Matthew Thomson on 10 years of Fifteen Cornwall and the benefits of a social enterprise

By Emma Eversham contact

- Last updated on GMT

Matthew Thomson. Image: Simon Burt
Matthew Thomson. Image: Simon Burt

Related tags: Cornwall

Jamie Oliver's commercial social enterprise and restaurant Fifteen Cornwall turns 10 this year. Its chief executive Matthew Thomson talks about celebrating a milestone birthday, the benefits of running a social enterprise in hospitality and what the next decade will bring.

Congratulations on Fifteen Cornwall's 10th anniversary, how are you planning to celebrate the event? 

We’re 10 all year so we’ll be doing lots throughout the year, but next week we’re kicking off with a bit of a birthday splash that will see Jamie and Gennaro (Contaldo) his mentor visit here on Monday (16 May) They both visit throughout the year, but never come together, so that’s already a bit of an event. Jamie's flying in on a helicopter and they’ll come with members of the Fifteen London team and Jamie Oliver Food Foundation.

The big event however, will be getting all those who have trained or worked here together. We have trained 180 chefs, of which 112 have graduated over the last 10 years and we are aiming to get them all here on the beach at Watergate Bay to celebrate on Monday. It will be a challenge, but we're trying everything we can to get them here. 

Monday will also see us celebrate the graduation of our latest cohorts (what we call apprentices) so it will be a big day of celebration. 

Ninety per cent of Fifteen Cornwall graduates are still in employment and 80 per cent are working as chefs, why do you think that figure is so high?

I don't want to talk us down, but a third of those who start with us do drop out which I think goes some way to explaining it. Those who stay with us and graduate have already accomplished something by staying here. 

The people we train here are people who've had no clear direction, or opportunities for progression in life. Many are ex-offenders, or have suffered from substance abuse at some point. They are all unemployed and have had to turn their lives around working here. I think that's part of the secret why so many will stay in the industry: They've found themselves while they've been here. Working in the kitchen is one of the ways they’ve faced some of the demons haunting them and they develop a very deep connection with the kitchen. 

Part of it is also because the brand is amazing. What we do here is emphasise the importance of the quality of food we work with. Seventy per cent of food spend is local for example, so they’re starting in a premium end of the market. They get a good introduction to the industry and so can be quite demanding for high quality when they go and work elsewhere. As a result we have some great success stories. Our graduates have gone to places like Paul Ainsworth at Number 6 or into Jamie's restaurants like Barbecoa. One graduate went to work at the River Café where Jamie started out which was nice. 

Recruitment and retention is something the hospitality industry struggles with, what's the solution? 

We are finding recruitment harder and harder, even to get trainees. It’s not easy finding chefs. Here, we don’t just want chefs, we want those who can train people do, so we do struggle just like anyone else. Our brigade is generally one person down. I wouldn’t say we are impervious to that.

However, having a kitchen that is strongly values based is an advantage, because it helps make things operationally easier. If you promote a good work-life balance and you pay well, it helps. I like what Sat Bains and others like him have done cutting work hours. Here, we make sure no-one works any longer than 40 hours in a week unless they want to, and if they do, we make sure they get paid for it. 

Being a social enterprise is also attractive to a lot of people. People like that profits go to a good cause rather than into someone’s pocket. 

What do the next 10 years hold for Fifteen Cornwall and Cornwall Food Foundation?

The Fifteen Cornwall site is constrained, there’s not a lot of room to do a great deal on this site because of its location right in the bay, we literally are between a rock and a hard place.

I’d like to improve the training facilities we have and the accommodation we offer in the bay, but for Fifteen in Watergate Bay, it's about making it more profitable. I'd say we're one of the most profitable restaurants in the region - we’ve had about 750,000 customers through the doors in the last 10 years, but we could do more.

If we could push out the seasons more we'd extend our profitability. In the winter it is really a race to lose as little money as possible, so that’s my growth area, I will be looking at what can we do differently at different times of the year to attract the winter visitor. It’s not something we can do on our own, we will collaborate with others in the area to do so.

Alongside that Cornwall Food Foundation (the charitable trust responsible for Fifteen Cornwall) has secured planning permission to open a training restaurant/cookery school connected to a farm on the outskirts of Truro. That’s not likely to be a Fifteen restaurant (the Fifteen brand is operated under licence), but it will have a similar focus to what we do here. 

Cornwall Food Foundation isn't just about professional training, it also includes a community outreach programme where we teach people basic life skills. We help them live on a budget and eat more healthily, so anything we do must satisfy those aims too. If we opened a business it would have to deliver some community benefit. 

Related topics: People, Restaurants, Small Talk, Venues

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