Big interview

On-trade sustainability has got to be about more than just plastic straws and vegan dishes

By Stuart Stone contact

- Last updated on GMT

Natural selection: Darwin & Wallace managing director Mel Marriott explains how her company is being proactive on environmental issues
Natural selection: Darwin & Wallace managing director Mel Marriott explains how her company is being proactive on environmental issues

Related tags: Environment, Public house, Restaurant, Beer, All bar one

The Morning Advertiser stopped by No.35 Mackenzie Walk in London’s Canary Wharf for a cup of tea, glass of wonky cucumber water, and a chat about the evolution of Darwin & Wallace with managing director Mel Marriott

“I’m not a vegan. I’m literally not a card-carrying eco-warrior by any stretch of the imagination,” Mel Marriott, insists. “I have an opportunity as a business owner to make choices and I’m choosing to try and make a difference – and why not?”

Yet after picking up the inaugural Best for Sustainability prize at the 2019 Publican Awards on behalf of Darwin & Wallace, and once again being shortlisted for the environmental gong in the awards’ 2020 edition, there’s little questioning Marriott and her company’s green credentials.

Darwin & Wallace

The London-based operator’s regard for the planet is clear to see in its newest venue, waterside spot No.35 Mackenzie Walk – Darwin & Wallace’s third opening in the past 18 months, and the group’s eighth in total, after branching out in Ealing and Wimbledon. The glass-fronted site’s construction was MDF-free, it boasts oak tables and dehydrated fruit, and within moments of taking a seat, every visitor is offered a free glass of tap water flavoured with “wonky” cucumber, for example.

But what is the origin of this award-winning passion for sustainability?

“I’m not a campaigner, I just feel like I’m trying to do my bit,” Marriott says. “I suppose having children, maybe that makes a difference, but I don’t think it’s even that – it was more likely down to influences I had early on in my life when I was working with people from all over Europe – in Germany, for example, they’re light years ahead of us. I remember working with a German guy who literally could not understand that we didn’t separate our waste. He was mortified.

“Those things, even if at the time you don’t realise the importance, stick in your mind so that actually when you’ve got an opportunity to make a choice about how you’re going to do it you choose a different way.”

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Birth of an idea

Marriott’s career in hospitality spans more than two decades and features time on projects including Mitchells & Butlers’ rollout of All Bar One and smaller independent work both in London and overseas.

Backed by Imbiba – the investment partner of brands such as upscale urban bar operator Albion & East as well as wine bar operator and merchant Vagabond – Marriott founded Darwin & Wallace, named after naturalists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, in 2012 – “we needed a name and Imbiba’s investments traditionally are ‘something and something’,” she explains.

“Darwin & Wallace is a bit left field, a bit of a curve ball,” Marriott adds. “I came back from extended maternity leave – I’ve got two sons, at that time the youngest was about six months old and the eldest was four – and realised if I didn’t go back to work then to exercise this idea it’s never going to happen.

“The intention was to re-explore the pub space against the backdrop of how we live and socialise now. That includes how we work, what time we start socialising, what time we finish, and what happens in the rest of the day part. Really looking at café culture and applying that to cocktails and all the different strands of business.

“Did we put ourselves under immense pressure sometimes just trying to keep things tight in the first two or three years? Perhaps a bit of extra resource may have got us to where we wanted to be quicker. It’s very hard, it’s a balancing act but I look back and think ‘oh gosh, could we have actually grown our businesses better and faster if we’d invested in ourselves up front?’ It has felt at times like we’ve been on the back foot trying to catch up.”

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Style points

Darwin & Wallace address book

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  • No.11 Pimlico Road, Pimlico, London
  • No.32 the Old Town, Clapham, London
  • No.1 Duke Street, Richmond, London
  • No.197 Chiswick fire station, Chiswick, London
  • No.29 Power Station West, Battersea, London
  • 601 Queen’s Rd, Wimbledon, London
  • No.17 Dickens Yard, Ealing, London
  • No.35 Mackenzie Walk, Canary Wharf, London

Darwin & Wallace has evolved into an eight strong stable of London bars that offers Marriott – a self-confessed “complete daydreamer” – an outlet for her love of design. “My artistic mind goes all over the place,” she explains.

Recycling design influences from home and abroad saw Darwin & Wallace scoop the pub prize at the Restaurant & Bar Design Awards three years on the spin in 2016, 2017 and 2018 for its neighbourhood bars in Richmond, Chiswick and Battersea respectively.

Most recent design award winner, No.29 Power Station West in Battersea, for example, blends art deco cues with nods to nearby Battersea Power Station, including marquetry inspired by its original control centre.

“We’re all so digitally and actually well-travelled nowadays that it broadens our design influences,” she says. “I look at loads of Scandi designs, at Antwerp and Copenhagen, but you have to be really cognisant that individual countries have individual character. Having lived in Spain, for example, their drinking culture and small plates culture is different. I’d look closer to home before sprinting off to Denmark or anywhere else though.

“There are certainly opportunities nationally. I’m from Yorkshire and know Leeds and Manchester well, and they’ve got similar profiles of people who like to have a premium experience but at a good value price and that’s friendly and relaxed – that doesn’t just happen in London.

“If you’ve been in an office all day and you need somewhere to relax,” Marriott says, describing No.35 Mackenzie Walk’s eclectic fit out. “The lighting, the soft furnishings, the attention to detail, the real oak bar, real oak floor – there’s nothing fake about it so it reflects people’s aspirations and lifestyle. We’ve got original art on the walls – nothing of it is cookie cutter. I would say, in my mind’s eye, it’s kind of like a cool European, paired back apartment, that kind of vibe.”

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The growing female workforce

According to Marriott, until Mitchells & Butlers (M&B) rolled out All Bar One, the female workforce was something of an endangered species in a UK pub and bar scene dominated by identikit male boozers – something she continues to tackle at Darwin & Wallace. However, she believes the blooming of M&B’s glass-fronted, open plan, concept in the ’90s was a watershed moment for the sector.

“Fact – guess what the percentage split of men and women is in Canary Wharf every day?” she quizzes. After I inevitably overestimate the male workforce of east London’s glass and steel ants’ nest, Marriott reveals: “It’s 50:50. It’s incredible in what one might consider a male environment that actually 50% of the people coming into Canary Wharf every day are women. That is a fact, it’s indicative that it is ludicrous to ignore either market. For me it’s about catering to both and giving them both equal relevance and credence.

“All Bar One was fantastic in recognising that for a woman to not be able to see into a bar or pub and not see what was on the other side was a bit intimidating and actually paired back interiors and really decent wine would encourage a professional female workforce to gather after work, meet for drinks, and equally be comfortable enough to go in and sit and read the paper on their own. That was 25 years ago and it literally was a sea-change in thinking. All of a sudden it’s become more and more important – it’s not even a consideration you just have to do it.”

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Rise of the brand

Reflecting on her rapid rise with All Bar One – which initially recruited her as a general manager for their venue in Leeds – Marriott recalls: “We had complete autonomy. Amanda Willmot – All Bar One’s founder and creator – was an external resource who was brought in to help create All Bar One under Tony Hughes and Jeremy Spencer, that’s where it started.

“Then they recruited the likes of me and a team that grew it. We had the resources of this giant PLC but were very much left to our own devices, sometimes with varying degrees of success, but it was great, it was an incredible thing to be a part of, it was very forward thinking of M&B at the time.

“I joined when there was one bar in existence in Sutton, and Islington was just about to open. I was in London, helped with those as well as Richmond and Chiswick sites, then I went up to Leeds and opened All Bar One there with the team from London.”

On the subject of Darwin & Wallace’s expansion, while Marriott says nothing is in the pipeline in the immediate after rapid recent growth, the group is certain opportunities will arise.

“Often people talk now about ‘when are you going to move outside of London?’ It was a brave and bold move back then for M&B, 30 years ago – their fifth site was in Leeds, not the 10th, 15th or 20th.

“I was up there and it just clicked with me so I then went and opened in Sheffield and Birmingham, then I came back to London because I was asked to be the brand manager. It was a rapid sprint and incredible experience for someone who was 25, 26, 27 years old at the time. It’s stuck with me.”

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Making a difference

While it’s vital the on-trade focuses on sustainability, Marriott finds it’s an area her younger and international offer has unique insight into.

“We have to look everywhere and go ‘right, OK, what excites us?’ I am the oldest person in the business so there’s all sorts of different age ranges helping funnel all of that info in. It’s a wide lens that I’m looking through.

“We see the Australian bush fires, rising sea levels, the impact of plastic in the oceans – fish, literally which when you cut open their tummies, are full of plastic. What on earth are we doing? We have an opportunity to collectively raise consciousness and awareness.

“For me, that began when I started the business and my executive chef, Simon Duff – who’s Australian – and Jessica Closs, who now curates the wet side of the business and is now brand manager, who is from New Zealand. For them, it was already in their DNA. For me it was really great to be able to work with them and they’ve been fantastic in looking at how we build this business and not only not lose sight of what we’re doing but also help the cause.

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“Why’s it so important to us? Because it should be really important to everybody first. Some of it we do quite quietly like with the water. Yes, we miss an opportunity to upsell, but if someone wants mineral water they can ask for it and buy it – and they do – but you’re not forcing that sales. You’re sacrificing a potential revenue stream per se, but for the greater good.”

But does this mean Marriott thinks Darwin & Wallace could be more profitable if it didn’t focus on sustainability?

“We still achieve industry-leading margins for food and drink – and still offer really good value – we just work harder behind the scenes,” she says. “We separate all of our waste in all of our businesses and have done from the get-go. We work with a recycling company and try to minimise our food wastage. We dehydrate our fruit behind the bar to give it a longer shelf life so that you’re not just chopping up lemons and limes and chucking them in the bin at the end of service, for example.

“Our burger doesn’t come with fries – it comes as a very sellable £10.95 but a lot of people wrap up burger and fries to get the headline price of 14, 15, 16 quid but they contribute to food waste because a lot of people leave the fries that they never ask for. We’re not preaching to them and a lot of its subconscious – we make it the customer’s choice if they want the extra food on their plate and, often, they don’t.

“Are we sacrificing headline revenue? Maybe, but if we all think that way, at the expense of everything else, we’re all going to suffer because we’re all contributing to wastage. All of these different things don’t make you less profitable it just takes a bit more effort.”

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Together we stand

Though not a card-carrying eco-warrior or a green campaigner, does Marriott think the pub sector can do more to help the planet?

“Everyone can always do better,” she says. “The collective consciousness through various strands like Veganuary and a trend of premiumisation – trying to steer away from ‘mass produced’ that has a worse environmental impact – coming together is great. Everybody in our industry can make a difference. Even if they do one thing towards it, it’s better than nothing.

“I’m asked if it’s a capex thing, but no, if you want to, make a choice. It’s got to be about more than just taking plastic straws out of a business and it’s got to be more than saying ‘we’ve now got four vegan dishes’.

“It’s fantastic that it’s on everyone’s radar, I hope that through talking about the subject, by being involved in The Publican Awards, all these different things, I can be more of a disruptor so the big boys take notice.”

Related topics: MA500 Business Club

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