Mark Sargeant carved out a successful career as a chef, including a 13-year stint with Gordon Ramsay, before becoming a restaurateur in 2011 with the opening of Rocksalt and The Smokehouse in Folkestone. With business partner Josh De Haan he went on to open The Duke William pub in Ickham in 2015 and then the Wife of Bath, a Northern Spanish inspired restaurant last year. He is also chef director at Plum & Spilt Milk at the Great Northern Hotel in London. Later this week Mark will open Sargeant’s Mess, an all-day restaurant, bar and deli, in collaboration with CH&Co and Historic Royal Palaces. He talks to Hospitality & Catering News about his latest project, future plans and more.
How did Sargeant’s Mess come about?
I’ve actually had the name in my head since I left college about 20 years and have wanted to do something with it since then. It was never supposed to be an army-themed restaurant, more a British style restaurant, it was more that it was a good play on my name. But I never really knew what to do with it. It certainly didn’t suit a high-end Michelin restaurant, but as I’ve got older and worked around different places and seen different things, the sort of British style thing seemed to fit really.
It’s really since I’ve had kids that it’s come to fruition. I take them out to the cinema or shopping and then try and find somewhere they feel happy eating in and understand, but there’s not a lot of choice. Sargeant’s Mess is really an antidote to what’s currently available. Somewhere you can get good staple dishes which have been elevated and cooked nicely. We’re not trying to re-invent the wheel, just trying to offer good food and relaxed service in lovely surroundings.
I hooked up with Bill Toner (CEO of CH&Co) who I’d worked with when he was at Aramark and I was at Claridge’s (we’d used to do an Aramark apprenticeship scheme with Gordon Ramsay), and had a conversation about me working with CH&Co. We had a meeting at the site near the Tower of London and Bill said he’d like me to look at changing it and asked if I had any ideas. I thought it would be a cracking fit for Sargeant’s Mess. I’d already formulated the business plan and got the trademark a long time ago as well as decided on the look and feel of the place and the menus, so I went home and sent him that file and that was it really. He was really excited about the whole concept.
You’ve collaborated with contract caterers before (ISS, Baxter Storey and Compass), what is it you like about working with them?
I’ve always had huge diversity in my career – even when I was working with Gordon (Ramsay) I was running the pubs and writing cookery books while also doing TV stuff – and that has kept me excited. Whilst I have my own restaurants, I didn’t want to be cooking in them all the time. I said from the beginning that I wanted to spread my wings, so working for these companies as a consultant helps me do that and is exciting, because you get to see a totally different side to catering. It’s a side which I propably would have poo-pooed when I was younger and working in a high-end kitchen, but there’s so much that goes into these businesses. These groups, they look after schools, care homes, hospitals as well as high-end fine dining in big businesses, so there’s a whole cross sector, which frankly I find really interesting.
Are you planning to do more than one Sargeant’s Mess?
We are aware we have to get one off the ground first, but I have openly said that I am structuring it to be able to be replicated elsewhere. Once number one is established we can take that model and put it into another site, with hopefully a lot of success. I know the high street is struggling a bit with a lot of the big chains suffering, but we’re nowhere near that. Doing it with CH&Co does mean there’s an opportunity to look at existing sites they’ve got and freshen them up, or win new site. With a group like them behind me, it’s more feasible that it will happen than not.
How are things going with your other restaurants?
All are great. The Wife of Bath opened in December 2017, so it’s been open a year and a few months now. That was a bit of a departure from my usual style, but was something that I thought was interesting. We went for a very lightly Spanish-inspired menu there. We still use lots of locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients, but it’s nice for the chefs to get to cook with a few different ingredients, like the Iberica pork. In London it would probably blend in, but it’s something different for a small village in Kent.
The pub is also going really well. I’ve said it many times but pubs are definitely an area I’m interested in. We have a leasehold on the Duke William, but the plan will be to one day buy it. My business partner and I have put a lot of money into it and love it. I think you could see it work in lots of different locations. The cash flow isn’t available to open another one just yet, but we’d be up for investment if that ever came up.
What are the biggest issues in the industry that you’d like to see solved/improved?
Staff is number one. It’s a vicious circle really, because one affects the other and we go round and round. We all want our staff to work less hours and get better paid and yet there’s not enough trained staff to go around.
I leave the politics to Jamie (Oliver), but I think the outcry about zero hours will ruin our industry. I employ two waitresses who have been on zero hour contracts with me since we opened and due to their lifestyles they don’t want full-time contracts. As it is, they work the hours they want. If we got rid of zero hour contracts we’d lose people like that.
Food prices are also of concern. We’re heading into unchartered territory at the moment. It’s great that we might become more in control, but right now it’s wavering up and down. Our industry’s in an incredible place, but the uncertainty has hit it. We are just carrying on as normal in our restaurants and making sure the food is imaginative and keenly priced and service is good. Despite the challenges, it’s not the time for any knee-jerk reactions.
Who has been your biggest inspiration?
My first mentor was David Pitchford from Read’s in Kent. I worked with him one day a week when I was doing my college course and he really encouraged me. After college I went to London for a year and then came back and worked with him for three years. He was an inspiration to me. He pushed me through the competitons that I won. Then Gordon (Ramsay), obviously. For all reasons. I can’t leave him off the list. In terms of how I am now, I suppose in management, my business partner Josh De Haan. While I experienced the processes of business working with Gordon, it was nothing like opening my own business and going through all the numbers, so that’s been the interesting third stage of my career.
What hospitality businesses do you most admire and why?
I hugely respect Jamie Oliver. I think he gets an unfair knocking from the press. You read more about him and his business than Byron or Strada who were in the same situation. I also really admire Scott Collins and Yianni Papoutsis from MEATliqour. I opened a gastropub in Singapore and it didn’t work out for me, but they went out and opened a MEATliqour there which did. What they are doing over here – being successful multi-site operators – is very much how I would like to see Sargeant’s Mess operate. Scott and Yianni do something very well and grow it gradually. They are a good example of how to do it properly.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor