Tracy and I knew we’d have to beg, borrow and steal to get it up and running,” says Blackiston.
In fact they called on some valuable contacts and a friend from their old Miller Howe days whose businessman father was keen to invest.
“We didn’t have to worry about making huge monthly repayments to a bank which probably would have finished us,” says Blackiston. “As it was we had no constraints and our investor was incredibly supportive while we got the business going. We eventually bought him, and his son who’d also invested, out.”
The original building has been completely transformed, expanded from its original four bedrooms to 14, while the elegant restaurant’s famous taster menu is prepared in a state-of-the-art high tech kitchen.
Blackiston has further plans to build a development kitchen and private dining room, but faces one of the biggest problems for the industry, finding top quality staff.
“The industry is changing,” he says. “Today every chef has an agent and is constantly looking for the next bigger wage packet. It is a huge challenge for everyone in this business.”
For that reason he is passionate about developing his own talent pipeline. “We get lots of youngsters coming to us, some of them highly qualified, but I tend to disregard that,” he says. “What counts is what they are like as a people and how they fit into the team. Everything else can be trained. It’s great to see raw, green youngsters mature and grow.”
Morston Hall is currently one of only two restaurants in Norfolk with a coveted Michelin star, an accolade that Blackiston is typically modest about. “Getting that phone call was a massive shock; a jaw dropping moment, because I’d honestly never given it a second thought,” he says.
However Blackiston’s culinary talent is matched by his entrepreneurial skills, keeping his core business moving with the times and changing food trends, but losing none of its original charm and ethos, and launching a few side hustles.
In 2013 he opened No 1 Cromer, a fish and chip restaurant and takeaway in Cromer, a popular seaside town some 15 miles along the coast. The business proposition had emerged completely unexpectedly during a football match that Blackiston was watching, when the man sitting next to him started chatting and asked him if he’d ever considered opening another restaurant.
“I’m always being asked that question,” he says. “While I always say ‘never say never’, I wouldn’t want to risk sinking hundreds of thousands of pounds into setting up a new restaurant. I told him the only other thing that interests me is fish and chips, and was taken aback when he asked me to come and look at a potential site in Cromer.”
A few days later he and Tracy went to see the seafront fish and chip shop, which was in a great position, with every window overlooking the sea; in Blackiston’s words ‘a no-brainer’. Teaming up with a business partner who had experience in this area they decided to go for it. Six years on it is a mainstay of the seaside town.
More recently he delved into the brewery business, with the launch of two beers, No1 Norfolk Lager and No1 Norfolk Ale, which he helped to produce, working alongside local farmers and brewers.
“It took two years to get it right, trying so many different hop varieties,” he says. “We’ve had other pub chains wanting to sell our beer, but we can’t do it on that scale. That’s how I like it, starting small, like a little acorn, and watching it grow.”
He says his enthusiasm for the kitchen is greater now than when he first started out. “I love what we’re doing and I can’t pay a high enough tribute to my team, but I’m still very ambitious; find me another fish and chip shop overlooking the sea, preferably with a working pier show, and I wouldn’t say no.”
April 25, 2019 at 05:31AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs