Booking hall to brasserie

In the beginning there was a Victorian railway station with a booking hall. Then the trains disappeared and the building was left derelict, surrounded by ugly 1960s buildings. Later Andrew Peters arrived and turned the shabby restaurant in the old booking hall into a brasserie. He planned to stay for three years, but the business has just got to a record 30. Emma Clegg finds out how it all happened…

It’s very easy when you’re starting out in the restaurant business to have something very small and then be forever chained to it. The problem is that restaurants often have a husband and wife team, one back of house, one front of house and 30 covers and then it’s hard to make enough money to let other people run it.” Andrew Peters, who set up Green Park Brasserie 30 years ago this year, is explaining to me the challenges of running a restaurant business.

Andrew had previously specialised in restaurant start-ups or turn-arounds, and had run successful London restaurants such as the Soho Brasserie and Tuttons in Covent Garden. In 1991 he was looking for a location for a new restaurant when he came across a venue in Green Park, then called Station Park Restaurant. In the depths of the recession, the area was desolate, bleak and rough and the restaurant was surrounded by ruthless 1960s architecture, including the far-from-uplifting DHSS building opposite.

Green Park Station was originally Queen Square Station – built in the 1860s it operated as a working station until the 1960s when changes to British Rail led to services being slowly wound down, and the doors were finally closed in 1966. The derelict site was restored as a retail and market space in the 1980s which is when Andrew found the building that had been the booking hall of the station. Imagination and positive thinking must have been required. “At that time this had been a restaurant for about five years, but there had been five restaurants, and all five had gone bust,”Andrew explains. “In those days the licensing laws were much more strictly controlled than now – you had to have a licenced practice to sell alcohol and as a restaurant you had to sell alcohol with a substantial meal. My predecessors had run the place illegally as a bar and the manager had been prosecuted for selling cocaine – it was a heaving bar and very successful, but the police closed them down.”

Not an auspicious prospect, you would think, but Andrew had a vision, although his original plan was to set up the restaurant and run it for two to three years before moving on. “I had been creating restaurants or turning them around, and this is a whole different skill to running one, which is about the grind, working out how you extract a profit from the business.” That’s the journey that Andrew, who was joined by his son Alex in 2016, took on. Although Andrew says his skill is in creating rather than running restaurants, he clearly has some ability in the latter category – and he can certainly make a good cappucino because he’s been practising since 1992.

So what was the concept underlying the new restaurant? “My whole cultural mindset is French-based – French wine and food is a strong influence and that was the whole idea of being a brasserie. But I wanted to combine this with modern British cuisine which has become more fusion-led, absorbing food inspiration from across the world.”

What made the difference to the potential of this restaurant was the cosmetic turnaround of the area in the 1980s, which Andrew saw the potential of. It was also the size of the building – having been the station booking hall, it had generous proportions and high ceilings and unusual architectural features: “This room would have been full height – now shortened by the floor it would have continued another five metres to the ceiling,” says Andrew of the main restaurant area. “There is definitely an element of stewardship of the building – this is a fantastic space and when we collaborate with others, such as Film Bath or Bath Festivals, it’s about adding value to the city as a place to live and work.”

There have been plenty of challenges on the way, not least in cash flow – the stable break-even point didn’t come until 2005 – and constantly refreshing the food and entertainment offering and innovative thinking have been crucial, but consistency has also been a factor. “I’m a great believer in stickability,” says Andrew. “It’s always tantalisingly close – the idea of taking another 10% is often the immediate aim and that’s just the way restaurant economics works. Once you get beyond the break-even line you should be able to make some money. We would do everything: Christmas parties, tour groups, all kinds of different things to try and get there.”

We are not only here to provide memories – we are battery rechargers, we want people to come here to feel good and to leave feeling more energised

The launch of sister business the Bath Pizza Company in 2016, when Alex became involved, was a significant development. The casual dining pizza place – seating up to 150 on tables on heated terraces in the Old Green Park Station – offers not only delicious-tasting pizzas, but live music and entertainment within the scenic station architecture. “Eating out has become a very different experience – it used to be a special occasion and now it’s just an everyday thing. People are not only concerned about the food in front of them, but also about the ambience and the overall experience. We want people to come and have a good time. We are not only here to provide memories – we are battery rechargers, we want people to come here to feel good and to leave feeling more energised,” says Andrew.

With a team of over 30, many of them full-time, Green Park Brasserie has an excellent record of maintaining staff and they are closely involved with all stages of the business. This includes company secretary Liz Gilbert of 29 years, group general manager Alex Pitts, and head chef of the Bath Pizza Co Jonah Pole. The ingredients for both the Brasserie and the Pizza Company are sourced locally – including from Castle Mead Poultry, Bath Soft Cheese, Terry & Son Butchers and steak from Newton Farm – and they are passionate about supporting that local economy in this way.

“We are not a chain, we are a human being,” says Andrew. “This place is almost a reflection of your personality. We care a lot about what we do, and we can be rapid in our decision making. As a business we are now in a really solid place and how do we take it on from this? By keeping it exciting.”

Watch this space.