‘Sometimes the best things are on the other side of fear,’ says Ellis Barrie. He should know: along with his brother Liam, Ellis has transformed an unassuming shed into one of Wales’ most celebrated restaurants. Nine years in and The Marram Grass is now a thriving family empire, cooking up a storm in the kitchen as well as on social media.
Entrepreneurship wasn’t always on the cards for the brothers. In 2009, Ellis, a self-taught chef working in Australia, and Liam, who’d just finished a degree in surveying, arrived in Anglesey to help set up their parents’ campsite. ‘There was no plan whatsoever to stay,’ Ellis laughs. ‘In one corner of the site was an old greasy spoon where the majority of things were deep fried. I've always had a love for food so I automatically got stuck in while Liam got to work on the grounds.’
Armed with Scouse charm, local ingredients and a passion for homemade food, the brothers watched their small business thrive. ‘We’re now building a tuition school to run cookery courses, train up local chefs and film YouTube tutorials,’ Liam reveals, brimming with enthusiasm. ‘And plans are in the works to open another restaurant. It’s all a bit mad!’.
Their energy is contagious, but building a brand is far from easy. Here, the brothers reveal what they wish they’d known when starting out and the invaluable lessons they’ve learned along the way…
You have to be ready to take a risk
Liam: At the start, you need to think simply and practically. The site was so run down, we knew it’d take a lot of work to bring it up to scratch. We weighed up our options, looked into figures and managed to scrape together about £3000 each to get us started.
Ellis: At the time, I was 19 and Liam was 21. It was a big risk, wasn't it? But we were young and had a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. What was the worst that could happen? It'd go tits up, we'd feel embarrassed and be a few thousand pounds out of pocket. Our parents' campsite started growing into a sustainable business, so we thought, ‘You know what, it’s worth it. Let’s go for it!’.
Learning on the job is the best experience
Liam: We didn't have a clue about how to run a business, but along the way, we taught ourselves. Instead of worrying about what would happen next, we knew that if all goes wrong, at least we’d have valuable skills under our belts.
Ellis: Even now, we're still learning. As a chef, you’re faced with constant feedback, like 'I really enjoyed the food, but it could have been a bit warmer' or 'I liked the chicken, but I'd like an extra plant pot on the table’.
Liam: Ellis expects everyone to really enjoy what he's cooking, especially when his ego is involved!
Ellis: Haha he’s talking rubbish! We've made loads of mistakes along the way and it’s easy to beat yourself up. But we’ve come to see them as lessons rather than failures. I know how to cook and Liam knows how to host a room and market the restaurant, but we’re still learning about operations, for example. The restaurant has changed and grown with us.
Working with family isn’t plain sailing
Liam: In the early days, we couldn’t do anything too bold because our mum and dad were the bosses. We'd shop at Tesco then get earache every time we came back with a receipt. We're in control of the restaurant now, but the boundaries between family and business have completely blurred.
I guess the biggest negative is being so comfortable with each other that we palm jobs off on each other too easily!
Ellis: On the plus side, we never hold grudges. We just say it as it is. At the end of the day, it’s great to have someone on your side to help shoulder the pressure, to pick you up and motivate you to crack on. We’re in it together. We've even roped in our younger brother to do the book-keeping.
Finding a mentor is a massive help
Liam: If you’re working for a head chef or running your boss’s business, you have a natural mentor to rely on for support. We've never had that. So we’ve learned to reach out to people in our situation for guidance. We've now got lots of mentors outside of the family who are keen to see how we're progressing.
Ellis: It’s been great— if you've got an issue, why not cut out 20 years of trial and error and ask someone who's been there, done that? Don't think 'Oh, I shouldn't bother him’. Be brave, swallow your pride and ask for help. People in business who are progressive will happily give you advice. It really can set you in the right direction.
If you've got an issue, why not cut out 20 years of trial and error and ask someone who's been there, done that?
Switching off is essential
Ellis: Running your own business isn’t a 9 - 5 job so finding balance between work and home is tricky. Just yesterday, the restaurant was a daddy day-care with me juggling my baby and our chefs! We've had to reach a level of understanding that we can’t always work seven days solid. We might be lucky that we only have to do like…
Liam: ...six and a half days! It is tricky when you love the hustle and bustle of your job. Over the years we've found some great staff to share the responsibility. Nine years in, we do force ourselves to go on holiday and get that family time.
Ellis: Tomorrow I'm flying to Italy and I'm planning on lying down, eating and drinking then lying down some more! I can't wait
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.