Before Pret, before Eat, a century before Gail's, Murray Tollemache was serving good, homemade food from The Pie Man. We salute a pioneer.
Murray, you must have been very young when you started The Pie Man?
I was twenty-two!
Early days with Kate Cracknell and Trina Lutyens, 1984
Were you always destined for a career in food?
Not at all. I grew up in Kenya and came to school in England aged 10. When I left in 1978 I wanted to see more of the world, so flew to America and drove with Stephen Christie-Miller from New York to Los Angeles. California seemed pretty nice so we decided to hang around for a while.
One of the jobs we got was working for a company selling frozen steaks and seafood door-to-door in San Diego. The job was not a huge success as we were allocated one of the poorer parts of San Diego and while the people living in the area loved listening to an English accent they weren't prepared to spend $50 on a box of sirloin steaks.
Would YOU buy a sirloin steak from these men?
We moved on to selling Velcro wallets which was much more lucrative as they were the must-have item in America at the time. I am still using mine 40 years later although the Velcro had to be replaced after 30.
Knocked around a bit but retains a rugged charm – like its owner
After a year in California I travelled back to England via Japan and South East Asia. England in the early 80s was still a rather unexciting place so I decided to try my hand at photography in South Africa. I had great fun photographing cars, watches and girls whilst living in Johannesburg. However life in South Africa did not sit comfortably with me having been used to an East African upbringing and I decided to return to England, possibly prompted by the fact my girlfriend (now wife!) was living in London.
What made you choose the food/catering business?
Although my steak-selling in San Diego hadn't worked, I saw that others working in more affluent areas were selling lots of boxes so the concept was good, and it had given me an itch to set up my own food business. Food in London at that time was fairly mediocre and I felt there was a market for good homemade dishes. I started selling a range of fishcakes, pies and puddings door-to-door in Chelsea and Belgravia. The Pie Man was born in 1983.
Did you always want to run your own business?
Having spent time in Africa and America I was more familiar with the idea of becoming an entrepreneur than my contemporaries, most of whom went into the City, and the idea of being my own boss appealed greatly. I was not good at being told what to do and the idea of sitting behind a desk bored me, so setting up on my own was an obvious choice, albeit a rather naïve one.
When did you open your shop on Chelsea Green?
In April 1984 – by that time I'd built up a loyal following of customers buying pies from my van. When I noticed a rather run-down food shop on Chelsea Green, I approached the owner to see if she wanted to sell, and agreed to buy the lease from her. This was before the days of Marks and Spencer Food, Waitrose, Pret a Manger and the like.
Press coverage helped put The Pie Man on the map in the 80s
Did you always make your own products or did you sell other peoples’ too?
We always made our own. In those days most shop food was poor quality and a lot of it was mass-produced and frozen. Our shop had a kitchen in the basement where we made nearly everything – our pies, soups, Scotch eggs, cheese straws, flapjacks etc.
We also did outside catering for many of the Chelsea locals and businesses who found it more convenient to let us do the cooking and organising than do it themselves. I love the fact that many of the people who used us in the early days are still doing so today, including some who came as children with their parents and are now bringing their own children to the shop.
Which is your bestselling product?
Our range of pies is still incredibly popular – Cottage Pie and Fish Pie top the list, – but there are lots that people come back for time and again, like our Chocolate Biscuit Stick, our sausages and so on. Basically, if something's good, it doesn't go out of fashion.
Was the business a success from Day One, or did it have its moments?
The early days were a bit of a rollercoaster. Keeping an eye on costs and getting good management accounts each month is imperative for any business that wants to stay afloat. True then, true now!
How has the industry changed over the last 30 years?
People are much more interested in food than when we started and they have a far wider choice. However good quality food and good service are still the core of any successful food business. In the old days word-of-mouth was very powerful and the best way of getting new customers, whereas today people use social media to build their brands.
When did you have most FUN running the business?
We've catered some amazing events over the years. One that stands out was Highclere Rocks, the series of concerts which raised money for The Countryside Alliance in 2006 and 2007. I was closely involved with the planning , and it was great fun to drive my 25 year old Golf up to the main entrance of the castle (Downton Abbey was still nothing but an idea in Julian Fellowes' head) to go to planning meetings and then see the concerts come to life with stars like Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Bryan Ferry, Steve Winwood, Gary Brooker, Mike Rutherford, Andy Fairweather Low and Paul Carrack.
Best decision you've made in your business career?
Staying true to our original ethos of good home-cooked food and good service. I was keen not to be a fad. Over the years I have seen many fads and trends come and go, as they were too niche to survive. In the early 80s there were lots of shops opening selling pasta and pasta sauces but the business model was not sustainable and within a few years they'd all closed down. The same happened with frozen yoghurt shops.
And your biggest mistake?
Allowing Enron to run up bills with us for the catering we provided them at their London offices before they went spectacularly bust owing us thousands of pounds.
What aspects of running a business are you good at, and what are you bad at?
You'd need to ask my team!
Are you a spender or a saver?
If you hadn’t started the Pie Man, what would you be doing?
Ideally, singing in a rock band but sadly I cannot sing so probably a property spiv.
If you were 21 today, what career path would you take?
Being an author has always appealed to me as I like the idea of being able to work anywhere in the world, rely only on oneself and having a product that is marketable all around the world.
Thank you Murray!
If you’d like to speak to Murray about an event you have coming up, ring him on 020 7737 7799.