Profile: Pete Cornwell, founder, I'll Be Mother restaurant group

10 February 2017 by
Profile: Pete Cornwell, founder, I'll Be Mother restaurant group

Pete Cornwell, founder of independent restaurant group I'll Be Mother, talks to Neil Gerrard about how much he values his staff and why he is fed up of hearing about the hospitality ‘skills crisis'

Mention hospitality's much-lamented skills crisis to Pete Cornwell, founder of the I'll Be Mother group of restaurants, and you are likely to get short shrift.

"There is a lot on social media about the chef shortage, the skills crisis, and all that sort of stuff. I don't agree with it. I think it is becoming an excuse within the industry," he asserts halfway through our conversation at the Beacon just outside Tunbridge Wells, one of the I'll Be Mother group's trio of smart but relaxed independently-run Kentish restaurants.

The view from the Beacon, Tunbridge Wells
The view from the Beacon, Tunbridge Wells
The problem comes when they hit the workplace and their self-image is shattered because they realise they can't have things just because they want them, Sinek says. Often, their self-esteem plummets. But it's not their fault, he asserts. Instead, it's the duty of their employers to find ways to help them.

It's a message that resonates with Cornwell, who employs 75 people and whose business includes the Swan Wine Kitchen at Chapel Down's vineyard in Tenterden and the Twenty Six Test Kitchen in Southborough, and will soon be joined by Kingdom in Penshurst, also in Kent.

"I listen to something like that and it sparks an association and passion. It stirs something in me because he is absolutely right. What young people are being taught is instant gratification. You can do things quickly and become famous or infamous very quickly. If you are Kim Kardashian you can become famous for being famous. There will be a fallout. We need to talk to people and we need to nurture them so that they learn social skills."

Promising young employees

It's telling then, that two of I'll Be Mother's young employees, George Lee, assistant manager of the Beacon, and Doug Sanham, its sous chef, made it onto the shortlist of the Acorn Scholarship 2017. Both demonstrated a strong desire to succeed in an industry they clearly love, a remarkably mature and professional approach for people still in their early twenties, and a powerful instinct to help and nurture other people in their field. While Lee Bye of Tuddenham Mill went on to win the scholarship, both Sanham and Lee made a strong impression and were each awarded a £1,000 bursary by the PM Trust, a sponsor of the scholarship, to help pursue training and stages to grow as individuals and pass on their enthusiasm for their line of work to others.

Lee's bursary will contribute towards his training for WSET courses at levels 1-3 at the Sussex Wine School, while Sanham hopes to use his towards an agriculture or horticulture course as well as support to help fund and boost a mental health charity, as well as for new knives and equipment. Interestingly, both finalists showed an understanding for the importance of mental as well as physical wellbeing in their line of work - something that reflected well on the environment they find themselves in at I'll Be Mother.

Cornwell, who works closely with his wife, Viv, to run the group, has kept some key members of his staff for far longer than many hospitality businesses could hope to. As well as long-time operations director Dave West, he has been working with executive chef Scott Goss for 15 years. "Those three people are the backbone of the company," says Cornwell. "They are key players in the business."

Pete and Viv Cornwell
Pete and Viv Cornwell

What's in a name?

That the company should foster a nurturing environment should perhaps come as no surprise, given its name. Beyond the obvious connotations of hospitality, I'll Be Mother also implies something parental, and that is quite deliberate. "It's the oldest saying in hospitality," says Cornwell. "As well as the English version of pouring the tea and taking control, it's about keeping people on the straight and narrow. It is a parent company. The thinking is very much around hospitality and developing, caring and nurturing… perhaps also clipping around the ear if necessary. Mothers cover a full range of skillsets in order to turn out the right individuals."

So you shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that just because the company has maternal instincts, it is soft and fluffy. "It is definitely an iron fist in a velvet glove approach," says Cornwell. "We are robust in what we do. We thoroughly enjoy employing characters and individuals - the outliers really. It is not intentional. We just happen to attract them. I can sometimes be quite forgiving and I can be quite ruthless - you need a mixture of those things to suit the individual."

He is proud to point to the careers of those individuals who have made a success of themselves having worked for him. In addition to Goss, who held a Bib Gourmand at the Swan at West Malling when Cornwell still ran it with former business partner Diccon Wright as part of the Swan Collection (Wright kept the Swan at West Malling and the Swan at the Globe in London after a "very amicable split"), he highlights Tom Genty, who has a Bib at the Swan at Chapel Down. Then there's Andrew Clarke, who was once head chef at the Swan at West Malling and is now at Brunswick House in Vauxhall, London, and who Cornwell believes is one of the chefs to watch in 2017, and Simon Ulph, who is now sous chef at Thompson's on the Isle of Wight.

"I get real pleasure from these associations. It's the measure of my career to date to see people like that succeed," Cornwell says.

The Beacon, Tunbridge Wells
The Beacon, Tunbridge Wells

Healthy competition

But does he ever worry about championing people in this way, in case he then ends up losing them to another business? Not at all, he insists. "There are two things I never worry about: competition - because I believe competition is healthy; and developing people to go off and do things and better themselves. I think it is the only way to manage people. I have no aspirations for world domination in restaurants. We are very happy with what we are doing right now.

"If I felt that George had the right offer to further his career elsewhere, then I would write him the reference and he knows that and that's what keeps him motivated and focused. I don't think the idea that someone may get headhunted is an excuse to stop developing them or entering awards. But if someone is going to get headhunted to go to the local pub and get paid £10,000 a year more, I would fight tooth and nail to keep them and explain it wasn't the right move for them because they will get stuck there. A job like that is OK, but you could go on to travel the world and soon walk into a restaurant anywhere in the world."

Cornwell's management approach has probably been shaped by his own experience getting into the industry. Having been asked, aged 14, by an uncle from Australia what he wanted to do in life, he immediately replied that he wanted to be in restaurants (they were at a family dinner in a restaurant at the time).

By 16, Cornwell was a self-confessed "ski bum", combining his love of the sport with hospitality and working seasons in an eccentric Swiss hotel called Hotel Falken in Wengen for a hotelier called Frau Cova, who ended up becoming his mentor. "She was the iron fist in the velvet glove for me for a number of years," he says.

Pete Cornwell (seated) with, from left, Dave West, Scott Goss and Viv Cornwell
Pete Cornwell (seated) with, from left, Dave West, Scott Goss and Viv Cornwell

ing formalised his experience in a management training programme in hotels and catering at Thanet Technical College, Cornwell undertook a management training course with My Kinda Town restaurants and ended up working as a chef in one of the group's busiest restaurants, Chicago Meat Packers on London's Tottenham Court Road. "It was quite an aggressive environment with a lot of man management required with quite difficult people," Cornwell recalls. His reward was to go and run Henry J Bean's on the King's Road, with celebrities like George Best and Lennox Lewis regularly to be found there.

Having been headhunted to launch a bar in Val d'Isère during the Olympic year (1992) alongside Viv (before they were married), the pair returned to the UK and realised that unless they wanted to do ski seasons forever, they were going to have to find something else to do. They took on the King's Arms pub in Meopham Green aged just 23 at a time when "pubs were pubs" and still the social hub of their community before the advent of Facebook, Twitter and smartphones.

From there, Cornwell teamed up with Wright to grow the Swan Collection, before going it alone to launch the Beacon (above which he and his family now live) in 2014.

While progress isn't always what he'd like it to be, he is generally very happy with where the group stands. "Age gives me a nice overview and perspective," he says. "We have really amazing days when I think the Beacon is the best restaurant in the world, and dark days when I think we are the worst and we don't know what we are doing. But I have opened enough restaurants now to be able to say that the Beacon is the best opening we have ever done. Is it finished, perfect and done? No.

"We haven't got to where we are going, but it seems a very settled environment and one I am really happy in. On a day-to-day basis I can be frustrated that we are not where we want to be, but financially it is very healthy for a new restaurant."

While there could be a tougher operating environment ahead, Cornwell also feels reasonably confident that I'll Be Mother can weather any storms. "It is an amazing time to be an independent," he says. "Would I want to be in charge of a chain right now with all those associated costs and reliant on imports? I would be nervous around that. Would I want to be over-financed? No - but luckily we are not."

He also recognises that continuing to offer value is important, with the Beacon laying on a menu with ingredients from within a 10-mile radius at £15 for two courses.

Crucially he thinks that with the right people - the likes of his wife, Viv, Goss, and West, and yes, millennials like Lee and Sanham - he is well-placed to succeed. "If you have purpose and good people, then I think you will deal with the bumps in the road."

I'll Be Mother's brood

The Beacon, Tunbridge Wells

Having sold the family home to buy the freehold of this rambling country inn, Pete and Viv Cornwell have set about transforming it into a countryside restaurant retreat that they hope will gain national recognition without being regarded as too serious or stuffy. Set in 17 acres of land and with three private lakes, it boasts a terrace commanding views of the Kent countryside, as well as three rooms for meetings and events: the Card Room (seats up to 12), the Billiard Room (seats 30), and the Cellar Room (with its own private bar, terrace and views, it can seat up to 65).

The Beacon, Tunbridge Wells
The Beacon, Tunbridge Wells

ever, it is still by no means the finished article. I'll Be Mother has ambitious plans to build some really different accommodation on the site, including eight treehouses in the style of Chewton Glen, in New Milton, Hampshire, as well as eco-lodge holiday accommodation available on longer lets. There are also plans to resurrect a rose garden that once stood on the site, as well as to create an events space in the garden to host weddings.

Kingdom, Penshurst

When Pete Cornwell originally looked at going it alone with I'll Be Mother, he had a choice either to pursue buying the Beacon or taking on Kingdom, a multi-faceted cycling venue in Penshurst, Kent, that will incorporate a 1.1-mile road cycling track, a 120-cover café, a bike shop run by bike brand Wyndy Milla and a 140-cover wedding and events space.

The Beacon fell into place more quickly but Cornwell has not given up on his dream of running Kingdom too, set apart from the I'll Be Mother group (I'll Be Mother will still provide the catering).

Kingdom, Penshurst, Kent
Kingdom, Penshurst, Kent

gdom is already home to Penshurst Off Road Cycling and Cornwell's involvement sees him take a majority stake in the venture, in partnership with former professional rugby player Ross Blake and owner of pop-up café-bar business Container, and James Richards. They are currently crowdfunding to help build the cycling track. The total investment in the site will be about £1m, which Cornwell is keen to crowdfund £365,000, to foster a sense of ownership among the local community.

"We would rather have 3,000 people paying £100 than a bank lending us £250,000. The whole point of the crowdfunding is to generate interest and excitement and for people to say yes, I am a cyclist, I will use it."

The café will open on 1 April, although no launch date for the whole venue is set yet.

The Twenty Six, Southborough

Having acquired the freehold of this small restaurant in Southborough near Tunbridge Wells, I'll Be Mother set about transforming it into a 26-cover "test kitchen" for the company's executive chef Scott Goss to show off his technical skill and creativity.

The Twenty Six, Southborough
The Twenty Six, Southborough
"We spent the money on it and gave it to Scott to run and it has been a huge success for him personally and for the business," Cornwell says of the venture, which is listed in the Michelin Guide for 2017. "Satisfying, seasonal modern dishes; you'll wish you could try everything on the menu," the guide states. The Swan Wine Kitchen, Tenterden This 80-cover restaurant, attached to the Chapel Down vineyard, has retained two AA rosettes and a Michelin Bib Gourmand in the 2017 editions of the respective guides under chef Tom Genty. Lunch is the bulk of the trade, particularly from tour groups who visit the vineyard for wine tastings, or customers who come as part of a packaged experience day. That means that Genty and his brigade of three chefs are often to be found doing lunches for anywhere between 50 and 100 diners, with weekends the busiest time.
Swan Wine Kitchen, Tenterden
Swan Wine Kitchen, Tenterden
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