Popular Norwich restaurant celebrates reaching 20 years
- Credit: Archant
We nearly didn’t have a Belgian Monk.
Initially, the restaurant, now on Pottergate, was due to be the third in a chain, following Cheltenham and Salisbury.
But months of negotiations between business partners Terry Hughes and Linda Smith and the owners of a Belgian brewery they hoped to work with broke down. They were forced to go solo, but instead of scrapping their vision decided to narrow their focus.
“We were putting in everything we had and couldn’t do it all alone,” he said. “We took an overnight decision, said enough was enough and concentrated all our efforts on Norwich.”
It was a slow start - Mr Hughes said their first year felt like an uphill battle and added: “We kept saying at the time that we have the best beer in the world, but can’t get people through the doors.”
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A helping hand from actor and writer Simon Callow led to their turning point. During a stint in Norwich for a one-man show, he ate there four nights out of five - and a month later a feature spread appeared in the Sunday Times, waxing lyrical about the fine city and the restaurant.
“Since then we have grown out of all recognition from what we were,” Mr Hughes said. “We have tried to persevere with trying to be different and being an authentic piece of Belgium in Norwich.
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“If you’d have said we’d be selling 200kg to 400kg of mussels each week, I’d have laughed.
“For years we seemed to be on the edge of the circuit, but we feel a part of Norwich now. Linda said that Norwich people might be slow to like you, but once they do they stay with you, which is the loyalty we’ve seen.
“We’ve had ups and downs - Brexit has put it to the test and this has even more so, but it’s been a great ride.”
Their appeal is an even split: A wide menu, including several twists on their signature mussels, and a list of niche, varied Belgian beers - some which can’t be found anywhere else.
“It’s like our cherry beer,” he said, “you can’t buy that anywhere else because we have an exclusivity with the brewer.
“Our sales split is 55pc food and 45pc wet, so it really is straight down the middle. When you listen to people talk about us the three things they say we are known for are our cherry beers, mussels and chips.” But the details are key: Chips are served in a cone, every beer is poured in the matching glass and new beer menus are six months in the making before being released to the public.
“Our market is one that demands quality over quantity,” he said. “I think what people don’t appreciate sometimes when they are looking at our prices is that our beers can be between 8pc and 12pc. It’s not about necking a beer. It’s about appreciating a good drink, having two or three, maybe with food or on their own.”
Opportunities to sit back are rare, and the pair have little downtime - they travel to Belgium three times a month to buy direct from smaller breweries, and in the last four years have been preparing for the fall-out from Brexit - but say they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Up until coronavirus, the amount of hours you threw into the working week was the bit that made you think ‘is it worth it?’,” Mr Hughes said, “particularly after a 15-, 16-hour Saturday. But you knew that you’d served a lot of food and drink, and right now we’d love one of those Saturdays. This has been a complete change of life.”
To mark their 20th anniversary they’d planned a summer celebration with cheese supplier the Cheese Truckle, which has also reached the milestone, but the pandemic has forced them to postpone.
For now, they are looking forward to easier, albeit busier, times, and focusing on beer home deliveries.
With staff furloughed, a city council grant paid out, insurance policy, luckily, soon to kick in and Belgian beer (which has a longer shelf life than other varieties) waiting for customers to return, Mr Hughes said: “We’re waiting for the time when we slowly reopen. We know it won’t be back to normal, but something to get things going would be nice.”