Husband and wife Alun and Dawn Sperring opened The Chilli Pickle Indian restaurant in Brighton 10 years’ ago, moving to a larger site in the city as it became more successful. Alun is a classically-trained chef who has worked in kitchens around the world, while Dawn left her job with the London Ambulance Service 15 years ago to work front-of-house in hospitality. Last year the couple, who have two children, partnered with boutique investment and advisory firm Imagine Capital to expand their business across the south east. As they prepare to open their second restaurant – in Guildford – in July, they talk to Hospitality & Catering News about building a successful business, their love of India and working together.
What led to you both to work in hospitality?
Alun: I always wanted to travel the world. My grandfather was in the merchant navy and he told me lots of stories when I was a young boy. That fuelled the wanderlust and then I got interested in the famous chefs of the time – Anton Mosimann and the Roux Brothers – who worked around the world as chefs and the two came together. When I finished college I went to Switzerland, Austria and Germany for classic grounding as a chef, then into the more exotic places further afield, working on the QEII and then Australia, America, Bermuda and Dubai which eventually morphed into specialising in Indian cuisine.
Dawn: My story is very different. I had worked as a waitress when I was a student, but then I joined the ambulance service. Our romantic story is we met in a nightclub in New Cross, south east London. Alun was back in the UK having just left Pittsburgh and was about to start another stint in Bermuda. We just clicked and only had about five dates and by the third, he was like ‘why don’t you come with me to Bermuda?’. It was very whirlwind. I went to live out with him in Bermuda and worked as a waitress, then we lived in Dubai for a few years together. The hospitality side is different to working for the ambulance service in some respects, but there are similarities – both are people-focused and there’s the excitement of not knowing what’s going to happen the next day. I was able to deal with stress and I love meeting new people, so being front of house just seemed the natural thing for me. Although I hadn’t got a background in it, hospitality almost seemed deep-seated in me.
The Chilli Pickle Brighton turns 10 this year, do you plan to celebrate?
Alun: We’ll be opening our second restaurant pretty much on the nail of the anniversary date. We are planning to put a bunch of our favourite dishes from over the last 10 years back on the menu to mark it, but we are going to be so busy with the second restaurant, we’re not sure what else we’ll do yet.
Dawn: We are talking about it quite a lot. It’s been such a long journey, so it doesn’t feel right just to throw a party. We might raise a glass and Al and I might have a reflective moment. We are the old dogs of the town, but the concept is still fresh and people are still discovering us, so that means that the next 10 years are going to be just as exciting for us. We are really excited that we are so far down the road, yet with the new site, we feel like we’re starting another new journey.
Ten years is a long time in restaurant world, what’s the secret to your longevity?
Alun: I think we were at the beginnings of a new zeitgeist as far as serving our regional Indian food, street food and craft beers were concerned. These were all buzz words we used from day one and lots of people have caught onto these things, but it wasn’t a case of thinking about what was fashionable, it was just who we were and what we wanted to give and how we saw our restaurant – as a place that we really wanted to go to ourselves. Somewhere accessible, flamboyant and rustic, yet with good attention to detail. India as a country is so exciting, it’s so diverse and as a creative chef, there’s always the opportunity to give something different.
Dawn: For us as well, we still absolutely love The Chilli Pickle and that shines through. We’ve still got energy. We love bringing new elements to the menu and to the design and are constantly trying to do better, because you do have to keep moving forward. I think we love challenging ourselves, so we are constantly putting ourselves under pressure. It’s not a case of sitting back and saying we’ve cracked it.
Alun: We are a family enterprise. We haven’t got big pockets and family connections. To get investment has been amazing, but you’ve got to find the right people and that has been really important to us. There is a lot of pride in what we have and we don’t want to just let it go for the opportunity of making a quick buck. We are very confident that we can grow The Chilli Pickle and not only retain our standards, but improve upon them, because the structure’s there, the identity’s there and we know who we are now. We are well bedded in. We aren’t panicking, we’ve got some really good people here and some strong systems in place and it’s going to put us in good stead for the future, hopefully.
You are about to open a second restaurant in Guildford, will it be similar in style to Brighton and how will you divide your time?
Alun: It’s pretty much the same. There might be a few slight differences, but generally if a customer knows The Chilli Pickle Brighton, they’re going to get The Chilli Pickle in Guildford. It’s a new place for us but there are a few people who know us already, so we’ll get a bit of a start there and hope to hit the ground running.
Dawn: the beauty of there being two of us means we can both be separate and still be communicating with each other whichever site we are at.
Alun: We’ve been working hard in the background over the last 18 months and have taken on strong management as well. We’ve got a head chef and good operations manager. I’m probably going to be in Guildford for the first block, but the key is we’ve got trust here in Brighton.
Dawn: We’re going to be building that community among the restaurants. Because we are such a family-driven start up and are very involved we’ll ensure the two sites have a bond. I’m hoping the two GMs will have a great relationship and so there will be that two-way conversation. We’ve also learnt a huge amount along the way, as you do and so we’ve taken a lot from those lessons and moved forward with it. Sometimes you have more of a presence when you’re not in service every single day. Although I’m not on the floor as much as I used to be, my presence is very felt and I’m still seeing regular customers because I’m around. I’m still guiding the team. It’s the same for Alun. His creativity can flow so much better if he’s not behind the pass every single day.
How do you make working together work?
Dawn: It’s a pressured environment at work, so you do have those times when it’s difficult and a bit of the relationship might come out at work. It’s hard to have that divide and not talk about work at home, but because we both have a huge amount of respect for each other, enjoy each others’ company, are good friends who are both passionate about the same things and love this place and what we’re doing with it, it is easier. We’re really inspired by what each other’s doing and I love it when Alun sits down to work on a new menu and I can sit down with him too. He involves me in things. Just because I’m not a chef, doesn’t mean I can’t have input. I think we’ve got that real mutual understanding of each other and that helps.
Alun: We’ve both grown together. I policed the pass for so long and wouldn’t move from it for nearly nine years and towards the end of that was probably when times were most testing. We learnt from there that it’s so important to have time away from the business together.
Dawn: It’s very important to have that down time together. You do have to try and have at least one day a week when you’re a family unit and remember what it’s all about. On that point of view. Sometimes you can’t say why something works, but it just does. When we decided to start our own restaurant we both knew enough about the hospitality industry that it would be all-encompassing and that we’d live and breathe it. We knew it would be stressful and hard work, so we were realistic about it. I think if I hadn’t decided to be involved as well and for this to be a partnership, that would have probably been harder for the relationship because neither would have understood how tough each others’ days were. Because I’m so heavily involved in The Chill Pickle, if Alun says he’s going to be home at 7pm and isn’t, I understand that something has probably happened.
What is it you love about Indian cuisine?
Alun: If you look at fusion cuisine in the ’90s it was always paired up with South East Asian – Thai or Japanese – rather than South Asian, because that Western cooking style relates to that, whereas Indian is quite alien – it’s not an easy crossover for Western chefs, so it does seem a strange path to take. I worked with a lot of Indian chefs in Dubai and did a stint in the Cinnamon Club, which was exciting. Because of the whole diversity in the ex-pat journey I took, I was very confident with different cuisines, managing their teams and understanding their food. My personal taste has always been for bolder and bigger flavoured cuisine – I love spice and chilli and then with that sense of travel as well it was the perfect combination.
We love India as a country, it’s so in your face and is an adventure every time we visit. If I’d taken a different path maybe I would be cooking Thai or Japanese, but life is funny isn’t it? We love Indian food and have embraced it. I’ve spent the last 13-14 years been honing in on that passion and love for it, travelling as a family to India every year, through employing speciality chefs and bringing out the best in them. I’m still passionate about it after 10 years here.
Dawn: We completely live and breathe Indian culture. For us, there’s never going to be that lack lustre approach. We are constantly itching to get on a plane and get back out to India to feel like we can connect with it again. Everything about India suits our personalities as well. It’s very hard to get bored of it – its culture and food. We eat the food here (at The Chilli Pickle) every day and we don’t get tired of it. It’s just who we are.
Who or what has been your biggest inspiration?
Alun: The great chefs of the era I spoke of and the stint at The Cinnamon Club was a spur to do this. To a certain extent, there’s been a lot of self-teaching and it has been a long journey of self-learning. I’ve never been a protegee to a head chef, although I have worked with many talented chefs.
Dawn: You’re supposed to say I’m your inspiration (laughs).
Alun: (laughs) It is a great business relationship. We both love the same things and we’ve had that trust on both sides. We’ve served the test of time. We can work and live together and it’s a strong test for a lot of relationships. I guess that is an inspiration.
Dawn: I think I’m inspired by lots of people I meet. Not to fly the feminist flag, but I am inspired by professional women who have achieved work-life balance as it’s always quite difficult to peg down. We always have those self-doubt times when you think you aren’t doing anything well, but there are loads of strong women – and men – out there who work as family units and I think it’s those people who break the boundaries of the old-school family set-up – and Alun, of course – who inspire me every day.
The industry as a whole is finding staffing tricky, is that the same for you?
Alun: When we first started it was just me and a kitchen full of speciality Indian chefs, but changes to immigration over the last seven years has made it very difficult to continue in that way. There’s a pool of specialist chefs in the UK that has just become smaller, so we’ve had to change the way we do things. The majority of our kitchen is now made up of people from wherever who we recruit based on how motivated they are and how much they want to learn. That’s what it’s about – teaching and learning. Our kitchen porter is now on the tandoor and his bread is as good as any of the Rajasthani speciality chefs we’ve had working here and that’s because he had a will to learn. I had to work so hard to get the senior speciality chefs to understand that. They are almost too quick to give up teaching, but you have to break through that, because there is such a staff shortage.
Dawn: Fighting the challenges of recruitment is difficult and we are constantly working on it. Being a pro-active employer – being there for your staff and ensuring you see and you hear them and are looking after them – is really important. You need to build a culture where people enjoy being at work. Hospitality is quite a stressful place to work, so being there for your team and doing things like holding yoga classes for staff once a week (like we do) and offering staff discounts helps. When people come for trial shifts, the team says ‘yes you’ll have to work hard and there will be expectations of standards. However, you get paid well, on time and get looked after’. You have to make sure there’s a good culture. It should be a given, but it doesn’t always happen.
What does the future hold for you and the business?
What we want to do first of all is bed in with two sites, get systems in place, be nice and robust and then we’re ready to move again. The overall plan is to build a cluster of restaurants in the south east over the next four or five years. We’re fairly flexible with the number. Let’s see.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor