For one reason or another, Bristol has become a bit of a beast for operators to find long-term success. Restaurants such as Byron, Polpo and the now-fallen Jamie’s Italian closed their respective sites in this part of the UK in 2018, while Tom Barton voiced his fear about Honest Burgers opening in the city due to its population’s custom to fiercely support local independents.
Even MEATliquor’s Dead Hippie burger and urban interiors couldn’t survive and closed in late 2017, two years after opening, with the business putting it down to safety concerns. Now, in its place, is Masa + Mezcal, a Mexican-inspired restaurant serving a food menu with masa dough as its backbone, accompanied by 100 different mezcals.
Masa + Mezcal is the fifth concept from hospitality group Season + Taste. Set up by husband and wife team Kieran and Imogen Waite, Season + Taste’s journey began seven years ago with the opening of Bravas, a tapas restaurant on Cotham Hill.
“We found the site by going jogging,” recalls Kieran Waite. “The couple who were running it at the time came out and asked if we were looking for a restaurant. It’s a quirky little street with nice independent businesses, so I thought it would be a good little spot for what we were looking for.
“Bravas popped instantly. It was a fairly new offering in Bristol – you can get small plates everywhere nowadays but to just do food that had to be shared, we didn’t know if people would sit and eat at a bar in Bristol, but everyone piled in and it was really busy and fun.”
Bakers and Co, a coffee, bread and brunch-focused venue followed on Gloucester Road, which Waite explains was driven by the surrounding businesses, including a library, a doctor’s surgery, butchers and fruit and veg shops. The group also has Gambas, a seafood-focused tapas bar on Bristol’s harbour which is coming up to a year old; and Cargo Cantina, a taco bar in one of the shipping containers in Wapping Wharf – quite a development for a couple who met in school in Bristol. Given the consensus to support local, independent businesses, it is hardly a surprise (but should still be congratulated) that Season + Taste has done so well, with every step done so with precise intention.
While instant success would be satisfying to many new operators, as we have seen, you shouldn’t run before you can walk. Five years ago, many brands saw the appeal of expansion – which, in hindsight, was clearly too ‘aggressive’ to be sustainable. Fortunately for Season + Taste, its founders weren’t driven to expand one brand, when so many others were.
“We set up Season + Taste so we could have multiple, different restaurant brands underneath that,” says Waite. “We never intended to have one brand and roll it out. When we opened Bravas, it was so busy that we got approached by a lot of wealthy customers simply asking to invest and if we’d open another one – it never really appealed to us. We would lose the motivation and standards would possibly go down. We love the creative side of setting up restaurants, to learn about a cuisine and a culture, and to try to recreate that in a context that would suit a neighbourhood in Bristol. They are all very deliberately different.”
Costs and quick rollouts have been partially to blame, but the struggle of certain restaurant brands has also suggested that much of the British public has fallen out of love with chains, especially as they are faced with an increasing number of places in which to eat out. But you could argue that Bristol was never that keen in the first place – two of Season + Taste’s sites were, after all, formerly home to chains. Waite’s lack of desire to roll out one brand very much falls in line with Bristol’s way of thinking. However, there’s more to it than this. The Waites are both Bristol born and bred, and therefore so is their business.
“Bristol has done really well at championing that local independent outlook on restaurants – and for business in general,” says Waite, “We’re trying to make our restaurants as good as they can be and having great restaurants around you keeps you on your toes to do that. Equally, everyone’s just trying to put Bristol on the map because we’re all proud of the city. It’s great for Bristolians to have so many independent restaurants and, really, the best thing they can do is support them over the chains.”
Season + Taste may have local appeal to help it succeed in a tough and demanding market, but it does, of course, face some of the same challenges as the rest of the industry. In fact, some may say that the opening of Masa + Mezcal was a bit of a risk. Given that the restaurant has only been open a few months, it is arguably too soon to tell whether the risk will pay off.
Taking on a challenge
With its previous sites seating a maximum of 35 guests, Season + Taste opened its largest site with Masa + Mezcal at 90 covers – a big task after being used to having more demand than seats and working with smaller teams. Even the expansion of one site, which is considerably more challenging than the rest, has made Waite tread with caution.
“To get our head around something a lot bigger was definitely a challenge,” he says. “In order to achieve what we wanted in terms of maintaining quality food and drink – and life for our staff – we restricted the opening hours to five evenings a week. The longer-term plan is to get the venue open all week and serving brunch, but for now, due to the size and the challenge, we’re saying less is more.”
Not only does the team have to get used to operating and filling a much larger site with higher costs, but it has to contend with current consumer behaviour and disruptors to the industry, such as the popularity of delivery over eating out and the demand for experiential concepts. If anything, opening your largest bricks and mortar site to date might just be the maddest thing to do in the current climate. Why would Waite, who has avoided expansion, take the risk? Because growth shouldn’t be perceived as a bad thing.
“I love corner sites and it’s in a really prominent corner in Stokes Croft,” explains Waite. “The area itself is really attractive – it’s Bristol’s cultural quarter. There’s loads of street art, some derelict, disused buildings are getting refurbished, and a lot of young, dynamic, forward-thinking businesses are moving in. There’s a certain amount of gentrification happening, and it’s not the most fashionable opinion, but I think the balance is right.”
Further to Waite’s argument, Masa + Mezcal is simply the evolution of Cargo Cantina. Due to the restrictions of the shipping container site, the taco bar offers just five different tacos and a few margaritas. Following research trips to Mexico, Waite was inspired to open Masa + Mezcal to show more of the potential and scope of Mexican cuisine. These trips have become part of the culture of Season + Taste, and the group would not be what it is today without them.
Born to travel
From the very beginning, Season + Taste’s concepts have been inspired by travel experiences. Waite recalls family holidays to Spain as a child, during which he would spend his pocket money at tapas bars rather than on ice creams on the beach. After operating Bravas for nine months, he and Imogen closed the restaurant for one month to drive a campervan around Spain to be reinvigorated. He explains that, after learning so much, they called up their three members of staff at the time so that they could gain the same inspiration and education. This has continued, with the Bakers and Co team visiting San Francisco and the Masa + Mezcal team visiting Mexico.
“The most memorable moment was visiting the mezcal palenques where they grow and make mezcal. We stayed on one and a couple of our guys were up at 5am getting involved in the process. These places are in the most unbelievable, remote parts of Mexico. You drive for hours on dirt roads to reach them and you’re surrounded by idyllic, beautiful scenery. It’s as artisanal as you can get and I think you can tell when you drink it. It gave us the confidence to open with 100 mezcals and we’re looking to grow that. It gave our staff the passion and knowledge to sell them to customers.”
The trips are very much part of the group’s investment in staff training and development, which also includes restaurant vouchers on work anniversaries, in-house training programmes for chefs and management, and an individual £500 budget for external training. These initiatives began when the group only had five staff. Now, at 84, Waite admits that the demand is a little intimidating – and that’s just from a five-site operator.
Whether the training budget and research trips are sustainable is yet to be seen, but the addition of Gambas and Masa + Mezcal in the space of a year has seen the group undergo huge growth for a small, local company. The business now needs to enter a period of focus, looking inwards in order to continue being one of the biggest contenders on the Bristol food scene.