A passage to India: Alun and Dawn Sperring on The Chilli Pickle Guildford

By Joe Lutrario contact

- Last updated on GMT

The Chilli Pickle Guildford
After a false start, Brighton & Hove Indian stalwart The Chilli Pickle is finally on the expansion trail with a new restaurant in Guildford.

The Chilli Pickle’s second restaurant is next to a Maplin whose offering now consists of a few pieces of shelving, some unopened letters and a scrunched-up bag of crisps. It’s a reminder of the current volatility on the high street, but Dawn and Alun Sperring’s new digs also highlights the opportunities. The couple have just got what they regard as a good, if not spectacular, deal on Jackson & Rye’s Guildford restaurant, which closed after less than one year in business.

The Chilli Pickle started life as a bistro in Brighton’s The Lanes 10 years ago, but moved to a much larger location in the North Laine a few years later. The Sperrings were early proponents of the new-wave Indian genre, creating an experience that was, in many ways, the antithesis of the bog-standard curry house.

Alun’s menu largely eschewed obvious Anglo-Indian dishes. High-quality seasonal British ingredients were used. Inspiration was drawn from all over India. The restaurant had a viable lunchtime business thanks to the availability of lighter dishes and a good value thali. The interior design dispensed with the flock wallpaper and faux formality of most high street Indians.

What they were doing would have stood out in London, but in Brighton & Hove it was a revelation. Take The Chilli Pickle’s oxtail madras: a dark, brooding dish that has, to some extent, become emblematic of the team’s approach. It’s a take on a menu item that is usually bastardised in the west, makes good use of quality UK produce and demonstrates flawless Indian technique. The spices are carefully roasted, there’s a bracing but controlled hit of chilli and the dish is expertly sharpened and sweetened with tamarind and jaggery.

Pani-Puri-2

Street smarts: roadside classic panipuri

When the restaurant opened it was one of only a handful of decent places to eat in the city. While the number of high-quality restaurants has increased dramatically over the past decade or so, it remains a benchmark. The Chilli Pickle, therefore, holds a special place in the hearts of many Brighton & Hove restaurant botherers, not least my own (full disclosure: I had my wedding reception there).

Joining the branded Indian space
The Guildford opening sees The Chilli Pickle transition from one-off indie to the branded Indian space occupied by the likes of Dishoom, Bundobust, Kricket and Mowgli, although, with the possibly exception of the latter, none of these are likely to show up in either Brighton or Guildford any time soon.

The Sperrings have been looking to expand for some time. In early 2017, the couple launched a crowdfunding campaign on Growthdeck, a platform that’s pitched at those with an appetite for larger investments (the minimum stake is £1,000). They hit their target of £700,000 in less than a month but ended up pulling out of the deal in an apparent case of cold feet. 

“There were suddenly lots of people involved. There wasn’t any one thing in particular. It was a bit awkward because lots of our backers were loyal customers,” says Dawn, who oversees the front-of-house side of the business. Soon after, the Sperrings struck a deal with Imagine Capital, a Brighton-based boutique investment agency helmed by James Sealey and Nick Southgate, both of whom have a background in media. The latter was one of the Sperrings’ earliest customers. 

“We had no idea he was an investor,” says Dawn. “They have invested their own money into the business, not just other people’s. They have not had anything to do with restaurants before but they bring broader business experience to the table. It feels like a team.”

The Chilli Pickle is one of the most successful restaurants in Brighton (it turns over in excess of £2m a year). In this tempestuous climate, why risk it all with a second restaurant? Professional pride and confidence in what they do is an important factor, but the main reason is a sad indictment of the modern restaurant business: one hugely popular and well-run restaurant does not a nest egg make.

“Don’t get us wrong. It’s given us a nice lifestyle. But we were expats for a chunk of our lives so financial planning was limited, we don’t have much in the way of pensions and we don’t have any property to fall back on,” says Alun, who was born in Croydon, but brought up in Brighton. He studied catering at Brighton Tech (now City College), which is just a few streets away from The Chilli Pickle.

After college he cooked all over the world in locations as diverse as Switzerland, Bermuda and Pittsburgh. The pair met at a nightclub in south London while Alun was making a rare return to the UK. Dawn – who was brought up near Greenwich – was in the ambulance service at the time but headed out with Alun to his next assignment for hospitality giant Jumeirah in Dubai, working front of house.

Expat lifestyle
The pair stayed in Dubai for three years in which time they got married and had their first child. Alun became the head chef at a Moroccan restaurant, working with chefs from the Middle East to deliver a menu that would be suitable for expats, which turned out to be highly relevant experience for The Chilli Pickle.

Momos

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“That was my first taste of adapting a cuisine I did not know that much about. Looking back, I probably tried a little bit too hard to put my mark on it. They ended up replacing me with my Moroccan sous chef. But Jumeirah gave a me a new role troubleshooting in a whole range of its restaurants, which I loved.”

Upon returning to the UK, the idea for an Indian restaurant started to germinate: the pair had worked with a lot of Indian and Bangladeshi chefs in Dubai and had honeymooned in India. “It just felt right. We wanted to create an Indian restaurant that was authentic. Having worked with chefs from all over the country, we also wanted to highlight the regional diversity of Indian food,” says Alun, who worked with Vivek Singh at The Cinnamon Club before acquiring the tiny site that would become the inaugural The Chilli Pickle.

“Non-Indian people opening an Indian restaurant is unusual now, but 10 years ago it was unheard of,” says Dawn. “It was all a bit of a struggle. We’d been living an expat life for years so we didn’t know anyone in the Brighton restaurant community. It was just us. It was all ‘cash on delivery’ because none of our suppliers thought we’d make it work.”

Key location
The Sperrings appear relaxed about their new opening. “We’ve been working on this for a long time,” says Alun. “We now have the right team in place in both the restaurants. We’re confident we can run more than one site without it being detrimental. We feel invigorated by it all.”

Finding a site has not been straightforward. The pair were originally looking at towns closer to Brighton but were put off when they witnessed slow trading first hand. Guildford is – on paper, at least – a good spot for The Chilli Pickle’s second site. Indeed, the Surrey market town is generally viewed by branded operators as a key location in the south-east thanks to its affluent demographic and popularity with London commuters.

Gaucho launched its more casual Cau spin-off there and it’s often a first or second stop as restaurant brands move beyond the capital. It was the first location for Jackson & Rye and while its failure could be seen as a bad omen, it should be noted that The Chilli Pickle’s current spot at Brighton’s My Hotel saw two businesses shuttered prior to the Sperrings moving in (first Aldo Zilli’s surprisingly expensive Italian, then a restaurant overseen by upscale contract caterer Company of Cooks).

The Chilli Pickle’s new restaurant is at the top end of the town near the G Live theatre on a run that includes Giraffe and PizzaExpress. It’s familiar company as its Brighton restaurant is also only moments away from both brands.
Unlike Brighton & Hove, Guildford’s restaurant market is dominated by chains, so The Chilli Pickle will have less competition from independents. There’s also no direct competition save a handful of traditionally run curry houses, a sharp contrast to Brighton & Hove.

Its price point is comparable to most chains. Lunchtime prices are around the £6 mark for starters and £12 for mains and a generous thali costs £14 (£10 all day Monday). Dinner is a little pricier with mains averaging £15.
Design brief

At 125 covers, the Guildford restaurant is slightly larger than the original The Chilli Pickle. Split across three floors, there’s a dining area and bar on the ground floor, the kitchen and more dining on the first floor and toilets, offices and other staff facilities above.
“We’re lucky because Jackson & Rye made a big investment here, especially in terms of the M&E,” says Alun. “We’ve just done a nip and a tuck. But it’s a big space so it has still required a big investment to put our mark on it.”

The Sperrings have used Brighton-based Niche Interior Design, the same agency that did their first two restaurants. Once again, the brief is ‘Indian marketplace’. In contrast to some of their peers in the branded Indian space who tend to either go neutral or masculine colonial, the Sperrings have again embraced the vibrancy of India with a colourful and rustic space (Mail on Sunday critic Tom Parker Bowles once accurately described the original as “sub-continental kitsch”).

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Sub-continental kitsch: The Chilli Pickle's Brighton site

Ready made kitchen 
Alun has inherited Jackson & Rye’s high specification cooking line and hasn’t changed much. Like The Chilli Pickle Brighton, there will be a fully open area in front of the main kitchen where breads will be prepared before being cooked in a duo of gas-fired tandoors. 

“We’d be mad to get rid of the main kitchen. We’ve actually tweaked the way we prepare some things to make the most of it, for example, we’ll cook our kebabs and some of our other grilled dishes on the charcoal-fired robata grill rather than the tandoor as we do in Brighton,” he says.

The pair are blessed with a large subterranean production kitchen at the Brighton site. The cooking of some menu items including some curries, marinades and pickles and chutneys will be centralised. “We recently invested in a Frima (a heavy duty induction-powered bratpan with pressure cooking functionality). If you’re making 40kg of slow-braised mutton curry it makes sense to make 80kg and do it for both sites. It’s not like we make curries to order so it does not take anything away.” For the moment, the two restaurants will offer pretty much the same menu but there is scope for some variation should it be required.

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View to a grill: the kebabs at the Guildford site will be cooked on a charcoal-powered grill rather than a tandoor

The biggest change to the layout of the restaurant has been the addition of a more spacious wash-up area upstairs, which has freed up space in the main kitchen and also provided better access for Deliveroo couriers (handily, the rear of the kitchen can be accessed via a flight of stairs, so riders don’t need to traipse through the dining room).

Takeaway and delivery is a key part of the business model and is focused on thalis served in cleverly designed boxes filled with biodegradable tubs of curries, dahls, sides and pickles. The Sperrings have had an off/on relationship with Deliveroo in Brighton; they originally facilitated their own delivery with branded Smart cars, but later switched to Deliveroo. They also ran a Deliveroo Editions ‘dark kitchen’ in nearby Portslade but pulled out over issues with demand and profitability.

Staff backgrounds
The decision to offer takeaway and delivery makes it impossible for Alun to employ chefs directly from India or transfer the visas of those already cleared to work in the UK – dubbed the ‘takeaway clause’. When The Chilli Pickle launched the team was 80% Indian, now it’s 90% non-Indian at both sites.

“It would be great to be able to bring in Indian chefs again. There are some great ones in the country but their skills are in high demand, which makes them very pricey. There’s also something wonderful about getting chefs raw from India because they won’t have been influenced by western kitchen practices.”

But The Chilli Pickle is making it work despite a squeeze on Indian chefs, using a largely European labour force. “Alun is a great teacher. We now employ people on motivation and hunger to learn,” says Dawn.
“It works so long as they are supported by strong, food-driven managers.”

More sites to come
The pair says that the rollout is allowing them to focus on training and quality control, with some of the more prosaic aspects of managing the restaurants now delegated to managers and head chefs.
“You need to be at the top of your game to keep customers coming in these days. We need to retain that vibrancy and who we are,” says Alun. With this in mind, how big do the pair think The Chilli Pickle could go? “We love what we have created so we like the idea of it being in lots of different places,” says Dawn. “But we want it to stay true to what it is and, of course, that puts a cap on it. We’re going to try and grow to five in total. We will then reassess.”

The plan is to open a third site next year. Alun hints they don’t want The Chilli Pickle to be pegged as a middle-class market town brand, so an opening in or near south London is not out of the question. “It would be a homecoming of sorts for both of us,” he says. “But Guildford is the scary one. We need to nail it.”

Not your average family holiday
A trip to an illicit drinking den in monsoon season to try spiced toads’ legs; hurtling down a dusty dirt track for two hours to sample the ultimate crab curry. The Sperring family holiday is a far cry from an all-inclusive break in Majorca. The couple have been making a yearly pilgrimage to India with their young family since the early days of the business. “Our youngest first went when he was two. India can be a logistical challenge and an assault on the senses, but as long as the kids see that we’re comfortable with everything, they’re OK,” says Dawn. “Our boys love it because it’s an exciting place. They also get a lot of attention.”

The family tend to stay in the grand hotels of India, which are run by the likes of Taj, Oberoi and ITC. “It’s a happy coincidence that these hotels house some of the very best restaurants in the country,” says Alun. The Sperrings’ getaway-cum-research trip usually targets a particular region and sees them sample food at all levels, using their enviable network of Indian contacts to help identify the best street food spots and secure meals in people’s homes, which is where some of the country’s best food is found. One trip saw them root out the best biryanis and haleem in Hyderabad, another was a tour of the beachside chaat stands of Mumbai.

“I’ve dedicated the past 10 years of my life to Indian food. I know a lot about it,” says Alun. “When we’re out there, we’re looking for the best of the best.” The trips aren’t intended to teach Alun how to cook Indian food – he can do that already – it’s more about the tweaking and the tuning. “We want to be sure we’re giving our customers that real taste of India.”

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