A Conversation with Geetie Singh-Watson, Founder of the Duke of Cambridge
I sat down with Geetie Singh-Watson in the Islington-based Duke of Cambridge pub on a cold day in January. The Duke of Cambridge is the UK’s only certified organic pub, and is now partnered with Riverford, whose founder Guy Watson, is Geetie’s husband. I had recently heard Geetie speak at the Oxford Real Farming Conferenceon entrepreneurship and organic food, and was fascinated by the story of the pub and Geetie’s vision.
The Duke of Cambridge opened in 1998, and Geetie was driven by the values she grew up with rather than the norms at that time in the restaurant world. The business concept was founded in sustainability, and it came before the trendiness of local, organic and healthy food–before it was hip to know the farmers selling to you, and before restaurants even thought about the seasonality of the products they sourced. That customers might be interested to know what a restaurant’s supply chain looked like or whether their produce was organic would have been laughable then.
Yet, twenty years later, the Duke of Cambridge is an amazingly successful gastropub, and is proof that setting rigid sustainability standards doesn’t mean you can’t turn a profit. Geetie’s vision was far enough ahead of the curve that there are now entire organisations and regulatory bodies, such as the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), that do much of the legwork and allow restaurants to more easily monitor their supply chains, waste streams, and other factors such as energy use. But this is relatively new, and it’s grown out of a realization that much of the restaurant world is horribly unsustainable, even today.
Despite the growth of resources and certification schemes available to help restaurants make improvements there are still numerous businesses that don’t factor sustainability into their operations at all. And for those that do, it’s often piece meal. Some elements such as where meat is sourced might be considered while others, like paying staff fairly, are disregarded. Geetie notes that ‘you could probably name the ‘truly sustainable’ restaurants in the UK on one hand.’
So, I put the question to her, what does sustainable mean for a business like the Duke of Cambridge?
‘It means sustainable in every sense of the word, so you consider the impact of everything you’re doing. That is from how you’re sourcing your food, to your furniture, to your energy, to your entire supply chain, to how you treat your suppliers — in order that they can continue to survive as businesses, as sustainable businesses — to how you treat your staff, so their life is sustainable. To how profitable you are …’
As annoyingly non-descript as the concept of 'sustainability' can be, it provides a framework for people to consider what their business does beyond making a profit. When Geetie founded Duke of Cambridge she set forth a full spectrum of sustainability goals — it was an enormous undertaking (especially 20 years ago when the concept was foreign to most) and a powerful case study to explore what this amorphous term looked like in practice. By her fourth month the pub had broken even and she turned a profit in year one– Geetie is very clear that financial sustainability has to be a part of the equation.
Geetie notes that in the beginning many thought that organic food was just a trend, it didn’t have staying power. But clearly, the power of food, it’s impact on our health and the environment, and the stories that go with it continue to captivate people. It’s hard to ignore the fact that people are asking more questions, have deeper knowledge, and make more deliberate consumer choices. Geetie explains,
‘So, I think it has changed a lot. Restaurants do buy directly off farmers now, lots of them, and there is the kind of ‘hipster nerdy foody’ who is really very interested in the procurement of a lot of their ingredients — it just doesn’t run all the way through. So, they’re not making sure that they’re buying organic chickpeas, or sunflower oil, which is four times the price of non-organic. Dry store is phenomenally expensive, and you have to run a very very tight ship to manage that.’
These are the nitty gritty questions that really drive home what it means to be sustainable. It’s a spectrum, and now that people and restaurants alike better understand provenance and why agriculture and food growing matters, then those standards can be applied to more than the trendy items — beyond the coffee and the chocolate and the fresh salad greens, to the oil, the dry goods, the insurance plans, the soft drink producer, the dish soap, and on and on.
Yet, with this increase in awareness there is also a growing issue with green washing. Restaurants and food businesses do not always hold themselves accountable. It becomes a marketing ploy, and frequently customers can’t be confident the business is honestly communicating the facts about its products and services. When I ask Geetie what sort of changes would make restaurants more accountable, she immediately notes more rigorous trading standards — ones that are actually enforced. If sustainability were held to the same standards as, say, health codes, then the consumer would trust that the government was paying attention and acting to protect their interests.
Restaurants as a Platform
Often, those that are doing the right thing and going the extra mile feel hesitant about broadcasting it too loudly. It’s part of their ethos but they don’t want to hit the customer over the head with it. Yet, if you’re going out of your way every day to make this a priority, it’s nice to get some recognition.
‘[There’s] the dilemma that when you go out to a restaurant you want to put it all away. You’re spending quite a lot of money… I can’t be lecturing our customers. I had one investor who wanted it written all around the wall of the pub what we were doing, but I don’t want it to be that.’
Which brings up another element of sustainability — what impact you want to have on the community surrounding you? How do you want to engage with your customers?
Restaurants can serve as platforms, and they can be powerful centre points to action, education and activism. So much of London is a giant web of chain restaurants. They’re functional, convenient, and the customer knows what to expect at any one of a thousand different locations across the city. Yet, for the smaller players, those that have one or two spots and know their customers intimately, there is the opportunity to have a different kind of connection to the local community.
Geetie at one point decided to expand, and set up several more sites across London, but she quickly recognized it wasn’t the right decision and ‘by the fifth year I was back down to one. It was much more fun being one, and working with schools and campaigning, it’s been great.’
She recalls the projects that have gone on at The Duke of Cambridge over the years, and the role the restaurant has played in supporting campaigns, education, and getting people engaged in new ideas:
‘You have a thousand people a week coming through here, and if you have something on the tables talking to them, you might get a tenth of them to actually act. We had a lovely [campaign] when the Olympics was on, we used the McDonalds and Coca Cola labels in our windows... I had this wonderful artist who worked here and she did the most incredible writing, so we did things like ‘always organic’ and made their logos into them, and ran it all around [the restaurant].’
The Duke of Cambridge approach allows for spontaneity, for creativity, and for an innovation around sustainability that you don’t see very often in restaurants. Smaller businesses might not have the funds to run mega CSR projects, but they do have the flexibility to talk to their customers and to take immediate action on something they care about. They too have a role in asking the big questions and driving change in a meaningful way.