My Hospitality Journey by Conrad Brunton

I was 16 when my father took me for lunch at Quaglino’s in London, the restaurant that gave me what the late, great Sir Terrance Conran (who owned the restaurant at the time) describes as “the cockroach in the blood stream” – an unstinting passion for hospitality that I carry with me to this day.

I loved the restaurant, the food we ate and the level of service we received, it was all so new to me, and I absorbed every moment like a sponge. I had been working part time in a kitchen for a year previously. Like so many people I talk to, my first role in hospitality was as a KP; I was 15 and instantly loved the energy and buzz of the hot kitchen. It was hard work; I prepped veg, I washed up and I did whatever was needed – I loved it, I was hooked. Alongside that job I started as a runner and wine waiter at a wedding and event company close to where I lived, this gave me my first taste of being front of house and customer facing, which I felt suited me and my personality.

I had never been a studious person, basic stuff came quite easily to me, areas that required deeper application did not. One thing I could always do was build rapport and I loved serving tables and working the bar. Since my early part time jobs, I had always worked in local restaurants and pubs, and I knew this was my calling when I left college. I decided to study Hospitality and Food management at degree level at the superb institution the ‘University of Central Birmingham’ then called the ‘College of Food’. I always worked alongside my studies, first at ‘Bank’ Restaurant; a high volume 2 rosette brasserie. Then the eponymous ‘Simpson’s Restaurant’ which moved from Kenilworth to its home in Edgbaston. I was part of the front of house opening team – I loved it there, serving the food being created by Luke Tipping, Adam Bennet and Matt Cheal was a dream come true and my first taste of ‘Michelin Service’. My 3rd year of the 4-year course was to be a placement and I chose to spend it at ‘Malmaison’ hotel in Birmingham. 6 months in the kitchen and then 6 months in other departments. At the time ‘Mal’ was incredibly busy – we could do 300+ covers on a busy Friday or Saturday evening, this was another defining experience for me, I met another one of my mentors – Executive Chef, Ray Brown. Ray had worked under Marco and alongside Gordon Ramsay at ‘Canteen’, he was awesome, he never raised his voice but commanded respect through his actions and how he managed the team. After 6 months in the kitchens, I spent the remaining 6 months in reception, stores, bar and the brasserie, the placement was well structured and gave me a fantastic overview of the hotel. It was then back to finish my degree in my final year.

When my studies finished, I wanted to work a stagé at the then No.1 restaurant in the world, 3* Michelin rated ‘The Fat Duck’. I worked for free for 6 weeks driving the 200-mile round trip daily from Birmingham to Bray. It was the most incredible experience and at the end of the period I was offered full employment. Sadly, due to an illness in the family I didn’t want to be so far from home. Seeing how this business operated from the inside gave me my desire to be the best in all that I did, there was a pride amongst the team and an incredibly strong work ethic that I had not experienced (to this level) before.

After that summer stagé I looked to begin a graduate training role and contemplated several options, I decided on Mitchells and Butlers and started working at a quality gastro pub within their ‘Project S’ brand (now PCDG). I made sure that the graduate scheme outlined key training milestones and that my GM was someone who would inspire me and keep pushing my development. This was a busy, high-volume pub and I loved running Expo and hosting on a busy evening shift. I worked here for 3 years and progressed to deputy general manager before being offered my first GM role aged 25 at an independent bar and eatery in Birmingham city centre. It was a busy place, known for showing the sport and being somewhere to go to dance late night, as well as offering really good food. I enjoyed my 18 months here but the itch to work for myself had always been there and I saw a gap in the market in Birmingham that I wanted to explore.

The nations favourite dish, indeed, our national dish; fish and chips had never been done well in my native Birmingham. Myself and my best friend Andy set to researching what made great chippys stand out, we visited numerous award-winning establishments and benchmarked them, sampling their food, and taking the best bits from each. We set up ‘Great British Eatery’ (GBE) in August 2008 (yes; the date of the beginning of the worst economic downturn in living history). GBE was a traditional chip shop – we fried fish to order in beef dripping, we served deep-filled butchers’ pies, roast chicken, award-winning local butchers’ sausages, and home-made fish cakes. We took immense pride in the quality of our product and within 18 months we were named as the No.1 fish and chip shop in England at The National Fish and Chip Shop awards 2010. Sadly, our location was poorly chosen, and trade was never at the levels we needed to keep our heads above water, let alone make a profit. After 4 years of trading, and with very heavy hearts, Andy and I made the tough decision to close the doors. I knew then that I wanted a change of pace, I had a huge passion for catering and hospitality, so never wanted to leave that world behind, but I craved something different.

I was offered a temporary role back at UCB (The College of Food) lecturing food service which allowed me to plan my next move. After 12 months at the college, I started to look at where else I could use my transferable skills, that I had picked up from my years in the industry. Sales seemed a logical area to investigate, and having recruited teams in the past, recruitment also made sense. I felt that recruitment would be a better fit after some research; the building of relationships with clients and candidates and assisting them on their career journey resonated with me, and I landed a role recruiting sales and marketing professionals into a variety of roles and industries. This first position in recruitment was tough, the markets were unknown to me, and I missed the interaction with the catering and hospitality industry that I loved so much. I decided to look for a role within catering and hospitality recruitment and was successful in getting a job with ‘Off to Work’, I was bought in to set up their Permanent Recruitment desk in Birmingham. This role and the company culture suited me down to the ground and I enjoyed the daily challenge it presented. I spent four years with them and helped to grow the team and the permanent division across the company, I will always remember my time there fondly and wouldn’t have left for any reason other than to start my own business.

It was then time for me to again take the plunge back into being self-employed. I started ‘Tonic Talent’ in July 2016. I set up Tonic to be different, to offer a better level of service for clients and candidates, a ‘tonic’ if you like, amongst the sea of faceless recruiters. We have grown the business steadily, navigated our way (just) through the pandemic and have helped countless people with their next career step – long may this continue!

Conrad Brunton is Managing Director of Tonic Talent

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