Tough times, great work – 2 – ‘From Street Food to Bistro’
Coursing through the Covid era, with its uncertainties and potential pitfalls, Iain Robertson is delighted to report on an enterprising Yorkshireman determined to make his mark in life and how a series of fortunate happenstances have helped his progress positively.
Late last year, I reported on a Yorkshire electrician, Rob Taylor (37), who possessed a fascination with food that he also shared with his father. It led to a life-changing decision that was realised with the debut of Bridge Town Canteen, in the town of Wakefield, West Yorkshire.
With an innate burning desire to cook for others, hopefully not via burnt offerings, Rob quit his electrical contracting business to spend nine months and £23,000 on a London-based, Prue Leith semi-residential, catering training course. Amazingly, the drive within him was such that even time spent away from his supportive family, living in high-cost London, did not dissuade him one little bit. “I felt the compulsion to change direction in my life,” he explained at the time. “While I had an inkling of what I wanted to do, taking the training course served to confirm the sea-change.”
To begin with, he sold the principle of a ‘chicken wings-based’ light menu to the publican and his partner at the Calder Vale Hotel, a sometime coaching inn adjacent to the River Calder in Wakefield. Although the pub no longer served food, apart from the customary behind-the-bar snacks, it had built a wooden ‘cabin’ in its car park and was introducing various ‘street food’ specialists to the local community. Largely self-contained, the food providers proved to be excellent accompaniments to the Calder Vale’s first-rate microbrews.
When I sampled Bridge Town Canteen’s strictly limited menu, last year, I was surprised at the core simplicity but the complex, yet complementary range of flavours that Rob was curating. It was a good eating experience, which led to the enterprising management team at Calder Vale recalling Rob’s embryonic catering services on successive weekends. Changing the recipes but maintaining the concept ensured that interest levels peaked week after week.
However, Rob’s mid-to-long-term aim was always to manage his own premises but selling street food is not exactly a passport to fast-track earnings, even though profit levels were respectable. The Covid-virus struck at the wrong time for countless businesses, not least new starts, and locking-down the Calder Vale premises for several weeks was not exactly conducive to taking any business to its next level.
Yet, Rob maintained an open channel of communication with the pub’s management. Both parties were remaining exceptionally buoyant, despite the often-confusing messages about lifting restrictions on places of entertainment, including pub gardens and restaurants. Among the plans grew a desire to develop a professional kitchen at the Calder Vale. Rob’s services both as an highly skilled electrician and a caterer would prove to be a boon.
Naturally, it is beneficial to the pub to own its kitchen, not least in case the relationship with Rob might not tolerate the lockdown period; at least alternative arrangements, should they be deemed necessary, could be organised. Fortunately, Rob’s resolve is such that his dream being fulfilled has always taken precedence. “This was a golden opportunity being offered to me, not just as an installation contractor,” he outlined, “but also because I could specify the kitchen to meet my culinary needs to perfection. The Calder Vale would own the hardware and I would have first dabs on it, with the broader opportunity of using it to develop the contract catering side of my business.”
The Calder Vale team agreed wholeheartedly with Rob’s proposition and also concurred that, as soon as pandemic restrictions were relaxed, the pub’s beer garden would reopen and a fresh, more bistro-like menu would be launched. New picnic tables were ordered and appropriately social-distanced to comply with government’s wishes.
In the meantime, Rob was tasked with developing his menu. He has been exceptionally ingenious with it; rather than resorting to a traditional pub grub style. Chicken, lamb and beef have been resourced from an high quality, local butcher, along with specific demands on the quality of potato and vegetables supplier too. Rob has been determined to create a ‘want more’ desire among diners, which ensures that uncomplicated pricing became a priority, which means that less complex dishes, such as the ‘Scotch Egg’ and ‘Macaroni Cheese’, would be priced at £6 per serving, while ‘mains’ would be £10, with fries costing from £3 and loaded alternatives £4. Simple and cost-effective.
However, appealing to the taste buds is the primary attribute of Rob’s food and a soft-centred egg spilling luxuriously onto a base of glass noodles and pickled mooli, from a half-sliced and spicy lamb surround, with crispy golden breadcrumbs, accompanied by Harisa-spiced mayonnaise, is a superb example. The Mac-cheese topped by pickled wild shiitake mushrooms and white truffle shavings, served in a hot-pot, is both heavenly and more-ish. Meanwhile, the Luddite ale and maple-flavoured beef sandwich served on thread-like maple-glazed shallots and a freshly baked flat-bread is a sure-fire winner.
Each of the menu items features Rob’s unique twist on tradition and, while less ‘snacky’ than chicken wings, the practice is larger portions than Tapas, with a concentration on flavours and consistency, which add to the value proposition. The French Fries were crisp and, topped with maple-cured, purple cabbage coleslaw, they were utterly delicious, hot, or cold. Interestingly, despite three daily sittings (c. 60 diners at a time), the Calder Vale beer garden was packed to safe capacity, the staff cleaning and disinfecting tables and benches within minutes of customers departing.
Of course, the sales of drinks and refreshments matches the food orders, thus satisfying the other supportive half of the business relationship. Rob admitted, “Make no bones, the past few months have been really tough. I did experience nightmares about whether the business could survive, or not. Thanks to the generosity of the Calder Vale team, which can perceive the longer-term business benefits, I am closer than ever to my catering dream.”
Conclusion: Despite his business being only eight months old, Rob Taylor has been helped considerably by a compliant pub management and realising his dream several months ahead of expectations suggests that not all stories emerging from the pandemic are bad ones.