Twenty years of Tanners
Two decades in any profession is a milestone to be proud of – in the transient hospitality industry, it’s downright miraculous. But for James and Chris Tanner, whose first eponymous restaurant opened its doors in Plymouth in 1999, 20 years have gone by in a flash.
“You have to pinch yourself, because it’s gone so quickly,” says Chris. “When we first kicked off in 1999, trying to get the whole project off the ground, the banks weren’t lending and thought we were just a couple of kids. It’s a notoriously tough trade anyway, but we decided to roll that dice with the philosophy of, ‘If it works, then great; if it doesn’t, at least we can say we gave it a go’.”
Continues James: “Neither of us would ever have foreseen sitting here 20 years on now, from the massive gamble of when we first opened. We basically kept our heads down and worked hard, and not much has changed; we’re still very much hands-on, and there’s a lot more that we still want to do. The time has gone quickly, and we’ve had our ups and downs over the years, but have always embraced the great times, and tried to work towards that.”
And great times they’ve had: Before opening Tanners 20 years ago, Kent-born Chris and James cut their teeth with the Roux Brothers at Le Gavroche in London, as well as further afield at Lake Placid Lodge in Upstate New York. When the opportunity came to go it alone, the pair didn’t hesitate, and have since launched sister sites the Barbican Kitchen in 2006, and The Kentish Hare in 2014.
“Everything was born from the first restaurant,” James explains. “First, it was just Chris and I in the kitchen on our own, doing everything six days a week, then as we grew, we learned and understood different things. We’ve had to adjust, adapt and evolve, because no one gives you a book on business, and everything has a shelf life, so you constantly have to reinvent yourself, which is something that’s never-ending.”
While Tanners closed its doors after a successful 15 years in 2014, the Barbican Kitchen at Plymouth Distillery and The Kentish Hare today continue to dazzle Kent and Devon diners with their independent spirit, beautifully cooked food, and standout service in the South East and South West. Indeed, James and Chris credit much of their success to the talented people around them.
“We’re very fortunate that we’ve built up great teams over the years,” considers Chris. “We’ve got good people around us with a strong vision, who have been with us for a long time. We didn’t make it up as we went along; we went with it and learned along the way, because running a restaurant and a business is a lot more than just cooking.”
On a larger scale, the Tanners have naturally seen significant shifts in their trade since the late ‘90s. From the way professional kitchens operate, to the ever-changing tastes and trends of what customers expect on the plate, they’ve made a concerted effort to adapt with the times, staying current and relevant, while also remaining true to themselves.
“The good thing about food is that it evolves and certainly doesn’t get boring, and things have changed for the better,” James reveals. “It’s good that working hours, how people are treated, and more awareness surrounding mental health are being recognised, because there are a lot of people who struggle in this industry, as it does take over your life and sucks you in. But sometimes, you need to step back and realise what the most important things are, which are you and the people around you, and it’s positive that the industry recognises that.”
“It’s had to as well,” agrees Chris. “It’s been a big wake-up call for the industry in terms of recruitment and staffing, and I think it needed that. I still look back at the experience I had, the things I learned, and the people I worked with, who were all seriously talented and at the top of their game, which is something you can’t put a price on. But it shouldn’t be looked at as ‘sticking it out’ either; it’s about creating a good working environment so that people stick together.”
To that end, part of the key to the Tanners’ longevity has been nurturing talent. At the Barbican Kitchen and The Kentish Hare, head chefs Martyn Compton and David Boswell have been working with the brothers for 14 and 12 years respectively, while James and Chris likewise maintain their patronships with City College Plymouth, and Bromley College’s Hospitality, Food and Enterprise Career College.
“We’ve always been big on internal promotions, which is really important,” Chris confirms. “All the guys in the top spots at the moment have all started as assistants, or chef de parties in the kitchen, and been promoted up. Some people have moved on over the years, and some have come up through the ranks.
“You’ve got to work for the best people you can, who are doing really great things, because ultimately, you’ll go there and see something that you’ll learn from, whether it’s kitchen-based or front of house. You’re going to see something that will give you that spark, buzz and excitement in a busy service, so do, see and embrace different things to help you grow.”
Of course, it’s not just the award-winning restaurants that have kept this dynamic duo busy for 20 years. With annual events like Pub in the Park and Royal Ascot, as well as TV appearances, media work, consultancy and outside catering, they’ve always had a lot on their plates – but as James is quick to point out, it’s the kitchen where their hearts still truly lie.
“With TV and media, we kind of fell into that side of things and didn’t go looking for it, but we always enjoy it,” he reflects. “The rush and feel of it is similar to cooking in a very busy service, and that kind of feeling when you want to make sure you nail everything and get it right. It’s the same sensation when you’re walking out onto a stage, or going live in a TV studio, looking down the barrel of a camera.
“It’s good for business, awareness and creating new opportunities, but has never been my real job; my real job is restaurants and cooking, so it’s a bonus and another angle, which, as a business in any kind of climate, I think you need. We’re fortunate and don’t take it for granted, but it doesn’t last forever, so we’ve never based our lives on it.”
What they have based their lives on is hard work, innovation, and surrounding themselves with equally talented, creative and likeminded individuals with the same passion for great food, drink, service and hospitality. After 20 years in the game, they can safely say that there’s no hidden secret to their legacy – just looking, learning and listening, so that they can adapt, evolve and grow.
“There’s a lot more we still want to do, because we’re still hungry for it, which I think you have to be,” concludes James. “We’re in a good position 20 years on, so want to concentrate on perfecting the businesses and what we do. We’re still learning a lot, and it’s all about that delivery of product, both in terms of food and service. You’ve got to offer an experience and find the right balance, which isn’t easy, and is all about liaising with the crew on both sides of the pass to create something great for the customer.”
Adds Chris: “Like anything in life, and like any industry, it’s extremely tough out there. Everything’s changed, so we’ve always calculated where we are and what we’re doing in business, and have had to adjust sometimes at the last minute if the climate dictates that. Longevity in the restaurant game is pretty unheard of, but we’ve survived two recessions and evolved, and just have to keep our feet on the ground.”