Cateys 2021: Newcomer Award: Barge East

08 September 2021
Cateys 2021: Newcomer Award: Barge East

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The Newcomer Award is open to those who have taken a risk to seize an opportunity and make a name for themselves in the industry. And Tommo Thomson, co-founder of Barge East, has certainly done so, after quitting his day job as a business adviser to launch a floating bar and restaurant in the capital.

And what a journey it has been, from finding the perfect area (settling on Hackney Wick, east London) to the perfect boat. It took six months to secure the "rustic yet charismatic" 118-year-old Dutch barge, complete with holes in the hull, which was followed by another six-month wait for suitable weather to sail the epic three-day voyage across the North Sea from Den Helder in the Netherlands – despite the barge not being designed to sail on open water.

The challenges continued on arrival in the UK, with Thomson and his business partners Robert Bland and Ryan Craig having to sail down the Thames to their Sweetwater mooring, under bridges that skimmed the top of the barge by mere millimetres. Only then could the hard work to convert the boat into a restaurant begin, with the trio conducting the renovation themselves despite no prior experience and little funding, using reclaimed and recycled materials that suited the barge's history.

Running a restaurant on a narrow, bobbing boat is no mean feat, but since launching in 2018, Barge East has continued to grow in popularity: within the first year of opening, it was rated London's top restaurant on Trip- Advisor for 2019-2020 and has since won its Travellers Choice 2020 award.

The Barge East team also developed a sensory garden on the land adjacent to the moored boat, creating an alfresco dining experience. Up to 400 customers can sit on the canalside, surrounded by 37 different types of plants and produce, which help to stimulate customers' senses through touch, sight, scent, taste and sound. Additionally, chefs have easy access to an array of homegrown produce, aiding in the restaurant's low-waste policy.

The team has grown from under 10 people to a staff of 47 in less than three years. All staff have helped to develop the business despite unprecedented challenges, alongside supporting the local and surrounding communities during the pandemic, with over three tonnes of food donated to a local food bank and thousands of meals delivered to frontline NHS staff at local hospitals, as well as parcels of essential produce and goods to local residents in need.

What the judges said

"Tommo Thomson and his team have shown awesome bravery, acumen, creativity and innovation in getting this remarkable project onto the water." - Richard Ball

"Wow – what an adventure! Tommo Thomson and his partners had great vision and determination to see this project through. They came up with a winning formula that has gained many plaudits in its first year. The design, menu and overall ambience is fresh, innovative and bang up to date with its use of local suppliers, which has helped it gain tremendous support from the local community. Now in its third year, the restaurant is justifiably going from strength to strength." - William Baxter

The shortlist

  • Barge East, London
  • Hide and Fox, Kent
  • Wildflower, London

The judges

  • Pascal Aussignac, chef-patron, Club Gascon
  • Richard Ball, executive chairman, Calcot Collection
  • William Baxter, chairman, Hospitality Action
  • Jane Sunley, chief executive officer, Purple Cubed
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