Matthew Pennington talks about the new Ethicurean Experience and his vision for the future of hospitality

The Pennington brothers, Matthew and Iain, have always been able to think outside the box, so it doesn’t surprise me that they have come up with such an original solution to the ever-changing COVID restrictions for their restaurant business, near Bristol. With a stunning view, its own walled garden and wonderful, sustainable food menu, The Ethicurean was already a must-visit destination. You can read our interview about what they do with the food and the garden here. Now it is launching a new, theatrical concept that leaves me wishing I lived closer to Bristol. Matthew explains how they have adapted for the new reality of rules for hospitality.

SD: How have you been managing with all the lockdown restrictions?

MP: Well, it’s not been easy, but, in many ways, it has given us time to think and reflect. And that has highlighted for us a number of things, often taken for granted in the hospitality industry, that we didn’t like. Hospitality employees often end up working very long hours for very little base pay, with much of what they earn coming out of the service charge, which is technically an optional charge for customers.

We’ve decided now to move to a 43 hour week and pay our staff according to Living Wage standards. We were a Living Wage employer already before the crisis, but now it’s priced into what customers pay rather than showing as an optional service charge. We’ve completely done away with the service charge. The 43 hour week might still sound like a pretty full week, but a chef team is often expected to work 55 hours/week. We’ve always paid extra for overtime, but lots of people in the industry sign waivers that mean they don’t get paid for work beyond their contracted hours. Working 50-65 hours like this is fairly standard, but it’s not hard for that to eek into the 80 hour/week bracket.

It’s been a kind of unwritten code in hospitality that that is what is expected.  Some companies are not only expecting extra hours at no extra pay, but also making up the minimum wage of employees with customer gratuity. The service charge was always supposed to be an extra for people who shone, not a potential loss to your minimum wage, which could be caused by another team member’s mishandling of a situation. What people don’t realise when they use the service charge to complain about poor service, is how their choice financially impacts everyone on the team, even those that might have delivered great service on the night.

We’ve now incorporated our service charge into the price of the food rather than the drinks, which better reflects the real value of the food. In many hospitality businesses most of the margins are made on drinks and the staff takes the hit on the way that competition with big restaurant groups has driven down the price of the food.

Seasonal Food at The Ethicurean
A seasonal menu at The Ethicurean

SD: What do you think will be the longer-term impacts of the crisis on hospitality?

MP: I think people’s perception of hospitality is changing. I can’t tell whether it will polarise the sector. We might end up with some restaurants focussed fully on the experience of dining out and others fully on a quick grab and go. The models are very different. I wouldn’t expect to pay service for a quick bite to refuel. These are high volume businesses that need less labour for each sale. At the other end of the spectrum what you are paying for is the dining experience created for you by a team of professionals. Much like going to the theatre. In the past there has been a perception that you are paying for the food when you go out to eat, which limits the price people are prepared to pay for it. Now I think people are much more aware of how much hospitality contributes to their lives, beyond just the food and are looking for the whole experience.

SD: Tell me about the new concept at The Ethicurean.

MP: It’s actually something we’ve always wanted to do. We’ve got this great outdoor space with the walled garden and we wanted to do more with it. Trying to keep enough bums on seats for 6 days a week means you can’t actually offer the experience you want to offer if you were doing it for fewer days a week. We know we can only fit 30 covers in here, so we looked to the garden and thought about how to weave it into the experience. There’s a bit under the archway where everyone likes to take a photograph, so now guests are met at the entrance and taken round the garden first. We always stop at the arch to offer them a bite to eat.

The Ethicurean Walled Vegetable Garden
The Ethicurean walled vegetable garden

As a team over lockdown we spent a lot of time foraging. We learnt a lot about it and now our offering is even more organic and true to what we want to do. As guests are led around the garden, the team is able to share their knowledge with them. Following the garden tour and a few bites to eat, guests are greeted by the kitchen team, who talk them through our range of fermented foods and drinks before they start their 4/5 course menu. Afterwards we take them back out to the garden where we’ve built a firepit for them to toast marshmallows. I’m always surprised by the number of people who have never toasted a marshmallow before. We used to do that all the time as kids. We have a number of guests who have come with their teenage kids and tell us that they keep coming back because we keep hitting these highs. It’s always a unique dining experience.

Beyond the regular Ethicurean Experience, we also celebrate various events in connection with nature. The next one is Winter Wassail in January. It’s a pagan festival to visit and bless the orchards. Together with roughly 60 guests we reimagine and reinvent some of these ancient traditions. During the meal we have musicians playing and a storyteller to tell an apple-related tale between each course. At the end of the meal we put a bean in someone’s cake to choose the Wassail king and queen. We then follow a firelit procession out to where we perform the mumma’s play. This is normally a moral scenario, which in our case we play out as a battle between our Barley Wood gardener and a supermarketeer. There’s always the Guardian of the Orchard, which for us is a robin, and the Green Man involved too. It tends to be fairly cathartic and chaotic. Later on, down in the orchard, we stick the Wassail queen in an apple tree and pour cider on the roots of the trees. Everyone screams and howls to let out what they didn’t like about the year before. It could be a noisy one in January!

Wassail celebrations at The Ethicurean
Wassail celebrations at The Ethicurean

SD: Do you think there is an opportunity to incorporate education into what you offer at The Ethicurean?

MP: We would like to do more of this for sure. In particular, we’ve really gone deep dive on soil health during lockdown and I’d love to share this with others. We’re going to be sending guests home with flower bombs, which we hope will help them connect with regenerating nature, but I’d like to get our Experience fully booked first before I start looking at more educational opportunities.

There’s plenty of opportunity to talk about soil health and regenerating nature as we take guests around our garden. We can point out our mushroom beds and talk about it while we gather garnish flowers, but there’s no point in preaching. It doesn’t work. It’s better that it comes out through the passion and knowledge of our team during the Experience itself.

SD: What are the benefits to you as a business that this new concept brings?

MP: It enables us to plan and limit the times we offer it. We were planning to offer it Friday evening, Saturday lunch and Saturday dinner, but the 10pm curfew put the kybosh on the lunchtime offering, so we’re just offering a normal lunch on Saturdays now and the Experience Friday and Saturday evenings.

By controlling our opening times and ticketing the Experience as well as our lunch in advance, we can be more resilient and flexible with any future restrictions. It gets round the problem of no-shows and also delivers a better experience for guests. There’s no longer that awkward bit at the end of the meal when people are deciding how to pay. You can just come and enjoy your evening out without having to worry about paying as it’s already done.

We are also opening up booking in batches so that we can change the Experience for different seasons as well as any changes to restrictions. Currently booking is open until mid-December and then will reopen for Wassail in mid-January. If the 10pm curfew is lifted, we can easily open up the next batch of bookings with the Experience offered for Saturday evening as well.

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