'It's been a school and a university but at some point you've got to leave haven't you'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 9th October 2020

 

Lerpwl -  pronounced with a liverpuddlian-Welsh accent (making sure to roll the R) - is the new restaurant owned and operated by the Barrie brothers.

One of the advantages of opening a restaurant in the grips of a pandemic, Ellis Barrie said, "is that I didn't even have the fears when we opened about getting customers in. It just wasn't there." 

"All of the fear had been done in the building of the restaurant, and after a six month lockdown, I thought: 'It can't get any worse, can it." 

The chef, cast into the public eye when he appeared on Great British Menu, has been the proud owner of The Marram Grass - a breakfast joint turned brasserie turned fine dining restaurant - with his brother Liam for the past five years.

"I could kill him, we hate each other really, we get on like, but with hate, it's passion." Ellis laughed.

"There's an erraticness with Ellis, or spontaneity shall we say, which takes up a lot of my time," Liam jested, when asked what his brother's worst trait is. 

"I find him opening cans of worms everywhere I look, and I don't know how he gets there ahead of me." 

"Liam's the most boring person you'll ever meet," Ellis fired back.

"Everyone loves the brother thing, and everyone's always like - especially when they've got siblings, how do you do it," Liam laughed.

Truth be told, he said: "Every year we change how we work together, the business is always moving that quick. It's the first time we've ever worked with each other, having two restaurants, and that's only two weeks old. We've never worked with each other in one way I don't think."

Ellis: "It's a mad way of working, it's so in each other's pockets, if you have family events, weddings and stuff like that, sometimes you see each other seven days a week." 

"Sometimes there's family events where you're like: 'I've seen him all week, I can't be arsed to go.'"

However they've made the relationship work, the brothers have managed a successful operation for half a decade, and their latest adventure rings with promise. 

Lerpwl

Ellis describes Lerpwl as The Marram Grass' "cooler city cousin."

"We've done a lot of work in terms of looking into the history of food in Liverpool," which was once the busiest port in the world. 

"So you've got a big cauldron of Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Scandinavian influence like the Norwegian woodyards and all the Welsh streets and whatnot." 

"We've tapped into a lot of that - even in the design, the surroundings, the atmosphere.

"It's not white tablecloths, it's good fun, it's got good atmosphere," which even hosts DJ nights on Fridays and Saturdays. 

"It really gives the beat of the service, so depending on the tempo when you're in the thick of it - you get a bit of 80s electronic music on when you're banging it out to the best of your ability, bit of Donna Summer," Ellis said.

"You go to some places where you get top food, you feel like you've got to whisper and you've got to behave yourself - it's a lot more relaxing and a lot more informal than that." 

The C word 

But on top the many challenges of opening a restaurant in an ordinary climate, the brothers were aware that they had to make haste to open as soon as possible. 

"The whole team came in at once pretty much," Liam explained, whereas they would have liked a change to embed the senior managers into the team beforehand.

"It presented a new set of circumstances which we wouldn't have chosen to do if there wasn't a pandemic hanging over us." 

Once again praising the team for how ambitious and committed it is, he said: "I was worried that people would become disengaged and not want to join in once we went into that lockdown," but thankfully, "they've just been brilliant." 

The future of The Marram Grass /  Moch a Mor

"We don't know what to do with that yet," Ellis explained, unsure what the next step for their Welsh flagship  should be. 

Liam explain that one of the problems of The Marram Grass - or Moch a Mor, the name under which it has operated as a casual dining al fresco restaurant since the onset of the pandemic - is that it can't exist with Covid restrictions in place.

"Because of space - it's quite small. It just can't be done to the same level."

The team that has worked at the Anglesea restaurant for almost five years, came up with the Moch a Mor concept - which won't work in the winter given the Welsh climate.

"We're talking to [the team] now and they're presenting to us their plans for winter," Liam explained, which could see them using the on-site accomodation in some way. 

None of these concepts, however, are The Marram Grass, but whether it reverts to a fine dining restaurant or a more casual setting has yet to be ascertained. 

"The point is something new to take us from October till April," he said. 

Turning the page

The pair agreed that they had reached a point of almost closing The Marram Grass, and that no matter what happens this winter, its future is uncertain. 

"It almost holds a bit of a burden," Ellis said, and Liam added: "It had a purpose, but it's served its purpose in terms of getting us to this stage." 

"We said once we get to Lerpwl, we'd reimagine what we do at Anglesea." 

"It's meant something to so many people at so many different stages," Liam explained, that its lack of definition means it needs constant revision. 

Ellis added: "The thing is, has it had its time, has it done its job? From 19 and 21 we've had that place, it's been a school and a university, but at some point you've got to leave haven't you."

On the pandemic

Whatever the future holds, the circumstances in which they've had to operate in Wales and work on the new project in Liverpool have been exceptional.

"It's just unreal isn't it," Liam said. "We've had to look at the business - and to protect ourselves, restructure it."

"One of the big things that's come through," he added, "is the sense of ownership throughout the team."

"We're two lads; we're not millionaires. From Marram Grass we've built up, we've positioned ourselves, taken out finance, all this stuff to open a new place." 

With the idea of making any kind of a profit at Lerpwl looking more like a pipe dream than a realistic expectation, he said: "We need the team to have a sense of ownership - we can't carry people in this moment." 

"Businesses don't pay for themselves, it's not just our problem. We really need the guys to care to take on that responsibility alongside us." 

"There's such a closeness in the team and such a strong sense of direction from everyone," he added, "it's been really reassuring to look to who's with us and think: 'Okay, we're not in this alone.'"

"That's the only sense of anything that's remotely positive is just how strong the team is and the ownership about the problem."

Ellis said: "We've never struggled for ideas to change things and stop them making decisions," 

"It's not the perfect time to be opening a new restaurant, but what choice do we have?" 

"It's not just a case of opening a new restaurant, paying bills and stuff like that," he continued. "It's that Marram Grass in Anglesea is very much a six month of the year operation in that you lose money from October to April whether you like it or not." 

"Whatever money you make from October to April, you put back into that business regardless to keep your team on." 

"Lerpwl, fingers crossed, helps that situation, because we haven't got the money from April to July." 

If the restaurant can make it through the winter, he said, "it might be that it can support both businesses." 

Curfews, lockdowns, and other fun government initiatives

But despite a healthy return of consumers since the beginning of summer, restrictions are creeping - or swooping - back onto hospitality businesses, most recent to come into force being the 10pm curfew.

Liam called the measure "a nightmare," and said: "I think that's the worst thing that's happened to date." 

"The consequence of it is so obvious - I just don't understand who's come up with it, it's so short sighted." 

"I remember growing up in Liverpool and everyone used to get kicked out of the bars and clubs at 2 o'clock, and the afterparty was the taxi rank, or the kebabs, or the night buses." 

"It used to be bants, everyone was just leathered and trying get home." 

"As soon as it happened, it didn't take a genius to work out that throwing the whole city out at 10 o'clock is just going to put everyone on the street again. The idea that it was a good idea - I just can't get me head around." 

From a business perspective, he said, "it just means we can't get our two sittings in in the evening, so straight away it wipes out 25 percent of the turnover, and for what? If you could order up to 10 o'clock, which we were doing anyway, there's a very staggered release of customers out." 

"Just throwing everyone out onto the street at once is lunacy. I don't understand at all." 

The return of students to university and people out mixing and drinking was bound to cause a spike, Ellis said, and to target hospitality as a consequence doesn't seem fair. 

"I always find that in the UK, it's simplified to cover every single business. In restaurants, it's completely different to a boozer or a bar, or somewhere where people are going to go out to get pissed and socialise." 

"It's so different, but it's easier for them just to go: 'That's the blanket rule across the board', because it's easier to manage isn't it."

Liam said: "It's everywhere - at 10pm you've just got this mass exodus of people who are pissed." 

"It's an easy way for government to put blame on youngsters who are going out and enjoying themselves." 

When asked what they would choose to do if they held the policy reigns, he added: "It's hard to simplify and it's hard to take responsibility across the board. Different hospitality sectors have got different needs and wants."

"But having a staggered approach to releasing people into the street - isn't that obvious?" 

"One of my biggest issues," Ellis said, "is that we've all been left to come up with our own rules." 

"If they said right at the start of this: 'Right, you're all going to open up, you've got to be spaced out, you've all got to wear your facemasks, every single hospitality business has to follow these guidelines from the get go, but they've never put them in place." 

"They never said: 'This is the written rule'." 

"I've seen people on Twitter blaming it on other restaurants, saying: 'I've seen that restaurant doesn't really do much about social distancing'" he added, "but the government should have just said: 'Right, this is the rules, you've got to have so many sanitisers, you've got to wear your facemasks, spread your tables," but "they didn't want to, because they don't want the responsibility of it and they didn't want to take the backlash of it, but they should have done." 

"They needed to set a standard out and they shit themselves and didn't." 

If not The Marram Grass, what next?

Laughter is often the best of cures  - and the Barrie brothers have a knack at cracking jokes about even the most desolate of situations.

Asked whether they are still able to think big, Ellis said: "I remember being about 14 years of age I said to my nan, 'nan by the time I'm 21 I'm going to be a millionaire', and I put that back to 30. I'm 31 next week, so I might write it off now." 

Reflecting the mindset of these strange and uncertain times, Liam said: "If the world is still be spinning next year, I'll take that as a win." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 9th October 2020

'It's been a school and a university but at some point you've got to leave haven't you'