Where are black leaders in the pub and brewing sector?

By Gary Lloyd

- Last updated on GMT

Leading the way: (left to right) Jaega Wise, Clement Ogbonnaya and Lorraine Copes
Leading the way: (left to right) Jaega Wise, Clement Ogbonnaya and Lorraine Copes

Related tags Beer Social responsibility Craft beer Pubco + head office Multi-site pub operators Freehouse Tenanted + leased

The hospitality industry provided work for some 1.8 million people when the pandemic struck last year, of which 17% of the total workforce from the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) category was represented.

Those figures from the Office for National Statistics, which have been highlighted by Be Inclusive Hospitality​, also showed the BAME sector made up just 12% of all employees in all industries in the UK.

OK, so that means BAME workers are really well represented in the pub sector? Well, yes, but not at the higher levels of the industry because very few have made it to leadership status – which is particularly true of black people in the UK.

As Black History Month is celebrated, more needs to be done to ensure black people are able to take their seats at the boards of hospitality businesses across the UK, and media outlets are not just paying homage to their plight during October every year.

The MA​ talks to some of the most innovative people in the sector who made it clear they don’t want recognition for being black but for the fact they are good at what they do.

Driven by equality: Lorraine Copes, founder of Be Inclusive Hospitality

“Throughout my two decades within the sector, I have always been the only person of colour within any decision-making room, and feel strongly about this being addressed,” says Lorraine Copes, founder of not-for-profit organisation Be Inclusive Hospitality, which has a mission to drive education, amplify voices, build a strong community and accelerate racial equality. “Over the past decade, people of colour have representation within this industry ahead of the UK national average at 17%, yet these communities remain underrepresented in any decision-making roles.”

A sense of responsibility is needed to show younger black people that success is possible no matter what obstacles must be overcome, according to Clement Ogbonnaya, founder of south-east London pub the Prince of Peckham​.

He says: “I’ve been in events promotion since 2005/2006 and, as I continued to do it in central London, I noticed there was a lack of representation and, as you get older you have a sense of social responsibility.

“There needs to be more people like myself. Every October, someone wants to do an interview with me because it’s Black History Month – which is cool – but it’s important for me to do this so people know there’s a black guy there.

“Some employers won’t employ black people or people of colour because they can’t be arsed to manage that attitude and it’s important to see people like me.

“I am talented and there’s other talented operators from ethnic minority backgrounds who will be able to connect with London much more than a 55-year-old man from Bath who’s inherited god knows how many hundreds of thousands of pounds. That needs to happen more.”

Wild Card Brewery head brewer Jaega Wise is another leader in the industry who is aware of her own qualities. She says: “I don’t want to be in a magazine article because I’m black, I want to be in a magazine article because I’m one of the most prominent brewers in the UK, which I am.”

Meanwhile, brewer and retailer Greene King is keen to be part of a journey where inclusivity is key to its future. It set out its charter against racism, called Calling Time on Racism​, after its founder had links to the transatlantic slavery trade in the 1800s.

Last year, the pub company pledged to significantly invest in initiatives to support more young people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds to begin a career in hospitality. Last August, Greene King strengthened its partnership with the Prince’s Trust with a new five-year agreement, increasing funding by a third and pledging to create 1,000 opportunities for young people and an increased financial commitment to the charity linked to the diversity aims.

Big draw to stay in hospitality

So, the hospitality sector is clearly easy to enter for anyone of any colour or sex at the grassroots level, but how did Copes start out?

“I am originally from Birmingham and would describe myself as a British-Jamaican. Both of my parents are Jamaican-born and so, growing up, my cultural and food references were largely Jamaican,” she says.

“My first role out of university was working for a joint venture between Punch Pub Company and the Spirit group called Punch Supply Co, which was a specialist procurement and supply chain organisation. I applied for the role due to alignment to my degree over wanting to work within the hospitality industry. However, once I joined the industry and realised I could learn about, travel and eat food/drink as a part of my job, it was a big draw, so I decided to stay within procurement in hospitality thereafter.”

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Party starter: Clement Ogbonnaya began by putting on event nights

Ogbonnaya’s entry into the sector was different having starting out by putting on music events in London. He explains: “I’m Nigerian born and came to the UK when I was six. There’s always been something about throwing events that allows you to see the best version of people – they leave their troubles at the door.”

But Ogbonnaya quickly noticed obstacles in the way of black people. Looking back, he says: “The West End of London, historically, could have a racist air about it. It was the white guys and pretty, light-skinned girls who were dancing to hip-hop and R’n’B culture. Groups of black guys and dark-skinned girls couldn’t get in. Nowadays, that is a bit different because there’s a lot of black artists.

“I was doing these sort of events and I didn’t notice what was happening but one night the GM gave me a debrief and said ‘it’s a bit dark in here’. I’m quite obsessed with lighting but then the penny dropped and I was like ‘oh!’.”

Fiscal issues

The difficulties in entering the sector were not necessarily racist issues for Wise, but problems of a financial nature.

She says: “I’m from Nottingham, in terms of the UK. My family are from Trinidad & Tobago and I used to live there as a kid. I moved back to the UK when I was six or seven.

“I got into the beer industry by drinking too much beer. I was studying for a chemical engineering degree at Loughborough and was going to beer festivals and was home-brewing.

“I moved down to London in 2010 and a couple of friends said ‘you know this brewing thing, shall we do it?’ I said I would help them out because I had just quit my job.

“The difficulties for any small business is when it doesn’t come ‘from money’. My friends and network were not rich. It was difficult getting access to capital. In the first few years, we didn’t make anything we couldn’t sell. We had no beermats, for example. Wild Card Brewery​ is still a lean company that doesn’t tend to waste money on faff.”

Beer Masters: Jaega Wise has joined songwriter James Blunt to present an Amazon Original show

The Prince of Peckham’s Ogbonnaya agrees: “Finding the right pub is difficult. I was offered a pub as a freehold or a lease but I didn’t have the money for the freehold. I barely had money for the lease.

“Then the idea of going up to someone like Heineken and saying ‘yo, I wanna buy your pub’ and they’re saying ‘who the f**k is this guy?’.

“I was fortunate to have some property and sold a flat in east London but that wasn’t enough so I went to the bank and they strung me along for 12 months but the whole thing was like ‘there’s not enough [evidence] for us to lend you the money’.

“There were a lot of hurdles to overcome. I had to fall back and, in December 2016, I said ‘I’m just not going to do this anymore. I just can’t make it happen, it’s impossible’. At the time, a cousin of mine, who has passed away since, said ‘if you’re not going to do this, what are you going to do? You’ve put so much into this and this is what you’re meant to do’.”

Ogbonnaya eventually skimped together the cash from money received from his marriage that his wife “wasn’t too happy” about and money lent to him by his parents but says “getting to believe in what I was doing was a massive challenge”.

Anti-racism charter

The pub trade has, of course, existed for centuries and run by the indigenous white population in the UK and that has caused issues subsequently for businesses such as Greene King.

Ogbonnaya explains: “Pubs and publicans were essentially innkeepers and, in Britain, they were historically white where middle-class people would come on horse-drawn carriages and stop off for a sleepover and night of debauchery and excess.

“Innkeepers would do very well. Look at Greene King, they were receiving money from being slave masters back in the 1800s.”

Garry Clarke-Strange, head of inclusion and diversity at Greene King, said: “We are fully committed to inclusion and diversity at Greene King, and racism and discrimination have no place in our company, our pubs or wider society.

“Our founder’s links to transatlantic slavery in the 1800s are inexcusable, and while we can’t change our past, we can determine the future. We launched our Calling Time on Racism​ manifesto in June after a year of listening and learning to colleagues, customers and wider stakeholders to hear their views.

“This is backed by our inclusion and diversity strategy, which sets out our long-term commitment to achieving everyday inclusion at Greene King. We are determined to deliver action through four long term commitments to drive cultural change and deliver on our ambition to become an anti-racist organisation.

“Black History Month is an opportunity to highlight the progress we have made and raise awareness of the important, all-inclusive initiatives we have planned for the future. Additionally, our employee-led group inclusion group, Unity, represents black, Asian and ethnic minority groups throughout Greene King and has put together an exciting programme of events including cooking demonstrations, book and film recommendations and discussions.”

The pub company also renamed four of its pubs​, including three sites called the Black Boy and the Black’s Head, as part of Greene King’s inclusion and diversity strategy to champion equality and diversity.

Weird and wonderful characters

As many operators will tell you, it is a love for the sector that keeps people involved. And that is no different for Be Inclusive Hospitality founder Copes, who reveals: “The hospitality sector is filled with people who want to serve others, and many people whether within the operation, or suppliers, are usually there through passion and love for the industry.

“What this does mean is that you often meet some weird and wonderful characters, who are creative and fuelled by serving others. I personally love food and drink, and so to be able to work within an industry of which food and drink plays such an important role has been enjoyable.”

Both Ogbonnaya and Wise have a huge passion for the trade too. Wise says: “I’m at the stage on my career where I’ve been doing it for 10 years. The drink has to be at the centre of it. I’m a beer fan. I go to the latest launches in my own time and when I travel, I go to the local brewery, that’s what keeps me going and if the love of that ever went, I don’t think I could be in this industry.

“It’s about trying to make the best drinks you can. It brings people, and me, so much joy when you make something amazing.

“We do a lot of specials at Wild Card, between four and eight a month. It’s quite intense and needs constant innovation by having to come up with new ideas and combinations. It’s a batch process: you have the idea, make it, branding, name, marketing, release and response from public and when that goes well it’s an amazing high, and you get to do it all over again.”

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Community hero: the Prince of Peckham's main bar

Ogbonnaya adds: “I love people’s social habits. Growing up, I was a bit awkward. Back then, being Nigerian-born, it wasn’t necessarily cool to be from Africa. I always thought if I was to create a space, I never want anyone to feel alienated. Creating a space that allows black, white and gay groups, for example, to combine was always my biggest thing. I’m a bit away with the fairies… I believe in love, kindness, respect and tolerance and all those fantastic things, and anything we do needs to represent the change that we would like to see and I think the Prince of Peckham is that small representation of the eco system I would like to live in and that’s always been my passion.

“It’s about harnessing the best of people across all races, genders and sexual orientations, you can’t be part of a marginalised group and then marginalise others – it makes no sense. With the white community, you have really strong allies and a lot of people that are about tolerance, diversity and progression, so let’s create a space that welcomes everyone.”

Little piece of magic

A passion for hospitality can lead to success but it needs more than a love for the job and a fair dose of hard work. The Prince of Peckham landlord says: “I put together my business plan in June 2016 and if you look at it today, not much has deviated. As the old motto goes, fail to prepare then prepare to fail. I prepared for this journey. I made predictions to see if the business could be viable if we were losing 5% but then we had all the lockdowns. We didn’t just survive through them, we thrived.

“Putting in hard work goes without saying but it’s having a good team and them understanding exactly what you are trying to deliver and execute. I opened with 11 members of staff and now have 30 – that brings me so much joy.

“I love employing people – local people, gay people, black people, women. I love employing people who never had any ideas of going into hospitality. It’s like when someone looks at the pub and say ‘yo, that pub gets me. It’s exactly where I want to be’. Now I have 30 people alongside me and we are delivering that little piece of magic every day.”

Team goals: most of Clement Ogbonnaya's Prince of Peckham team are women

Copes adds: “Having self-belief, forging great connections and hard work have all contributed to me arriving where I am at. I would say this though, for me, success is being happy and connecting with my purpose. This, I would say, has come after many years of self-discovery, completing a coaching diploma and travelling plenty.”

Wild Card Brewery is also a success story, not only selling its beers to pubs but also doing a lot of business in the off-trade, not to mention a long-running tie-up with Tesco. Wise reveals her success: “Hard work is one of the pillars. I do work very hard but a lot of people do. You have to work smart. It’s taken me a number of years to work out it’s not the hours you work but how you use them.

“I’m a big fan of low-hanging fruit. Sometimes you can’t do everything so prioritise the things that are going to be the most successful. Most of all, success is down to the team – you can’t do it alone and must have people you trust. Myself, Andrew [Birkby] and William [Harris] grew up together – we are quite honest and frank. We’ve never fallen out and that relationship is key. We have a solid team and are lucky to have been together for a long time. We have an elephant’s memory collectively because if something went wrong in the past, we will remember and that really helps in the future.”

Inspirational figures

All three have been able to count on family and friends as key to their journey to the top of their respective professions. Copes reveals: “My heroes are my parents. Neither had the easiest of starts, but they both are resilient, creative and hard-working. Above all of this, they are actually just really nice people.”

However, Wise and Ogbonnaya have also taken inspiration from some well-known personalities. Ogbonnaya says: “My biggest inspiration is my mum and dad by coming from Nigeria to give me this opportunity – there’s no bigger inspiration than that and I’m massively grateful.

“Nelson Mandela is a massive hero of mine. Tolerance is the one thing he’s shown me. I was in South Africa when I signed the lease for the pub and it led to me saying ‘f**k it, I’m going to abseil down Table Mountain’ and I did.

“There’s also the people around me such as my cousin and people in Peckham. There’s this one gay black guy who is a really good friend. It’s tough enough being a black guy in Peckham but being a gay black guy is tougher but he goes through the challenges with a smile and grace – and I’m sure he’s had his own problems but he’s a massive inspiration to me.”

On people who have given her the confidence to be a success, Wise says: “My first ever beer festival was in 2013 I think, it was Craft Beer Rising and Marverine Cole was there. I met her and she was called the Beer Beauty, she was blogging and writing about beer and broadcasting and doing super interesting things.

“I was a bit in awe and starstruck. She was so enthusiastic and like ‘go you lot’. Everyone was so encouraging back then and kind. It can be really tough, especially in London, when you’re trying to do something unconventional. But Marverine is an inspiration to me, especially as a black woman. You just didn’t see that then and you still don’t now.”

Reinvent pub culture

Be Inclusive Hospitality’s Copes isn’t looking to set the world on fire with her personal aspirations. She wants to see others from BAME backgrounds flourish, saying: “My aspirations for the future are less about my personal career ambitions and more rooted in wanting to see changes within the sector with regards to race equity and equality, which is why I formed Be Inclusive Hospitality. While the industry is currently doing some self-reflecting due to the labour crisis, my hope is that the same is done about how the industry can be more inclusive and equitable too.”

Ogbonnaya wants to open more sites that represent the communities in which they are housed. He explains: “Before lockdown, I was in process of purchasing another pub in south-east London for which I own the premises licence even though it’s not trading.

“I’m also trying to diversify. I’m in a position where I can help out others and there’s a Peckham clothing brand owned by a friend I went to school with so I’m helping him and helping with the marketing.

“I want more boozers. We need to spread the message and I want to reinvent pub culture. Pubs should 100% represent the communities they are in and be a microcosm of the system that we live in which is love, tolerance and diversity, while you can still make money.

“Pubs get afraid of the community but things don’t always have to be glamorous. There’s money in these communities and we should aspire to inspire others to be better. As pub, bar and nightclub owners, some of us are lazy and frightened while there are some bad operators who blame everyone but themselves. We’re just custodians of these public houses and they belong to everyone in these communities.”

Wild Card Brewery’s Wise is looking to expand her media career and has recently finished filming for an Amazon Original TV show called Beer Masters​, which is slated for a November release. She says: “It’s the ‘Bake Off’ for beer, which is a Europe-wide home-brewing competition. It’s a big step up for me and my media career, and it’s very exciting. James Blunt is my co-host and he’s even funnier in real life than his Twitter account.

“Every episode has a celebrity and a beer expert, which includes various people from the industry. The experts have made a real effort because, in the beer industry, we can be focused and this is an effort to open up. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Take a chance

It’s easy to simply say things must change to allow the pub and brewing industry to be more inclusive but media channels such as The MA​ also need to do more than pay lip service to problems faced by those from ethnic minority backgrounds trying to make a success in the sector and be more open to diversity.

Ogbonnaya is actively trying to change that in his method of hiring new members of staff. He says: “In terms of recruitment, we hire a smile and train the skill. Sometimes we positively discriminate – 85% of our management team are women and that’s what we want. The DJs we have are predominantly women, and women of colour. They are not taking your jobs, they are adding another layer that’s been lacking for so long.

“The support that’s happening now needs to be continued. I’m sure no company’s bottom line is being affected by saying ‘kick out racism’. People of colour and people from ethnic minority groups want to feel like they’re part of the journey. We need to be a bit more creative and find diamonds in the dirt and take a chance.”

Ogbonnaya adds that the persistence of the writer of this article was a factor in him taking part in this feature. He says: “You’re the 13th​ person who has contacted me about Black History Month and you’re the only one I’ve spoken to – maybe that’s because you called me 20 million times.”

The plight of ethnic minorities missing at the top level within the sector upsets Wise but she is hopeful for improvement in the future. She explains: “It’s an issue that is being addressed more and more, especially in the wake of protests and George Floyd. It’s not just about race but sex as well needs better representation.

“Diversity tends to attract diversity – if you have people on interview boards who are diverse that leads to diverse candidates. It’s not just something that black and brown people need to say. If you look to the past and Britain’s links to colonialism, the outcome we have now was inevitable. It’s not something that has to stay as it is. I am hopeful for the future. It’s very complicated and it makes me sad and upset but we need to do better as a society.

“There needs to be an active attempt by this industry, as well as in drinks and food generally, and I don’t mean virtue signalling and just talking about it. I’m talking about making sure teams, particularly when it comes to interviewing, are diverse. People do tend to hire people who are a bit like them and if we can improve on that it would make a big difference.

“Nothing says something is not acceptable except unless it is from a legislative body. Hate crimes are something that are not prioritised in the UK. I think of the times when someone has said something to me or I’ve had my ass grabbed but are you realistically going to call the police? Is there a hotline when someone is racist towards you? These things are not seen as serious crimes unless someone is physically injured. If our establishment doesn’t take these things seriously, it filters down.”

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