The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, owned and run by Sue and Roger Jones, celebrated its 20th anniversary at Christmas 2018. As well as receiving worldwide accolades for its food, The Harrow has also been critically acclaimed for its 900 strong wine list. We managed to sit down with co-owner Sue Jones from The Harrow at Little Bedwyn to talk about her restaurant, approach to wine, and all things Le Verre de Vin.
1 – Tell us about the style and personality of The Harrow at Little Bedwyn?
The Harrow was purchased by Roger and I nearly 21 years ago, and seeing that it was supposed to be a temporary foray into owning our own restaurant, you could say we fell in love with it and have embraced the whole lifestyle. We are professional but comfortable, and see it as an extension of our home. The whole ethos revolves around creating the sort of place we would like to go to and that guests always want to return to.
2 – What has changed in your 20 years in the industry?
We have got a lot more philosophical and a little thicker-skinned. We are less concerned about every issue, but we have never lost our perfectionism or our striving to improve at every level. All customer feedback is taken on board and we learn from any criticism – that will never change. Business gets harder and people expect more as there are so many great places out there, but there are plenty who still come back to us week after week, so we must be doing something right.
3 – What excites you about the industry looking forward?
The need to always get better and offer something a little bit different. We get bored easily so are always looking at ways to make things even more exciting or to have a little bit of an edge over our competitors. We never stop looking at new ventures and learning from other places that are developing around us. Even something as ordinary as sourcing more keenly, finding new products, or discovering new wine regions that excite us and work perfectly with a newly evolved dish giving us even more reason to interact with our guests and introducing them to something new too.
4 – Could you give us a quick explanation as to why wine is such a focal point at The Harrow?
Our wine list grew fast due to our early discoveries of so many superb wines out there (initially from Australia, followed by Spain, New Zealand, and more latterly South Africa and Eastern Europe). We wanted to offer the widest choice we could to entice customers to experiment and to always have something different to try, however often they visited. Despite trying to keep our wine list a reasonable size, we managed to grow to 900 bins rather too soon! The business side of it went out of the window somewhat and the passion took over.
We have always championed the wine and food matching element. We were one of the first restaurants to offer named flights of wine to match every dish our kitchen creates. In our eyes, there is no such thing as a meal without wine. It keeps our eyes open the whole time for new wine and drink discoveries. It also involves the whole team in the experience we offer our guests.
5 – Do you have a philosophy towards or specific approach to WBTG?
If you can only have one glass of wine, all the more reason to have a superb one. Too many places opt for a cheap and cheerful WBTG list and keep the list as perceived ‘good value house wines’. We push the boat out and offer things like vintage champagnes, iconic old Aussie Shiraz, Trimbach Rieslings, SA white blends, etc, etc to encourage people to try different wines that they may never get another chance to. £30 or £40 per glass for a very special wine is not expensive and has never put off any of our customers. If that is what you want and you may only get the one opportunity to try it, you should be encouraged. It also allows each person on the table to have exactly what they want rather than trying to find one wine to suit everyone.
6 – Could you explain why you introduced Le Verre de Vin technology and what is has delivered for you since?
Le Verre de Vin allowed us to offer some amazing wines early on in our journey that we wouldn’t have been able to afford to open otherwise. It gave us the opportunity to advertise ourselves as offering something a bit different, and create a reputation for ourselves as a restaurant that really cared about how it served its wine in terms of choice and housekeeping. It also allowed us to give tastes of new wines or those from lesser-known vineyards without the worry of wastage or making a guest feel like they had to purchase a whole bottle without being sure they were going to enjoy it.
Le Verre de Vin has put us on the map as a serious wine supplier. It has given us the opportunity to offer so much more than we could have without it. We were better known for our wine list than our food for many years when we started. Over the years, we have won many accolades from Decanter, The World of Fine Wines, The Wine Spectator, AA Wine List of the Year, The World of Wine, etc.
7 – Have you added any specific premium by the glass options to your menu courtesy of Le Verre de Vin?
Yes, very much so. We change our WBTG all the time and keep at least 30 available, but specifically many vintage champagnes, Krug 1989, Bollinger RD 2004, Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, Charles Heidsieck 1999 and older white Burgundies such as Louis Latour Corton Charlemagne 2000, Gaja Gaia & Rey Chardonnay 2009, Trimbach Clos St Hune 1988, Bordeaux such as Chateau Talbot 1999, Ducru Becaillou 1970, Tignanello 1999, Guado al Tasso 2000 to name just a few.
8 – What role do you think wine / Champagne plays in the customer experience and has that changed in recent years?
It is the responsibility of a restaurateur to offer a fantastic range of wines and champagnes to all customers. No-one should have difficulty in choosing a glass off a list. There should be something for everyone and as time goes on, guests become more discerning and particular and deserve a better and bigger choice. Everything else in life offers more options than ever before. We should meet that requirement for people coming out to eat and drink, too. Trust is built between a customer and the staff when great choices are offered, and the flexibility to try different things before committing to a purchase is allowed.
9 – What should we be looking out for from The Harrow in the future?
Without sounding complacent, I would like to say in terms of the standard of the food, wines, and service, the same as we have always offered, but always with an eye to improve and give even better choices. Sometimes the traditional original values count for the most. The fact that our Chef and Maitre d’ have not changed for over 20 years, should mean that The Harrow will continue for many years to come (or at least as long as we both have the strength to stand up)!