Dark horse: How The Pony & Trap’s Josh Eggleton is redefining the nature of hospitality

By Joe Lutrario contact

- Last updated on GMT

Eggleton
Eggleton

Related tags: Josh eggleton, Holly Eggleton, Pubs, Chefs, Bristol, gastropubs, Fine dining, Root, Salt & Malt, The Pony & Trap

The pandemic has seen the Bristol-based chef restaurateur reappraise and expand his mini-empire as well as double down on his charitable endeavours.

Josh Eggleton is not an easy man to keep up with. Whether trying to follow him as his van careers down winding country roads, keep track of his myriad projects in and around his home city of Bristol or just follow his train of thought as he flits from one idea to the next, one must be on their mettle.

His younger sister Holly, with whom he co-runs some elements of his business, appears to have given up many years ago. Although my interview is ostensibly with the both of them, he does nearly all the talking.

“Josh doesn’t have a pause button. Everything has to move forward all the time,” she says. “He is a very hospitable person. His passion for food and drink is intense. I can understand that people would assume he’s not an easy person to work with, but that’s not the case. He's open to input from others and he's also very good at letting people get on with their jobs.”

There’s no shortage of things to discuss. His current restaurant and pub projects include the vegetable-focused Root, two Salt & Malt fish and chip restaurants, the Kensington Arms in Redland and a high-profile food festival, as well as the more recently launched Pony Bistro in Bedminster and the expansion of Bristol Beer Factory's Harbourside Bar. 

Eggleton’s upcoming projects, meanwhile, include - but are by no means limited to - the relaunch of the family’s original multi-award-winning gastropub The Pony & Trap as a cookery school and restaurant, the bolting-on of a more upmarket seafood restaurant to his existing Salt & Malt restaurant in Bristol’s Cargo 2 development, the setting up of a production kitchen and food events space in Bristol city centre and the rebooting of his School of Food culinary education programme.

"Josh doesn't have a pause button. Everything has to move forward all the time"

As if all that wasn’t enough for Eggleton’s teetering metaphorical plate, when we meet up for our interview – which takes the form of a whistle-stop tour of his sites - he is overseeing the last few weeks of one of his largest and most ambitious initiatives to date.

Break-Bread

Breaking Bread

A collaboration with several other players on the Bristol food and drink scene - including the owners of Pasta Loco and Pasta Ripiena, The Pipe & Slippers and festival producer Team Love - Breaking Bread was set up to provide a safe space for people to eat and drink during the pandemic. 

Though a recent spell of poor weather has made mud an issue as we walk round, it’s an impressive setup that resembles an unusually well-organised festival. On Clifton Downs, the ‘socially distanced pop-up environment’ created more than 100 jobs and featured live events, various bars and a surprisingly luxurious tent-based 120-cover fine dining restaurant that saw the Pasta Loco and The Pony & Trap teams co-create a menu designed to support and showcase hard-hit local suppliers.

“We’ve just done the impact report. The top line is that Breaking Bread allowed us to support our staff and suppliers while saving the Government £200,000 in furlough payments,” says Eggleton who, along with securing the future of his existing businesses over the last 18 months (and launching a few more for good measure), also found time to play a key role in Bristol’s humanitarian response to the pandemic.

Giving back

In the early days of Covid-19 every homeless person in the country that wanted one got a hotel room. This was unquestionably a good thing, but with soup kitchens closed and few people on the streets lockdown greatly restricted many homeless people’s access to food.

Eggleton banded together with a few other hospitality people – including Pasta Loco’s Dominic Borel and Emmeline’s Shona Graham - to help homelessness charity Caring in Bristol launch Cheers Drive (named after the traditional Bristolian way to thank a bus driver), which saw around 1,200 meals a day produced for homeless and other disadvantaged people in and around the city using surplus stock from restaurants and other food-handling businesses.

“Sitting around is not something I do. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I’ve also lost a load of weight. I’ve spent the last year or so moving surplus food around the city and offloading pallets. People in need are often given terrible food but I believe every person in this country deserves to eat a healthy, sustainable meal.”

The 38-year-old has been involved with food-related charity in and around Bristol for some time, but the pandemic has seen him double down, with many of his projects now having altruistic elements. Despite its primary goal of supporting restaurants and suppliers, Breaking Bread donated 2% of its turnover to charitable projects, for example.

“If you’ve got the resources to help and give back you should. Charity is something I’ve always wanted to do but I’ve only recently had the resources to do it. Covid-19 has highlighted food inequality. I think hospitality getting involved is at least part of the solution.”

The success of the project in feeding disadvantaged people and communities during the pandemic led Eggleton to launch Team Canteen, a tent within Breaking Bread that housed a production kitchen and a space for food pop-ups, cooking demonstrations, workshops and – as the name suggests – fed the project’s workforce.

"People in need are often given terrible food but I believe every person in this country deserves to eat a healthy, sustainable meal”

With Breaking Bread now over (for now, at least) Eggleton is in the process of finding a permanent home for Team Canteen in Bristol city centre. The business is set up as a Community Interest Company, a special form of limited company for projects that have social, charitable, or community-based objectives. The key advantages of the model include access to new types of funding and simplified operations, including a flexible corporate structure.

“The primary goal of Team Canteen is to support underrepresented communities in the city through food. For example, we recently gave over our space at Breaking Bread to a group of female refuges who cooked for our staff and the public. We will also look to help young food businesses.”

Poy-and-Trap

No one-trick pony

Closed since the beginning of the pandemic and now due to relaunch in spring, the family’s flagship The Pony & Trap will also seek to reach out to disadvantaged people and communities through food, but in a different way to Team Canteen.

The doggedly practical Eggleton is not the emotional type, but even he looks a touch reflective as he surveys the place where it all began. Having now been closed for a year-and-a-half, the pub isn’t looking its best. Most of the furniture has been moved out, tableware and glasses are stacked haphazardly around the space and a musty smell hangs in the air.

Eggleton and his sister – who hasn’t been in the venue for some time and appears more shocked at its state – took on The Pony & Trap 15 years ago. The pub started out serving basic but freshly made pub food, but the largely self-taught Eggleton soon started to spread his culinary wings.

“In the beginning it was good local food. I guess some of it was a bit elaborate as I was experimenting with a few different techniques. A few years in we tried to launch a tasting menu but only a handful of people booked in for it as our name wasn’t out there. Coincidentally, one of those people was from Michelin.”

The inspector had been tipped off by Jonray and Peter Sanchez-Iglesias who were then cooking at the original Casa Mia site in the Bristol suburb of Westbury-on Trym​ (Eggleton was in the same school class as the late Jonray and remains close with the Sanchez-Iglesias family).

He liked what he was served and ended up giving The Pony & Trap a Bib Gourmand, which the team converted into a star a year later in 2011. Bookings rocketed, the menu became more sophisticated and within a few years the venue was right up there with the country’s very best gastropubs with a near constant presence within the top ten of The Top 50 Gastropubs list (it ranked 2nd​ 2015).

Despite the accolades, the venue tried to stay true to its humble roots to the point that things became nearly unmanageable for the pair.

“When we closed the doors last year, we were still offering affordable classic pub dishes but we also had an ambitious a la carte menu and three different tasting menus. We were trying to be all things to all people. You could even nip in just for a pint.”

Josh-and-Holly

A food think tank

The relaunch of The Pony & Trap as The Pony Chew Valley will see Eggleton throw off the shackles. “We’re not going to be a country pub anymore. I’m not even sure we’re going to be a restaurant. The Pony Chew Valley will be about food education. Humanitarian aid is saying 'you're hungry, I'll feed you’. But that's not solving the problem. The wider problem is inequality. I specialise in food, so I'm going to look at food inequality. That's what The Pony Chew Valley will be examining.”

The Pony Chew Valley will offer lots of different ticketed experiences, ranging from foraging and gardening courses and simple barbecue evenings to more pricey full-on tasting menu experiences. But the venue will also welcome people who would not normally have access to top-flight gastronomic experiences by way of a volunteering programme.

“We will work with our many partners in Bristol to get people here. The countryside is not accessible for some people in the city. I want them to come here and see how things are grown and how we prepare them,” continues Eggleton, who warns that those after a romantic table two should look elsewhere. All the experiences on offer at The Pony Chew Valley will be communal, with guests seated around a 20-cover table.

“We own the land, we own the building; we need to think about things a bit differently. We don't need to do loads of covers. And the presentation won't be fancy; people will come into the kitchen to watch me cook. I might get them to hold the plate while I put the food on it. I want to break down the barriers. It will still be hospitality, but the way we will interact with people will be different.”

For Eggleton – who will prop up the more benevolent side of the business with weddings and corporate events - such an approach feeds into reducing food inequality because it makes the experience less intimidating for guests that aren’t used to high-end hospitality.

"We’re not going to be a country pub anymore. I’m not even sure we’re going to be a restaurant"

Potential volunteers will be identified through strategic partnerships and referrals from various local charities including Caring in Bristol. The project sounds logistically awkward and runs the risk of putting some less open minded restaurant goers off with its communal dining and focus on experiences, yet it would be unwise to bet against Eggleton, who has previous when it comes to delivering tricky-sounding projects (Breaking Bread being a case a point).

To accommodate this transformation, The Pony & Trap building is to be completely reworked. Set to begin soon, the works will see the bar removed and a 10-station cookery school installed upstairs with views over the pub’s pretty kitchen garden and out to Chew Valley itself. The toilets will also be overhauled but the site’s kitchen – which was installed recently – will be largely untouched. 

The site's existing kitchen garden and an adjacent field are to be transformed into a 'fully-fledged, carbon-neutral, micro-farm'. Eggleton plans to terrace the currently sloping grounds and install an irrigation system. Volunteers will spend time helping on the farm and learning about food production. 

Phase two – for which a date has yet to be set – will see a conservatory installed to the rear of the site as well as accommodation (Eggleton is currently trying to get planning for some Hobbit hole-esque rooms to be built in the garden). Appropriately given it’s the place where it all started, The Pony Chew Valley will become the beating heart of the Eggleton's business, with much of its first floor given over to the group’s head office.

Josh-Eggleton

Still a proper chef

One could be forgiven for assuming that the change of direction for The Pony & Trap and the rollout of more accessible venues would see Eggleton turn his back on the more ambitious cooking with which he made his name.

This is not the case. As he shows me round the gardens of The Pony & Trap, it’s clear that he has not lost the love. Produce is everywhere – obscure herbs, blooming cardoons, beautiful-looking stone fruit and the last of the summer raspberries – and Eggleton has plans for it all. He reels off the dishes the team will be making when they finally get back on site and also outlines his plans to strengthen his local sourcing policies. “The Sportsman (the influential gastropub in North Kent run by chef Stephen Harris) has been a big inspiration for us here. We don’t fully understand our terroir yet, that's something we want to explore.”

Alongside this, a significant amount of The Pony & Trap’s DNA has gone into Pony Bistro, which launched earlier this year within Bristol Beer Factory’s south Bristol brewery. The bistro tag somewhat undersells the experience: the fish-focused menu is sophisticated, starting with a selection of intricate snacks – including cured mackerel, hash brown, fermented mustard and pickled ginger - before moving on to a tightly written a la carte menu that includes the likes of Orkney scallop with miso beurre noisette and Pernod sauce; and Shepton Mallet rainbow trout with crab sauce, crispy mussels and spring onion.

"We don’t fully understand our terroir yet, that's something we want to explore.”

“The Pony Bistro is largely run by the former The Pony & Trap team. We’ve really streamlined what we offer, which is why we decided to call it a bistro. It’s great ingredients cooked very simply just as we would of at The Pony & Trap but it’s more accessible because of where it is.”

Although Eggleton remains interested in top-level cooking, he seems less interested in awards. “I used to love it when people came in and had ham egg and chips and a pint without realising The Pony & Trap had a Michelin star restaurant. I never put the plaque on the door or the star on the website. I never pushed for it either, it just happened. We let Michelin know about the changes to The Pony & Trap but they never got back to us.”

Pony-Bistro

Refining the offer

Part of the reason for the expansion of the group in recent years is to enable each venue to be more focused and not fall into the trap of trying to be all things to all people as The Pony & Trap did. “Our aim is to serve delicious, freshly made food regardless of how we charge for it. We serve 700 portions of fish and chips a day at Salt & Malt, but we do it really well.”  

Significant expansion in recent years means the group has not been immune to hospitality’s ongoing skills crisis but Eggleton is tackling the problem head on with the relaunch of his School of Food catering college programme. The course was originally delivered at Weston College in nearby Weston-Super-Mare but has now moved to City of Bristol College.

“It was successful at Weston, but they tried to cut the course in half, which I wasn’t having. It’s based on City & Guilds Commis Chef Level 1 but it’s a modern course that shows the students how modern food is cooked. For each area – for example making fresh pasta - I have a different chef come in and show the students how they approach it. I can connect with every restaurant in the city as I’ve been around long enough to know everyone.”

Leek-mussel-vinaigrette-credit-Ed-Schofield-

A skilled collaborator

A big factor in Eggleton’s success is his ability to collaborate. Nearly all of his projects are run in conjunction with partners, for example Root is run day-to-day by Rob and Meg Howell and the Kensington Arms is run in partnership with former Butcombe Brewery managing director Guy Newell.

Eggleton thinks of himself primarily as an operator and facilitator, although he does plan to cook at The Pony Chew Valley regularly once it reopens. “I can't afford to pay a big salary to an operations manager because we don’t make that much money in any of the businesses and anything we do make goes on better pay for the teams and trying to improve things for the guests. I only pay myself £25,000 a year.”

This seems like a good deal for all concerned. Eggelton admits that he is almost unworkably busy, but is confident things will calm down as Breaking Bread goes into hibernation and hospitality edges closer to relative normality. He also has a few tricks up his sleeve that allow him to keep all his plates spinning, as it were.

“Never send me an email. I barely look at them anymore. Nearly all my communication is done through WhatsApp. I probably send 1,000 a day. I’m extremely busy but I have good core people overseeing all of my projects, and the majority of them have worked with me for many years.

"The other thing that makes it manageable is that it's all quite local. I’m not interested in doing much more, though.”

Update: When we catch with Eggleton ahead of publication, he reveals that he has just helped a friend design a fish and chip restaurant in Wales and is now plotting a design and build business for restaurants and pubs. 

Eggleton’s empire

The Pony & Trap (2006)

Currently closed, Eggleton’s flagship is slated to relaunch as The Pony Chew Valley in early spring. The overhauled site looks set to defy classification, but will house a restaurant and cookery school and will offer a number of ticketed experiences, with some aimed at those that could not usually afford a meal in a top-end establishment.

Salt & Malt (2015)

Eggleton launched his first Salt & Malt chippie six years ago, following up with a second site in Wapping Wharf’s Cargo 2 in 2017. The latter is set for a major upgrade later this year with the site’s existing terrace area to be surrounded in a glass box to allow it to trade year-round. While fish and chips will also be available, the new space will also offer a menu of more premium seafood dishes including shellfish platters, whole roasted fish and oysters. 

The Kensington Arms (2016)

Known affectionately as The Kenny, Eggleton’s second pub project is run in partnership with former Butcombe Brewery managing director Guy Newell. Located in the affluent Bristol suburb of Redland, it is an archetypal gastropub offering tweaked pub classics alongside more adventurous dishes.

Root (2017)

In the space that was home to Eggleton’s Chicken Shop, the vegetable-focused – but not vegetarian - Root is overseen by Rob and Meg Howell. The site – which is critically-acclaimed in its own right and recently launched its own cookbook – is located in Cargo 1, a shipping container development in Bristol’s Wapping Wharf. 

Bristol Beer Factory (2017)

The Eggleton family's investment in Bristol Beer Factory saw capacity increase and Eggleton take on a consultant-esque role. Venues include the tap room within the brewery itself, the Barley Mow pub in St Philip's and the Harbourside Bar at the Arnolfini gallery on Bristol Docks. Eggleton oversees the menu at the later, which majors on burgers and brunch options.  

Breaking Bread (2020)

Launched as ‘an antidote to the pandemic’, Breaking Bread was setup to provide a safe space for restaurant goers. On Clifton Down, the sprawling under-canvas project was a collaboration between Eggleton and several other Bristol hospitality businesses, including the group behind Pasta Loco, and The Pipe & Slippers pub. It is likely to return in some form next year. 

Team Canteen (2020)

Originally part of Breaking Bread, Team Canteen is set to relaunch within a permanent space in Bristol city centre soon. The Community Interest Company will support underrepresented communities in the city through food and seek to champion new food businesses.

Pony Bistro (2021)

Located within Bristol Beer Factory’s Bedminster brewery, Pony Bistro offers a stripped-back-yet-sophisticated menu that’s big on top quality fish from South West. As the name suggests, the offer is comparable to The Pony & Trap’s a la carte menu (and is largely cooked by the same team).

Related topics: Business Profile, People, Restaurant

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