At the Marram Grass in Anglesey, brothers Liam and Ellis Barrie have turned a greasy spoon on a caravan park into a thriving restaurant with a growing reputation for excellent food. Neil Gerrard went to visit
Doing their best not to squint in the sunshine of a beautiful Anglesey morning, Liam and Ellis Barrie are trying (and only partially succeeding) to remain composed as the photographer shoots them in front of the entrance to their restaurant, the Marram Grass.
“Ow, what was that?!” exclaims Liam as he leaps in the air with surprise, just as the photographer tries pressing the shutter once again. It turns out his younger brother has poked him with a nail he found on the floor, before letting out a long, infectious chuckle that’s a feature of any conversation with him.
Both under 30 (Liam is 29, Ellis is 27), the pair display the sort of youthful exuberance that you’d expect from brothers of that age. Where they differ is that, between them, they have developed what is one of Wales’s most exciting young restaurant businesses in what could be argued is a pretty unlikely location.
None of it was really part of the plan. Liam and Ellis’s parents moved from their native Liverpool in 2009 to open a caravan park on the island across the Menai Strait from Caernarfon as their retirement project.
At the time, Ellis was in Australia, after a year working at the Panoramic 34 in Liverpool. Liam was already a trained surveyor and looking for jobs in Liverpool and Manchester. While he searched, he agreed to help his parents with work that needed doing on the caravan park.
With the caravan park came a small greasy spoon on the site, designed to cater for hungry campers. It was little more than a cupboard at the time, sharing the smallish, low building in which it sat with a toilet and shower block.
“It was packed full of frozen Tesco lasagnes and burgers,” recalls Liam of the scene that confronted him when they first took over.
“When I came back from Australia in June that year, me mam had just been buying lasagnes from Tesco because that’s what the previous owners had been doing, and she had never run a restaurant,” Ellis adds. “They were buying lasagnes for £1 and selling them for £4.”
“I don’t think it was even £4. It was about £3.50,” Liam interjects. “It was like: ‘Yes! We took £20 today!’”
Ellis began to learn his craft as a chef at Saturday junior cooking courses at Knowsley Community College in Liverpool. In 2005, aged 15, he started at the city’s two-AA-rosette Radisson Blu Filini under Chris Marshall and went on to join Marshall at the Panoramic 34, also in Liverpool, where he learned most of his cooking principles.
By the time Ellis returned from Australia it was July 2009 and he joined in to help in the kitchen at the caravan park. He changed things quite quickly, keeping some elements like the breakfasts and the cake stand, but changing to more local ingredients and homemade food. Their first local supplier was Menai Oysters, run by Shaun Krijnen.
“You could have an all-day breakfast or a bowl of mussels. It was very random but we thought we would just see how it went,” Ellis recalls. Gradually he built up a menu of hearty, rustic dishes that make the best of local ingredients and are based on some serious skill in the kitchen.
Neither of the brothers thought they would be involved long term – it was supposed to be a means to an end. In Liam’s case, he was still planning a career in construction, although the jobs market was tough.
“The industry had died on its arse in 2008 so there weren’t many opportunities,” he says. Gradually, he became more and more involved in the Marram Grass, taking time out from his construction work around the site to help Ellis. “In the first year, I used to come in here with my arm up my back,” he recalls. “Ellis would need a hand and I’d be in my building boots and shorts and a T-shirt, washing dishes or serving customers. ”
In the first 12 months they were very much under the direction of their parents. “We couldn’t do anything too bold,” recalls Liam. “We did a lot of shopping at Tesco in that first year and we used to get earache every time we came back with a receipt.”
“I got bollocked just for putting homemade chips on,” laughs Ellis. “It kicked off.”
After a year, their parents put it to them that they could help out running the restaurant for another 12 months with more autonomy while they concentrated on the campsite. That’s when Liam got more involved and they expanded the Marram Grass, knocking down a wall and expanding into what had been a toilet/shower block for the campsite. Ellis started introducing supper clubs in the evening and expanded the menu. “We just wanted to do something a bit different. Once a month we would get 14 people in and we would try and cook, and it was shit, wasn’t it?,” he asks his brother modestly. “I was trying my hardest to cook and they all loved it.”
It could, as Ellis explains, have been a perfectly successful breakfast place, but they decided to keep pressing on and changing it, expanding it, and trying different things.
Never have they felt fear when it comes to taking risks Ellis asserts. Both had put a relatively small amount of money into the business – about £3,000 each – and as Liam points out, you spend more than that going to university for just one year.
“I thought, if we had 12 months here and it went tits up, we didn’t have any money to lose. We had a bed and a roof over our heads, so we thought let’s just go at it and see if it works and, if it doesn’t, then we go and do our own thing,” says Liam. “We said that every year. We have put a bit of money in so far now, but if it all failed tomorrow it has been a relatively cheap cost for the past six years for all that we have learned.”
Accolades soon started to follow. In 2013, the Marram Grass won Best Bistro/Brasserie of the Year at the Anglesey Tourism Awards, prompting an interview in The Caterer magazine for the first time. By 2015, it had attracted the attention of the Waitrose Good Food Guide.
“What an extraordinary find Marram Grass Café turned out to be. The low building with its corrugated iron roof may channel scout hut and air raid shelter in equal measure, but the interior charms and the cooking shows ambition and skill,” said guide editor Elizabeth Carter at the time.
The restaurant scored a solid 4/10 in the latest edition of the Good Food Guide and Ellis last year picked up an Acorn award from The Caterer as one of the 30 most promising figures under the age of 30 in hospitality. This year, the young chef appears on BBC Two’s Great British Menu for the first time and Liam is also in the running for an Acorn. Earlier this year, there was an appearance on Michel Roux Jr’s Hidden Restaurants on Channel 4.
If that all sounds relatively easily achieved, then it belies a lot of hard work. The kitchen has been remodelled and expanded four or five times. “Whenever we needed a bit of space, we’d just go into whatever cupboard was not being used. These are only stud walls,” says Liam, who along with Ellis does most of the building work himself. The seasonality of the business helps in this respect – they have the time to figure out what they want to do next and get on with it. A relatively small budget has also led to a creative approach. Not being able to afford the copper bar they wanted, they improvised and created their own by setting coins into resin. It cost them £34 in 2p pieces instead of the £300 that was being asked for the real thing. A recent winter flood destroyed it, so they replaced it with a slate-topped bar, homemade once again.
“This place has got a bit of a recycled look, not for some kind of fashion thing – it was just necessity,” says Liam. “The tiles on the wall are roof tiles off one of the houses. The Belfast sink was one my uncle had in the garden. We even put a request on Facebook for people to drop off crates and pallets and used pieces on the wall.”
They aren’t going to stop there either. Across the road, they already have the beginnings of a kitchen garden – during the Acorn Awards weekend at Chewton Glen last year, Ellis disappeared into the kitchen garden there and started making notes. The Marram Grass’s garden will be a similar size and contain “a bit of everything”.
A little further down the field they have 20 pigs – a mixture of Berkshire/Tamworth Cross and some pure Tamworths. Meanwhile, they now have planning permission to open a new car park across the road from the restaurant to help ease the parking issues that have arisen as a result of the Marram Grass’s popularity.
They have already been butchering meat on-site with a butcher who comes in twice a week to make sausages. They also buy in all their lambs whole and butcher all their own beef from a local farmer. The butchery is already outgrowing the space allocated to it, so Liam and Ellis plan to build a new unit beside the kitchen. They are also in the process of opening a small oyster bar within the restaurant.
Little by little, they are building a small empire and, luckily, they have the space to do it. And that’s before you even get to the plans for a development kitchen, which will both help Ellis train up local chefs (who are currently hard to come by) as well as offer packages for people who want to come to Anglesey and learn more about cookery and the local produce on offer.
Then there are plans to turn what is currently a space with a marquee that is used part of the year for hog roasts and other special events into a permanent structure that complements the 35-cover Marram Grass and lets the business operate all year round, offering weddings and other events.
They seem to get on well with each other, which isn’t always a given for siblings living and working in each other’s pockets. “I don’t think you get on well all the time, but when you get to a certain age you know when the other one is tired, pissed off, or annoyed,” says Ellis.
“We are relatively grumpy bastards anyway,” Liam chips in. “I don’t think we ever don’t get on. We just get on in a grumpy fashion 90% of the time.”
It’s a lot to take on, and it dispels any notion that the brothers aren’t serious about what they are doing. “I’ll be 30 in September and Ellis is 28 in October,” Liam says. “We started when we were 19 and 21, so we took on responsibility quite young. You make some glaring mistakes in the early days – the kind where you don’t sleep for a week afterwards. But we have had fun with it and I don’t think we ever look back that much with a real sense of achievement. We are always a bit agitated that we are not doing better already.
“It’s about being interested – that’s how it keeps evolving. We invest in the parts we want to and learn, rather than just doing it on business sense. Some business schools may not recommend it, but it’s good fun.”
“Our girlfriends are fed up of keeping us,” jokes Ellis. “We never take any money out of the business; we have only ever paid ourselves a basic salary. We are happy and enjoying what we are doing.”
And so what do their parents make of it all now that they have created something so unexpectedly successful? Liam quips: “I think they’d like me to buy a nice car, rather than a new kitchen or a pig. But where’s the fun in that?”
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