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MY NEW LIFE AS A SENTIMENTAL, RACIST GLUTTON* September 27, 2011

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
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                       * For punishment?

It’s been a funny old few weeks since I last scribbled, involving a complete change of career – if such I ever really had – which has prompted both astonishment and ridicule in some quarters. Behind this is my enduring affection for my home town of Presteigne and  associated dismay at the decline of localism that threatens not just it, but similar locations throughout Britain – a topic I’ve railed about several times here. In the current economic climate the might of the big supermarket chains, the decline of postal services (and consequent small post office-cum-village shop closures) and the collapse of small-scale manufacturing has augured the demise of many local retailers and pubs and the subtle but ultimately deleterious effect this has on local cultures.

Some argue that this an inevitable outcome of economic change in a digital world, where commercial interests are consolidated into a few big players who nonetheless supply what society needs – or is persuaded to think it needs – in a cost-effective if often unregulated manner. And, furthermore, that the social consequences should not be feared or condemned, and perhaps even embraced as stepping stones to some brave new world. In which case I would refer them to Aldous Huxley’s dystopian and now rather prescient novel of the same name.

One or two locals dismiss my verbal hand-wringing over this as mere sentimental twaddle, arguing that our town would be better off with a Tesco or Morrisons feeding its increasingly unemployed and impoverished citizens, if only to save them the cost of driving to towns nearby where they already exist. That this would take money, and possibly even more jobs out of the local economy isn’t something they wish to debate, but even these naysayers had to think twice when a small chain of Indian takeaway restaurants recently offered to buy The Hat Shop.

Owned by three good friends (and good friends of mine), one of whom – the main chef – wished to retire from the hard slog of maintaining The Hat Shop as a local high street institution these past 22 years. The menu is ever-changing, seasonal, globally eclectic and though not cheap, excellent value, and the place has become something of a social hub where we hold our parties, entertain friends and over the years held musical events, themed culinary evenings and regular art exhibitions. Needless to say its atmosphere, due as much to the cheery nature of the women who run it as it is to its cosy décor, is elemental to its popularity and the owners had hoped that it might be bought by someone, possibly a chef and front-of-house couple, who would at least maintain its social value, if not its menu. But when the Indian company made an offer within days of The Hat Shop going on the market, and then upped it again a few hours after it was rejected, the horns of a dilemma arose.

There were those who said that the town could actually use an Indian takeaway, even though we already have a Chinese, a fish’n’chip shop which inevitably does burgers, kebabs and occasionally, curries, and a café selling takeaway pizzas. It would, they vociferously claimed, mean cheaper eating for the mass of folk who didn’t patronise the Hat Shop anyway, and provide a welcome addition to the culinary scene for those that did. No matter that we have Indian outlets in towns a very few miles away, and no matter that Presteigne would then be without any restaurant offering fresh and freshly cooked ingredients, many of them produced locally.

Moreover, a little light research revealed that the prospective buyers’ strategy is to re-heat food cooked in a Birmingham factory and bus in staff from that same burgh, thus removing jobs as well as revenue for local suppliers. To cut a not very long but rather vexatious and, after at least one accusation of culinary racism, occasionally acrimonious story short, I decided quite literally to put my money where my mouth had often been. And my offer to buy the Hat Shop, slightly higher than the Indians’, has since been accepted, and I’ve now embarked on the steep learning curve of a neophyte restaurateur.

As hiring an outsider would’ve been a risk not relished, to my huge relief in this I’m aided by the three chefs who, now not about to be displaced by Brummie factory workers, will be maintaining the traditions if not the exact menu of yore. So after a bit of a re-fit, the Hat Shop will re-open in 2012 with a new lease of life and the vigorous but hopefully appropriate marketing campaign it never really had.

Downsides? Well of course, and particularly in the currently grim economic climate, I might screw it up and lose my shirt, because the money I was saving to buy a house and start a small publishing venture in the new year is now virtually all spoken for. But then again I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to find an affordable, ideal home for almost three years and after so many false dawns, who’s to say if yet another of my fanciful schemes to recover my aforementioned career would ever get off the ground.

But if the worst come to the worst, or even the würst, at least I’ll have eaten well during my little adventure. See www.thehatshoprestaurant.co.uk

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Comments»

1. WTK - September 27, 2011

Good for you! I know it will be a well written and witty menu! Great idea!

WTK - September 28, 2011

It’s a long commute but I will be there, Mark. I hope you continue to make your trademark Goat’s Head Soup. It went down easily at Willesden Lane. You know, Barry always had this dream of opening a restaurant where he could insul the diners then ask them to leave. Do you need a Sous Chef?

markswill - September 28, 2011

Sadly Terry, goats are a protected species hereabouts, but I tend to use sheep’s heads instead, although I know that given his romantic proclivities, that might upset Barry.

2. col - September 27, 2011

Good stuff. I rode past a recently opened eatery in our Pennine fastness this evening and it was packed to the gunwales with well groomed bourgeoisie. The boozer it was previously only ever had two blokes and a dog on a weekday evening so there’s trade out there for good nosh even in these straightened times.

3. David Cobbold - September 27, 2011

Mark, this is a bold and more than worthy move. You put the motivations perfectly and I am (morally, being much too far away to even imagine ever being a customer) right behind you. Easy to say when you have not to pay the money or do the job! All wishes for the Hat Shop’s new life. If I can help with advice on the wine list….but then I am sure you have your locally-grown specialists.

markswill - September 28, 2011

Thanks David. and you’ve once again re-kindled my frustration that I haven’t been able to get over to France and join you for some, ahem, serious wine-tasting. But now I at least have a professional incentive! We actually have a very good and fairly priced wine merchant literally just up the road, but I’ll send you a copy of his list for your comments.

David Cobbold - September 28, 2011

That is very likely good news for the business, as inventory can be reduced to a minmum, not to mention delivery hold-ups. Provided you strike a good deal with the shop, who will probably be happy for the extra and regular business. You will just have to be careful with markups as the shop prices will be visible to many. I will gladly look at their list and maybe make a few suggestions. You probaly also have some stock you have taken over. Finding a wine to match goat’s head soup (or whatever) could be an interesting challenge!

4. davidcharleslancaster - September 27, 2011

Good one, and the very best of luck. His buildings may not be your thang, but applied to restaurants, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was on the nail, pointing out that: ‘God is in the details.’

Mind you – ‘I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good,’ applies just as well, too. As does: ‘Less is more.’ Remembering to smile at the customers you don’t like. That’s the difficult bit. Will visit. All the best.

DL

markswill - September 28, 2011

Luck will indeed be a basic ingredient, David, so thanks for that. Interesting too how several of my old (if I dare put it like that) biking colleagues are now in the food and drink biz – see David Cobbold’s comment above. I wonder why?

5. Alex Ramsay - September 28, 2011

Good for you Mark – we all whinge about unwanted change but few of us have the balls to do something about it

6. Benzina Moto - September 28, 2011

This is exactly what will get the UK back on its feet if – IF – we support these sort of ventures, and don’t bleat about the cost or fall into the familiar hands of Pizza Express (or whoever); the chains don’t grow because of something they do, but because of what we do.
More (if I may) at http://teambenzina.blogspot.com/2011/09/thank-you-to-everyone-whos-been-in.html

markswill - September 28, 2011

‘Benzina Moto’, eh? A tantalising disguise and obviously for a petrolhead, but whoever you may be, thanks for the support. Better check out YOUR blog now before I start weeping over my business plan.

7. James Tennant-Eyles. - September 28, 2011

Mark,
Gill and I are so pleased that you have decided to go ahead with this and entirely endorse the reasons behind it. We wish you the best of luck and will support your endeavours with frequent visits to the new Hat shop. Apart from our use of the Hat shop throughout the year we always book a table for a party of about 10 on the Saturday of the Welsh Rally in October. So perhaps we will be your first reservation, Please book us in for that Saturday in 2012!

markswill - September 28, 2011

Thanks James, and my only regret is that I won’t have completed in time to benefit from this October’s Rally trade! Guess I’ll have no excuse not to join the Chamber of Trade now, too.

8. Sara - September 28, 2011

Well done Mark and good luck. The town needs a good little restaurant and you should do well.
Sara

markswill - September 28, 2011

Given your historical involvement in the Hat Shop, that gives me great comfort Sara… but I will of course be expecting at least one booking a week from you and David.

9. Paul N. Blezard - September 28, 2011

I take my er, hat off to you Mark, and wish you the very best of luck.
However, as an incorrigible pedant, I cannot help but ask why a restaurant is confusingly called ‘The Hat Shop’. On the face of it, it seems like a good way to drive away potential passing trade, whether ‘sur place’ or on the internet. Was it once a milliner’s emporium? If so, when? If not, where does the name come from?
I think we should be told! And some explanation of the origins of the moniker should be provided on the website!
Meanwhile, I can’t help conjuring up an image of an exasperated MW swearing in the cuisine like a slimmer, less hirsute and more Welsh version of Gordon Ramsay. I’m also wondering if someone should start a book on the effect of this new metier on your waistline!
Bonne Chance!
PNB

markswill - September 28, 2011

Hat’s aloft all round then Blez, because you’re right: the premises used to house a milliner in the dim and distant past and in its earlier incarnation of an eaterie, local craftspersons actually sold a few titfers off a hatstand erected for that purpose. Not sure if that'[s something I wish to reinstate as sales were minimal, but we shall see.

10. john dickinson - September 28, 2011

The sainted Blez has a point.
Did you see the episode of The Apprentice (thought not!) where the ‘apprentices’ had to locate a top hat?
One of them spotted a shop called The Top Hat and (not unreasonably you’d have thought) ran inside – only to find it was a dry cleaners..!

markswill - September 28, 2011

See below John.

11. Hannah - September 28, 2011

Mark,
I thought you might,
Hannah & Mel

markswill - September 28, 2011

Well thanks you two, but does this mean that ‘might is right’ ?!

12. noel - September 28, 2011

Oh dear Mark,

as a cheerful doomer, I think this is a very risky adventure at this time.
The financial system broke in 2008 and printing is their only tool, as the banksters and gov’s try and keep the show on the road.
To date, we have been sheltered from the true effects of a broken money system, as we have drawn credit from the future ( for the next generation to decline to pay ? ).
This option is fast disappearing and the true effects of this correction, will soon loom large.
The price of things we need rises and the price of things we want falls. Alternatively, they get so good at printing and distributing paper money, that we hyper-inflate.
While the argument of deflation vs hyperinflation has raged for the last 3 years and is still not settled, neither outcome bodes well for a classy little eatery in Presteigne.
I wish you well but am not confident, however it may be that this is a lesser evil than a publishing company. (-:

now where has that pizza delivery boy got to ………

noel

13. markswill - September 28, 2011

Noel, yes it IS a risky venture, but the place has maintained both turnover and profitability at decent levels for the past three years and that’s without any marketing and ‘proper’ financial management. Also, the outside catering business has nowhere near been near fully exploited.

The broader economic picture is as gloomy as you predict, but as you say, the publishing business is even worse!

Paul N. Blezard - September 28, 2011

Mark said “as you say, the publishing business is even worse!”
And to underline the truth of that statement, the estimable Rider’s Digest magazine has announced in the past week that it is ceasing publication. Its only hope of salvation, possibly, is to go ‘internet only’ just as VisorDown, formerly, TWO, aka Two Wheels Only, did about 18 months ago.
“Hat’s aloft all round then Blez”,
With your proof-reading skills Mark, it’s probably just as well you’re going to become that much mis-spelt and mis-pronounced thing, a restaurateur, rather than a publisher! 😉
(one hat, two hats, no bleedin’ apostrophe!)
Paul the pedant from Ham

noel - September 28, 2011

“Hat’s aloft all round then Blez”

I do so want there to be a comma after the word ‘then’ …..

But anyone who sets themselves up as beyond reproach in grammar and poof reading, probably knows where to put the commas ( should there be an apostrophe in commas ?)

One day then, Blez ………….. (-;

Scary stuff regarding yet more bike mags folding too.
You still gainfully employed ?
I will admit to finding most of my reading on the net these days and so become ‘part of the problem ‘

noel

markswill - October 1, 2011

Well we’re getting slightly off-message here, but I don’t share your enthusiasm for Rider’s Digest which I felt is/was a ranty, rather myopic little publication with a limited audience. Nevertheless the economics of print publishing are stacked against small circulation titles, whatever their appeal and as an old inky, I bemoan this, especially as the online alternatives are, for me, vapid and often unreadable. But then I’m old and fractious… just like yrgdslf. it seems, Blez?!

14. Geoff 'thecolonel' Holmes - September 28, 2011

Now where to start… first I suppose is to support your venture, which of course I do,
second, and more important, is to say I’m rather surprised that after
all this time you are going to have a real job.
I tried it once, real job that is, didn’t like it, interfered with my socialising/drinking/womanising, anyway enough about me.
Good luck and remember turkey is just for Christmas not life.

15. John Leaver - September 28, 2011

Very best of luck with the venture Mark. I hope to visit it sometime.

16. Angela Pitts - September 30, 2011

I ran a restaurant here in Tarifa in 1991 for four months an ended up in hospital with viral meningitas after losing my shirt, coping with drunken chef and lack of working electrics/gas etc, too many parties and giveaways and a hundred other calamities. I’m sure none of this will happen to you Mark and I wish you the very best of luck.
If I’m ever around Presteigne you’ll be seeing me. My nearest friend to there lives in Hay on Wye.

17. markswill - September 30, 2011

Ooh-er Angela, that doesn’t bode well… but as you know I’m a paragon of self-restraint and discipline, so I’m sure there’ll be no free drinks, food or hanky-panky! Never knew you had a catering history, but I’d love you to visit and sample mine.

18. Clar Stevens - September 30, 2011

As a recent arrival in Presteigne temporarily in exile for family reasons, I’m thrilled to hear that the Hat Shop will not after all be closed when I return (or rather, it may be but will reopen). Bravo to you and good luck

markswill - September 30, 2011

Well Clare, I hope your ‘temporary exile’ lasts ’til the new year, which is when I’ll be finally taking over. Or did I misread your schedule?

19. Nigel Bull - September 30, 2011

Mark

I wish you all the best in trying to move society away from Carling and frozen pizza dough. Try to learn something from JD W/spoon(don’t laugh!)and find ways of keeping people coming in during all hours of the day and keeping the till ticking over. Breakfasts, coffee and cakes have a high mark-up(a new nickname for you there perhaps)on direct costs – 300% ish and as your overheads should be already covered by the dinner/evening punters it all drops to the bottom line. Micheal O’Leary made his fortune before being asked to run Ryan Air by using this approach with newsagents which he turned in a version of 7/11 stores.

Dont go for local fillet steaks etc as you will have to pay top doller for those and will always struggle to turn a profit. Try the best local sausages, liver and faggots which offer some room to enable a sensible price and still turn a buck. I am sure lots of others are offering better suggestions so if it all goes Mae West it wont be for lack of advice.

I am off to Llnwrtyd Wells on 19 Novermber, will you be installed by then?

Nigel

markswill - September 30, 2011

Sadly (in one sense) Nigel, I’m not taking over ’til the new year, but hopefully you’ll make the odd visit back to the Land of the Free once you’re ensconced in Llanwrytd. And yes, I have been thinking about the afternoon trade which is largely not catered to (sic) in Presteigne. but there could be a staffing issue… Thanks for your good wishes, though.

20. Jules - September 30, 2011

Bonkers! but favour fortunes the brave most likely because it makes them, er..it, smile.
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

It could have been so much worse though, you could have done something
BORING

jules

markswill - September 30, 2011

I think you must’ve been smoking something rather too strong Jules: that should be ‘fortune favours the brave’, not ‘tother way around. Mind you, six month into it, ‘bonkers’ might well be the right conclusion.

21. The Capitalist - September 30, 2011

Mark! You are getting such a wellspring of enthusiatic well wishes and congratulations! Perhaps everyone should pitch in a tenner for a bump start? You could shave costs by ordering takeaway from the Indian mob, and Domino’s pizza, and then serving it in your restaurant. You could handily dispense with a couple of bussers, waiters, and certainly the chef. Even at a 20% margin you would make a fortune with no inventory and few costs. Have a little local charity alms box displayed and abscond with those funds, too. I know my idea needs a little thought, but it’s a start m’boy, it’s a start…

markswill - September 30, 2011

Yeah, you’re right Terry, it’s a topping wheeze (with the accent on ‘topping’… mine’s a four seasons, with extra anchovy). But it’s usually Barry who hides behind spurious pseudonyms; why can’t you deride my judgement like a man?

22. Paul N. Blezard - October 1, 2011

Re: Rider’s Digest; obviously I’m a bit biased because I’ve written a few articles for it, so I’m convinced that some of it is pretty good;-)
MW “I bemoan this, especially as the online alternatives are, for me, vapid and often unreadable. But then I’m old and fractious… just like yrgdslf. it seems, Blez?!”

I like to think of myself as a youthful Grumpy Old Pedant, Mark! 😉
As far as online publications are concerned, I’m a big fan of the Oz-based Gizmag (even though I can’t help calling it ‘Jizzmag’) and the French Moto Station is very good too. In contrast, I never cease to be amazed by the user un-friendliness of MCN’s website and the utter uselessness of its ‘search’ facility.

markswill - October 2, 2011

Yes Blez, one always cements allegiance to the periodicals that one writes for, even more so if they actually pay you… look at me and M/cycle Trader! And I also share your self-description as a youthful Grumpy Old Pedant. So is there hope for us both?

23. Meg cox - October 2, 2011

I am more impressed than I could possibly say. And I will make sure that Easthampton and all my friends and visitors support the restaurant as much as possible.

24. rjjw - October 2, 2011

I wish you all the best. I really mean that. I couldn’t possible describe how wonderful you have been for all these years 😉 and I am sure you will be wonderful in your new venture.

markswill - October 3, 2011

Not sure if this is a spoof, or sarcastically disingenuous as I don’t recognise the source, but who can resist such flattery?

25. rjjw - October 3, 2011

Oops! – not a spoof – it’s genuine. Email of explanation on it’s way…

26. linda stokes - October 5, 2011

Mark,
i think you done good, boy.
Love n kisses xxL

markswill - October 5, 2011

It’s the promise of your love and your kisses that keep me going, Dr Linda. My dream of course is that one day we might replicate the final scene in White Palace in the cosy confines of the Hat Shop.

linda stokes - October 5, 2011

Oh, Goody! then we share a dream…

27. Twisha - October 13, 2011

Catching up on your blogs and SO impressed you have bought a restaurant! I will seek it out and one day come and visit. I wish you all the best in the meantime.

Patricia

markswill - October 15, 2011

You better HAD come an eat here Patricia… That was an essential part of my business plan (and I know how much you respect business plans!).

28. Peter Silverton - October 15, 2011

and good luck to you, mr fawlty

markswill - October 15, 2011

Hahahaha Peter. But if I’m going to be Basil, you can come and be my Manuel !


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