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Trip of a lifetime?

24 November 2005
Trip of a lifetime?

The last time we caught up with Rob Gamble (29 September, page 49), he was about to combine business with pleasure on a trip to central Italy. The idea was to enjoy the hospitality of his friend Adrian Jones's relatives in Abruzzo and strike up deals with food suppliers along the way to serve his three pub/restaurants in the Stoke area. Jones's son and son-in-law also made the trip, with the intention of researching a business importing Italian food and drink back to north Staffordshire.

The 3,500km round trip did not go smoothly. Soon after Gamble took over driving, they had a blow out near Strasbourg. Unfortunately the emergency tyre also blew in a much more dangerous incident 50km later. The vehicle was only kept on the road by Gamble's skilful driving. After calling out the emergency services, and tussling with poor French and English, the group then faced terrible driving conditions as northern Italy was lashed with torrential rain.

Two appointments with cheese and balsamic vinegar producers had to be cancelled and the group was forced to seek refuge in Florence. They asked a friend in the UK to book a hotel over the internet, but when they arrived, the receptionist only had a booking under the name "Gnomes" and not "Jones". In the end the misunderstanding was sorted out and the group was allowed to enter.

The next day they visited an organic supplier, Tuscan Farms. Gamble had hoped to visit the vineyards and see sauces, honey, and pasta being made, but all they actually saw was the shop.

Gamble admits he is not entirely happy with how his fellow travellers organised the trip. "Unfortunately the appointments weren't fixed but were made on a casual basis," he says. "I'd do it again, but only if I arranged the itinerary."

The group had a well-deserved two-day break with Jones's relatives in San Vito, a picturesque Abruzzo seaside resort. Then it was back up north, picking up delicacies such as balsamic vinegar, foie gras, fresh snails and smoked garlic on the way.

Back at home a week later Gamble slipped on some wet leaves, threw his hand into a wall for support, and suffered a broken finger and spiral fracture to his left hand.

After being unable to drive, write e-mails, and finding it hard to get dressed for nearly two weeks, he is bravely soldiering on. The plaster has now been removed, and the sixth birthday celebrations at the Noah's Ark gave his spirits a lift. More than 40 regular customers sat down to enjoy a gourmet meal of ingredients bought back from Italy and France.

Gamble is now looking forward to Christmas and his planned calendar of themed events in 2006. He is getting a lot of late enquiries for Christmas parties. How many bookings does he have? "I wouldn't like to say. I wouldn't like to jinx it," he laughs, perhaps understandably given recent events.

Another reason for optimism has been an annual health check from his bank. Gamble is also confident that the completion of new roads, the A50 and A500, next summer and the consequent improved navigation of the area is going to have a positive impact on footfall.

"I'm optimistic and upbeat as I always try to be. We have put our necks on the line to give something different. On the gourmet night, the snails went down well. We could quite easily rest on our laurels and offer XY and Z but that's not what we do. Some people think I'm as mad as a box of frogs, trying to educate the palates of the public but that's what I do and if it works, it works," he explains.

To this end, Gamble will be promoting a Continental fortnight at each of his three venues in January. Just to clarify matters, Gamble explains: "It's not Continental Indonesia or Continental Africa we're talking about. I think people will realise it's Europe, and a series of special evenings offering beers, wines and speciality foods."

Gamble is heading back to France to pick up supplies in late December. We wish him a safe and less eventful journey this time.

The story so far

The White Lion is Rob Gamble's third pub/restaurant in north Staffordshire - after the Noah's Ark, Hartshill; and Red restaurant and lounge bar, Newcastle-under-Lyme. Gamble acquired the derelict and vandalised pub on an A-road outside Stoke for nothing earlier this year and spent £175,000 on its refurbishment.

Working on the model of his first venue, the Noah's Ark, Gamble has transformed the run-down property into a tastefully furnished neighbourhood food-focused pub with a menu split between traditional dishes and those "with a twist." The extensive menu includes steak and kidney pudding, chicken, ham and mushroom pie, Spanish lamb and salmon penne.

The pub has received favourable reviews in the local press. In its first two months of trading (April and May) the White Lion's tills took £53,000. From July a 15-year lease commenced at £25,000 a year. Throughout autumn, Gamble has described trade as "rather slow." He aims to be hitting a monthly turnover of £30,000.

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