When Geetie Singh opened the UK’s first organic pub in 1998, Tony Blair was Prime Minister, Britney Spears was in the charts and a new website called Google had just been registered in California.
Some 20 years and a name change later (Singh married Guy Watson, founder of Riverford – the couple are now both Singh-Watson), the belief in organic food and ethical business is still driving her today as she prepares to open the doors of her new pub.
She has been slowly renovating and restoring The Bull Inn in Totnes for almost 18 months – on the day I visit, a couple of weeks before opening, the site is still full of workmen, the bar and restaurant are full of light, an open fireplace has been installed, and an enormous Persian rug is being admired for size.
The open kitchen will be home to head chef James Dodd, who joins from The Riverford Field Kitchen, where the pair worked together when Singh-Watson was a consultant for Riverford’s catering businesses. Restaurant management is in the hands of Phillipa Hughes, a former troubleshooter for Loch Fyne restaurants and previously with her own catering company.
Upstairs, the eight rooms are full of quirks, beams, bespoke wooden light fittings and newly-fitted tunnel skylights, some with views over Totnes’ tiny high street or adjacent Rotherfold Square.
Perched on a leather sofa in the coffee shop opposite the pub, Singh-Watson reflects on the idea behind The Bull, occasionally fielding queries from plumbers, joiners, and other workmen who pop in from over the road.
“After having talked through who we are, and what we’re trying to be with the team, we all came up with the phrase ‘bloody good inn’,” she says, feet tucked up, espresso in hand.
“There was nothing else that summarised it better for us. We just want to be a really great boozer, where you come and have a fantastic meal, fantastic drink, and a really luxurious and delicious place to stay, without being outrageously expensive.
“And most of all, when I arrived in Totnes, I just wanted somewhere I could casually eat and drink without having to book, without the formalities, and have a really good hearty meal.”
Singh-Watson is softly spoken and quick to laugh, traits that bely the grit beneath – she is also fiercely radical and outspoken, with a toughness learnt from her upbringing in a commune in rural Herefordshire.
It was here that she first discovered pubs, sitting outside with a bag of crisps with the other kids, when “there was nothing else to do”. Later, she came across a pub that had it all, like many others before her, uniting sociability, good food, and good beer, and her love affair with the industry began.
Her commune background gave her something else: a lifelong passion for the environment, and its protection. “We were talking about environmental impact for as long as I can remember. We recycled everything, and composted and grew organically,” she says.
“When I started working in restaurants, I just couldn’t believe the shit ingredients they were poncing up and turning into a meal. And the way people were treated, the waste, the bleach, nothing was recycled.”
After years of grafting, working any and every job, and schmoozing investors, Singh-Watson finally opened the pub that would be home to all her principles: The Duke in Islington. Three pubs later, she was recognised for services to the organic pub trade with an MBE in 2009, before meeting Watson and moving to Devon to run Riverford’s Field Kitchen.
It’s noticeable that while the Duke was loud in its reputation as organic, The Bull Inn will be more subtle about its ethical merits.
“First and foremost, I just want people to come in and have a bloody good meal and not be immediately confronted with your values,” says Singh-Watson. “Because as soon as you’re confronted with the organic status and the values, you start to think of it in a different way – the assumption is that it’s expensive. I want people to come in and enjoy it, and then it slowly dawn on them.”
You get the feeling this is as much an astute business decision as anything else – price has ever been the biggest barrier to organic – and with burgeoning numbers of those who see eating out as a primary leisure activity, it’s hard to fault the business logic that entertainment trumps ethics in today’s dining scene.
It’s also partly because full organic certification for pubs and restaurants has recently been removed by the Soil Association, replaced by a new ‘five star’ system called Organic Served Here, which offers organic sourcing milestones.
The Bull, as fully organic, will go in at five stars, but Singh-Watson adds: “It feels like it’s a process that brings people along to the point of being certified, but what they’ve done is dump the certification. I’m a bit gutted – 25 years of doing this and I can’t be certified, which is a shame.
“When it comes to actually being certified organic, it’s the easiest way to ensure that everything you’re buying is sustainable.”
As well as organic, and the top animal welfare and lack of artificial chemicals that come with that, The Bull’s ethical sourcing policy includes buying the whole carcass of an animal, from a supplier who can store parts of the animal for the pub until needed.
“And that means we won’t have steak on the menu, or we might have four or five on and then they’ll be gone, and we’ll move on to another cut,” says Singh-Watson. “I think if you want to eat meat, just sometimes, that’s the most efficient and ecologically sound way to do it.”
On veg, her “inkling” is to source local and seasonal – The Bull will be supplied by small-scale local growers including The Apricot Centre and Shillingford Organics as well as some from Riverford – but she is conscious of the complexity around land use, carbon emissions, transport and food miles in buying decisions.
“Often when you’re using small, local suppliers, they’re using very inefficient vehicles that aren’t packed very efficiently – it’s actually not more ecological than using a big supplier that has a very efficient delivery system,” she explains.
“I’m more interested in organic farming and the best of an area. So for example, the majority of our meat will come from round here, but some of it will come from Wales, and a really fantastic organic producer, producing meat on ground where you couldn’t grow anything else.”
Singh-Watson’s belief in ethical business goes further than the environment. In a hospitality industry that is not known for fair treatment of workers – dogged by stories of corruption over tips and low wages – The Duke was rare in offering staff an actual contract, holiday pay and a minimum wage.
The industry also has a pervasive atmosphere of misogyny in kitchens, called out recently by chef Asma Khan, whose restaurant Darjeeling Express hires only women, and who wants restaurants to have their own #MeToo moment. Singh-Watson’s own experience of gender inequality has been mixed: “It’s never been an issue for me,” she pauses, “I don’t even remember when I was working for other people that gender was an issue, or my colour was an issue.
“Of course, on the floor, there was absolutely masses of pinching my arse and all that kind of stuff,” she continues.
“I never had any qualms with dealing with that. I grew up in Herefordshire, the only brown girl in a 2,000-person school: I knew how to look after myself. I had to fight, proper physical fights, in order to defend myself against the racist attacks, so someone pinching my arse in a pub was not hard to deal with.”
She admits that “in the kitchen it was worse” and remembers very male-dominated places that were “incredibly aggressive”. “When I opened the pubs, I was absolutely clear that there would be none of that. In the end, I ended up with almost entirely female staff and chefs, because men couldn’t deal with what I expected: that they didn’t shout and weren’t rude, and we discussed things in a reasonable manner.”
With a career spanning over two decades in organic hospitality, Singh-Watson says she is “heartened by the sea change in people’s knowledge” and doesn’t feel as much need to educate about organic principles.
But while she believes there is a consumer desire for a better way of doing things, Singh-Watson, who is a vocal supporter of the youth climate movement and Extinction Rebellion, is clear on the lack of government action on the environment. “It wouldn’t take much for the government to actually do what they should do and legislate, and make these changes happen, from recycling to sustainable farming,” she says.
Despite its emphasis on having a good time, The Bull is far from being apathetic, and both Hughes and Singh-Watson declare that “this is a political pub”. “That’s issue political, not party political – it’s about what they’re fucking doing,” clarifies Singh-Watson, back in full radical mode, cosy landlady persona left behind.
Before I can ask what is her solution to Brexit, and who’s got her backing for the upcoming general election, our time is up and it’s over the road to confirm the order of a new wood-burning stove.
For Singh-Watson, at least, it’s back to business.