The Package Free Larder interior. 76 Elm Grove, Southsea, Portsmouth.
A conversation with Ollie Hunter co-owner and chef of the Wheatsheaf in picturesque Chiltern Foliat
about being sustainable and being more profitable!
by Aimee Rigby/24th-Januray-2021
So, thank you for joining us on Zero Waste Kode today. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself and your pub? The Wheatsheaf?
Oh, wow, a bit about myself and the Wheatsheaf. Um, so yeah, my wife and I, we took over the Wheatsheaf back in 2015. And it was a completely derelict pub that was sort of on the way to becoming a residential house, really. And we took it over with the ambition to turn it into the most sustainable pub in the UK. And within that, you know, there’s so many different categories to tackle and the pubs great, because it’s a place for everyone. It’s a place where anyone can come- so it doesn’t have a specific agenda necessarily. So, it gave us a lot of flexibility to what we could create. Myself, I’m just a, you know, I love food, I love nature, and lots of holidays down in Cornwall in Porthleven and mackerel fishing, which is one of the easiest forms of fishing, I think, isn’t it, and then you can take them back onto the beach and barbecue them. And I think when you get involved in sustainability, you just completely fall in love, again, with how we can live with nature rather than against nature. It’s about you know, reuniting our connection and our relationship with her and just enjoying a better lifestyle really, as a result of it.
Wonderful. So just speaking about lifestyle there, you’re working in the sector worst affected by COVID- how are the lockdowns and restrictions affecting you and your business?
So, I mean, it’s a great question, because the obvious answer is that it was awful. And it just, you know, the whole industry locked down, our business locked down, cash stopped coming in immediately, whilst we still had outgoings and that was a really difficult thing to, to react to in the first couple of weeks. And we immediately just went into veg boxes and we also have a woodfired pizza oven here. So we do woodfired pizza delivery, well, we started doing deliveries and we realised that delivering around countryside, muddy lanes was a bad idea. So we did collection only. And then as time went on, it was amazing the silence of lockdown and actually how much time it gave you to sort of look at the business and to see what was successful, what wasn’t successful, what we really need and what we didn’t need. And I we’ve now completely changed our menu. So, it’s solely woodfired menu, which meant we got rid of an oven.
So that’s three-phase electricity energy, even though we’ve got green energy, you know, it’s just it’s removing the A) cost of it, and B) the demand of consuming more energy.
We also reduced our fryer size to about a third of the size, which reduced the amount of oil we’re using. And I think we saw, and again energy, and I think you just completely look at your business and in a new way to streamline it. And to simplify, and go, you know, what, what is the core of our business? So, coming out of the back of lockdown, I felt we were in a really good, positive position, we had sort of paid off any debts because of a lot of the takeaways we were doing. And but we also had a really clear vision as to what the Wheatsheaf was all about, and what we were what our selling point was: woodfired food, sustainability, in a pub. And it’s been hopefully successful since then.
Ollie Hunter co-owner and Chef of the Wheatshef
Congratulations for staying afloat. So, under the new tiered system, hospitality businesses are still at risk. Are you under tier two? Now?
We’re under tier two, which is very, has its ups and downs, we have been driving ourselves to probably a more food based pub anyway, over the last year and a half, it just means that you get more pounds per head. And you probably don’t have as much wastage, either via staff or just via drink. So yeah, so I think it’s been, I think for all those pubs who are food-lead, food based, and diverse, it’s should be okay. For those who are wet lead, you know, I really feel so for them, and they’ve got to reach out and try and innovate, be creative and survive.
So, do you think it’s fair that shops are allowed to remain open, but pubs aren’t?
No, I mean, there’s lots of many statistics about how little the virus has been spreading within the hospitality sector. And whether it’s really this area that’s spreading the virus, again, anything that sort of promotes the relaxation of one’s cognitive ability is probably more at risk of spreading the virus. So, a pub or restaurant, anything that probably you know, has alcohol will improve that chance of the virus spreading. It’s incredibly difficult. I think it really highlights and again, the tier system really highlights how localised we do need to be governing our country. And I think it’s a just bringing up the whole sustainability thing is that, we do actually need to be an incredibly, more intensely localised, government and governing body to be more specific, a bit specific about the local area and the local people, because you can’t just categorise a county and say that’s that a tier. It’s more specific than that.
Did you agree with the National lockdown then?
The first one? Yeah, I think we both think we’ve agreed with both lockdowns. I think the government has to do whatever they need to do.
What do you think Christmas at the Wheatsheaf is going to look like compared to a normal Christmas pub lunch?
So last year, we came with a new idea that instead of doing a Christmas menu, we had a Sunday roast menu and a normal menu and the breakfast menu, we thought we would just combine all the menus into one very fun, delicious, Christmassy menu that incorporated everything. And as a result, we weren’t taking pre orders. People just came when they wanted, they didn’t have to do deposits and it was a lot more relaxed and fun. But at the same time, there’s so much less wastage because we just ran it like in your normal restaurant. So, in that sense, we’re sort of following on from last year and continuing the same theme and just making our menu and our building Christmassy, people can come enjoy the Christmassy vibe, the festive vibes and, and not feel like well, at least potentially escape, from the idea that there is a virus, with still knowing that they need to be secure and safe within this environment.
Okay, so how do you actually source your food sustainably, so where will the Christmas meal come from this year?
So, the Christmas meal, we’ve dedicated ourselves to sourcing everything as local and as organic and sustainably as possible. We have a great relationship with my parents farm, who are only a couple miles away. They do beautiful organic fed pigs and charcuterie, gammon, that sort of thing. They do cider. They’ve got apples, my mom’s got a walled garden, with all garden fruit. So, I think we try and do as much as we possibly can from the local area. There’s a great, dry plucked poultry farm not too far away. And I don’t know if you’ve heard of dry plucking, but it’s, they pick all the feathers out by hand, as opposed to putting them through what is effectively an electric electrified carwash. So, the sort of integrity of the meat is delicious, it lasts longer, and the flavour is even better.
So, I think, again, for us, it’s just about homing in on our ethos and our sustainability and just trying to make more with less, less waste equals more flavour. Localness equals freshness, which equals more flavour as well.
So, you spoke about local sourcing. Would you be able to tell us a bit about food miles and why they’re important?
Yeah, so, food miles, generally means that the food is obviously had less miles to travel by but that I think that is two things.
One is that the food is grown in your local area. So, we live in a microclimate, we live in different climates. And so, we, when we live in a climate we grow within a climate, our senses are more susceptible to what’s going on around us and that environment. I remember going down to Italy,
and there’s this fantastic restaurant down there with a chef called Pietro Zito and he is the farmer and the chef. And he always says that he dedicated most of his, you know, his cooking ability to the land; as in the food is grown in the land first, and then we get it to the to the kitchen and he does the least amount as possible to the food to then put it in front of someone and they can enjoy the best expression of the land.
It’s been like terroir and in wine, it’s an expression of the land so for us localness is more than just food miles it’s about the expression of where we live, the identity, cultural identity of who we are around this area.
And again, I’m just going to reiterate that freshness is a flavour.
You can taste when mackerel is fresh, you can taste when a vegetable has just been picked out of the ground. And it also has more energy, it has more nutrients, so it’s nutritiously better for us. So again, localness isn’t just about the food miles, it incorporates this whole way of living differently to improve our lives. It’s a slower, more powerful, more energetic way of living and buying and working as well.
Fantastic. So, as one of your sustainable commitments, you’re planning to become a gas free business. Will COVID affect how soon you’re planning on this change?
No, as I said, when lockdown happened, you simplify, we simplified our business so much for the good. And we look at everything and go: do you know what, do we really need this? Do we really need that, and you can simplify everything and actually make both systematic and capital changes to move forward. We now cook everything in our woodfired oven, which has that amazing intense natural, woody, smoky flavour anyway, so you’ve got an improved flavour, you’ve got less energy going, you know, less consuming energy. So, I think we can hopefully all see that there are positives, and there are opportunities to make big changes through COVID. And basically, allowing the industry to stop and pause and reflect, make the right decisions and move forward.
So, actually, my next question was, do you think sustainability will continue to be one of your priorities? Or has it been replaced with survival in the sector? But are you saying that businesses may be sort of faced with their sustainability and sort of want to make changes?
I think this is a great opportunity to see sustainability as the new alternative to what we’ve been living.
Sustainability is about doing better, buying better, doing less, as in living better, less, perhaps, you know, less staff, giving more, giving more flavour, but also receiving more receiving more profit.
I’m doing some consultancy work. And it’s amazing how, when you go into a kitchen, we are literally having to change the train tracks on the whole way we’ve been living. And I guess that’s almost what a food revolution is all about. A revolution in physics is a circle on a wheel, you know, revolution on a wheel. And I think that’s what it is, right? It’s not the sort of upheaval of government that we’re facing, it’s about just changing the tracks into a different direction. And when you see that new way of living, the new way of buying, a new way of doing business, it’s actually so much more rewarding and enjoyable, I think, hopefully, that this isn’t, well, hopefully we’ll see, COVID is not about surviving, but as an opportunity to move forward.
Fantastic. So how are you keeping your customers safe? And do you have anything to say to people who might be a bit COVID conscious and don’t want to eat out or drink out?
Yeah, so I think the industry again, takes a lot of responsibility. And it’s important for us to make sure that our customers feel safe and enjoy their time as well. I think at the end of it, we will always do our best, because we want you to keep coming, the customers to keep going back day in day out every week, every month. So, if we don’t make them feel comfortable, then they won’t come back. We do everything we can, we’re also putting ourselves at risk by being around so many people. But I think everything that people do by wearing masks or creating screens, and the two metres apart, the one-way systems, sanitizer, every little detail that you can make to make someone feel special and safe. And at the same time, it’s still a pub environment or restaurant environment is a positive move forward for them. And I think people should, you know, hopefully should feel safe. And it’s bit like going to different restaurants. Sometimes you’ll just know how good, you know, a restaurant’s food sourcing is. In the same sense, you’ll probably know how good restaurant’s you know, COVID restrictions are. I think you’ve got to put your faith into the operator and into people again, and maybe that’s again, another positive way of looking at the Coronavirus, is that we will be moving away from that robotic, mass produced restaurant, and more to localised, owner run personal, person facing business. And I think that can only be a good thing for the industry.
Yeah, that’s a really good point. So finally, where can people find out more about the Wheatsheaf online, or visit you if they are nearby?
Yes, we have our website, we are on Instagram and Facebook. And I think I think looking up sustainable pubs, you know, sustainable restaurants. The we work closely with the SRA, the Sustainable Restaurant Association. And they were the association that kindly gave us the award last year. And they’ve got a great website and great app where you can look up sustainable restaurants in your area. Otherwise, I don’t think there are many other apps where you can go, you know, I want to be sustainable, where do I go? Most of the most information at the moment is coming in through the operator or the restaurant or the word of the pub.
Okay, so where is your operation?
So, we are based in Chilton Foliat, which no one can ever pronounce, it’s a funny name, but it’s in Wiltshire, just near Hungerford.
Fantastic, is there anything else you’d like to add?
No, I think, from the industry’s point of view, we are all passionate, positive people and we will do whatever we can to A) give our customers the best experience, the continuous sustainable experience, but also the safest experience. There’s a huge amount of energy and determination in this industry and I think we will come out the other side of a better positive and more sustainable industry.
Wonderful. Well thank you so much for your time and for coming on the podcast.
Thank you very much for asking me.