International Women's Day

Karen Errington of the Rat Inn tells the story of her career

By Emily Hawkins

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Women

Karen Errington, along with her husband Phil, has turned the Rat Inn into a stunning food-led gastropub worthy of its many accolades.

In this piece, supported by Knorr, Errington describes her career to date, as well as some of the setbacks she has encountered over the years.

Name: Karen Errington


Job title:​ Chef-owner of the Rat Inn, Northumberland

How you got there:
Over the years I’ve held various positions in hotels, pubs and in professional sport, running conference facilities and match-day hospitality.

My partner Phil and I gave up our jobs and opened our own bistro in the disused luggage office at Hexham Railway station in 2003.

We renovated the building and installed an open kitchen,with Phil cooking and me doing front of house on my own initially. We featured all local meats and displayed these on a board daily.

At the time, this was quite unusual and even got us talked about on our local radio station. It didn’t even enter our heads that we wouldn’t make money (we were stupid, naive or both).

We opened without any advertising by just simply unlocking the front door one day and, amazingly, people came, which was pretty lucky because we had used all of our savings and only had six weeks to see a profit.

Within a month we’d had a Michelin inspection, which was another big surprise.

I remember asking how they knew we were there and being told they’d overheard some diners at a restaurant in Durham telling some friends about a lovely restaurant in Hexham they’d been to and how good the food was.

We opened in the April and were in the Michelin Guide ​by autumn. Luck was definitely with us.

The Rat came up in 2007. We had originally wanted a pub and we knew it was a fantastic location so we took it before selling our previous business.

That was a bit scary because we were paying for both and – at that time – there was little or no food trade at the Rat but we knew it had potential as it had done well in the past.

The rest is history. I could talk for hours about the challenges we faced at the start but, in a nutshell, we’ve built on the food trade and turnover has increased year on year.

It’s changed loads in that it’s now a seven-days-a-week food operation with a full kitchen and front-of-house team.

Where you see yourself next:
I would hate to know what I’ll be doing in say five years’ time.

I’ve never been one to plan ahead other than setting short-term goals with what we want to achieve with the pub.

You never know what’s around the corner in this business, things can change so quickly so you have to be adapt but I guess that’s one of the things I love about it and why I’ve done it for so long. Every day is different and brings new challenges.

I baulk at having my time mapped out for me, Phil is the organiser, last year I didn’t even know the dates and flight times for our holiday.

I guess, in general, like most other industry people, I’d like to have a better work-life balance, I also started writing a book a few years ago about our experiences in hospitality – so that’s something I’d definitely like to have time to finish.

Biggest issue for women in our trade right now:
Under representation of females working within the industry. I think the industry is still heavily male centric.

It’s getting better but we need to make sure that the diverse number of women working within the food industry in this country are reflected and feature alongside the men that dominate the media, on panels, food committees, as judges and in all aspects of food-related culture in this country.

With the ongoing shortage of chefs, girls should be equally encouraged and have role models to aspire to so that we make cooking a more inclusive career option for both boys and girls.

What, if any, experiences of sexism in the workplace have you encountered?:
I have a few experiences relating to how women are expected to look/dress. Back in the ’90s, I was asked – when starting a new job – to wear clothing that I deemed inappropriate.

I refused but others complied. I have also been asked to submit a photograph when applying for a job.

Everything is so much more politically correct these days compared to when I first started. When asked this question, I had to really think about it as what was acceptable back then is no longer so.

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I haven’t suffered any abuse in the workplace though I know from the recent #metoo campaign I’m lucky in that respect – even though I’ve worked in male-dominated environments including kitchens.

Kitchens have improved since those days. Back then it would take a certain kind of woman to deal with the gender bias in most kitchens and the laddish culture.

I did see some bullying –not physical – but you had to be able to stick up for yourself to get by, I do have experience of the gender pay gap in that the person who replaced me when I left one position (a man) was given a significantly higher salary than the one I’d been on.

Your advice to others who want to achieve what you have:
I would say go and work somewhere/for someone good – the best place you can find. Learn as much as you can and think very carefully before embarking on self employment to do it for yourself.

You have to love the job, if you don’t, it’s the worst job in the world. Having said that, someone committed and passionate about hospitality can still progress fairly quickly in this country because it is still, in the main, viewed as a transient trade, not a career choice, by the majority.

So get as much experience as you can and make sure going out alone is right for you – there’s a lot to be said for paid holidays and days off.

See all of our International Women's Day chef focus videos

Related topics: Chefs

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