On every journey you must find time to look around
Let me begin with an apology as I write this realising that I’ve hugely enjoyed and benefitted from reading stories of how people have got to where they are, their rich individual journeys, and now as I write a chapter of mine I realise my awkwardness and embarrassment in trying to replicate them. So....here goes, thank you for reading this far, it gets better, I hope!
I am Mike Harris, self titled Chief Thief at The Strawberry Thief, and this is mine and the bar's first #blog post. It’s not often I quote films, primarily because I get them mixed up and show my terrible capacity for recalling information word for word...but, the great Ferris Bueller says in the 1986 classic “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” So this is my brief look back and around so I don't miss it.
In April 2018 The Strawberry Thief was awarded the #BestBarBristol accolade at the Bristol Life Awards. Less than 2 years under my ownership it’s fair to say it came as a shock, and as the last award of the night in front of a cross-sector audience of 700 of Bristol’s finest professionals, it was extra special. For me it was acceptance for daring to be different in a new industry, and one that Bristol is envied nationally for its strength and diversity in.
Now I must qualify new industry. I was fortunate enough to grow up in hospitality as my parents were hoteliers in Port Gaverne (flanking Port Isaac), on the North Cornish coast. It may just be that it’s hereditary to switch career paths as they had jacked in their careers at a similar age to pursue the life of a small hotelier, my mother leaving behind architecture and my father moving away from civil engineering. After 25 years they eventually sold the business and retired, having been the longest serving hospitality business owners in a large stretch of Cornwall. The secret to their longevity was their passion and their commitment to quality service and product. The words that always stuck with me was my father telling me on the final day of their 25 year reign that they had always felt like custodians of the building and it’s surroundings, and that it had been a pleasure and an honour to have that bestowed upon them. Wise words, and a shame the current owner hasn’t felt the same, but there’s always time to take it back and make it special again....all part of the master plan!
So rather than following in their fine footsteps I decided that hoteling was not the wondrous Laissez faire utopia I was seeking. So after some uncertainty I set about changing the world via the sustainability profession, heavily conditioned by my idyllic Cornish headland upbringing. My idealism over time was marred by frustration at the struggle to see and feel change, whilst every other industry was unrecognisable in its ability to accept and adapt to market forces.
However, in 2008 I moved from my project management role at The University of East Anglia in Norwich, to The Eden Project in Cornwall to take on a project aptly named the 21st Century Living Project. For the first time in my career I felt a sense of belonging and belief that change can occur on a breathtaking scale with a passionate community who share the vision. It found a place in my heart, and the support I received in my most challenging journey was that of a loving family rather than workplace.
So, the epiphany....In summer 2009, after a long period of feeling unwell, I was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer. At 31 years young I found myself on the wrong side of the survival statistics, facing the unknown. What followed was the most gruelling, challenging, grotesque, and yet truly euphoric experience. The physical treatment stretched out over 2 years with 2 major surgeries, 10 months chemotherapy, and 5 weeks radiotherapy. It goes without say that family and friends were amazing and did all they could, but this was a personal journey. A chance serendipitous introduction to Penny Brohn UK, a charity supporting people to live well with cancer, proved to be the building block for me to take control of my health and well-being, #Iwasresponsibleformylife.
As I embarked on life post cancer I managed to somewhat reluctantly get back into work, fuelled primarily by financial concern. Despite progressing swiftly into managerial roles I felt like I was paddling against the tide of self discovery I had been fortunate enough to explore when living with cancer. As I slotted back into a “normal life” I also found that the pieces started to come apart on my personal life, and my yearning for connection to my work had resulted in a lack of commitment or motivation. I then also lost my father suddenly to prostate cancer, realising afterwards how much I’d relied on his calm reassurance to hold me steady. The months that followed were a roller coaster, one that I felt little control over until I started putting the learnings from my cancer journey into action, #Iwasresponsibleformylife.
So then in 2016, sat around with friends discussing a wonderful trip to New York to celebrate my soul mates 40th birthday, we get on to the idea thats been bouncing around my mind, to get into the hospitality industry. It leads to some online searching that uncovers a business for sale, The Strawberry Thief. On closer inspection of the photos we realise that we sat there enjoying a glass of wine with my mother and my partners parents following our completion of the #Bristol10k, which we both ran with sponsorship for Penny Brohn UK (where incidentally we met as she also had bowel cancer, a story for another time!). So with the support of my mother, partner, and numerous others, I got the keys on 30th June 2016 and embarked on a new journey.
Its fair to say that the 2 years or so since acquiring The Strawberry Thief have been the most inspiring and educational. It has been a passion project that has led to positive personal development and filled me with pride. We are a table service bar serving high quality drinks and food. This of course is a massively simplified description but encapsulates what we are there to do. We continually develop our sustainability plans to ensure we are doing different, demonstrated by our 100% renewable energy tariff and continually striving to reduce energy/waste/water, alongside our social initiatives such as equal living wage pay irrespective of gender or age, annualised hours wherever possible, and our recent introduction of private healthcare for our full time staff. We have developed a large local supply chain where we deal direct with breweries, distilleries, orchards, and food producers, to ensure we learn about their product and take that passion into the way we serve it, which has proved to have given back far more than we ever sought. I have been fortunate to attract fantastic staff that are passionate about the industry and willing to try a different way of doing things fuelled by my support to see them and the business grow.
It feels like we are just beginning to take off, and the #BestBarBristol accolade at the Bristol Life Awards 2018 is recognition that our approach is being noticed and celebrated. The next steps are establishing our new food offer, maintaining the fantastic organic growth we have seen this year, and establishing our plans to grow to a further site in 2019.
None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t continually come back to that learning from my cancer journey, I was responsible for my life, as you are for yours.
Thank you for reading this chapter, and I look forward to reading about your journey one day.