The sun is pouring through the floor to ceiling windows of Poco on the autumnal morning of our interview with Ben Pryor, one of the founding members of this famous Bristol institution.
Ben Pryor, along with Tom Hunt and Jen Best, opened Poco’s doors back in 2011 when he was just 23.
Heralded by many as a front runner in what we now know as Bristol’s vibrant and sustainable food scene, Ben is much more modest about Poco. “People definitely say that, but I think the Canteen and Hamilton House were pivotal in turning this area around. We just opened a café and brought a lot of heart to what we do”.
This low-key, laid back and generous attitude is at the core of what Poco does and is evident from the moment you walk in. St Germain drifts out of the speakers and even at 10am the whole place buzzes with life. It’s the kind of place that you never want to leave.
Poco is famous for its uncompromising ethos on food sourcing and food waste. They are members of the Sustainable Restaurant Association and have just been crowned Food Made Good Business of the Year for the second time.
At the back of the restaurant the blackboard displays the menu and also lists their suppliers, including Pipers Farm in Devon for free range meat, Upcycled Mushrooms for Bristol-grown funghi, Homewood Farm for Somerset ewes milk cheese and Billings and Briggs for organic and natural wines.
Poco serves tapas style dishes to encourage sharing, and the menu changes regularly. An impressive 90% of their food is sourced from the UK, most from as close to Bristol as possible. The menu is 100% seasonal and food waste is minimal. “To give an example” Ben says, “Take the squash on the menu. We use everything. We make crisps from the skin and toast the seeds into crunchy little bits of joy”.
It doesn’t stop there. Their food waste is subject to close scrutiny. Bin bags are weighed and plate waste is recorded. If the same food keeps coming back on plates the quantity is reduced. Anything that can’t be eaten goes to anaerobic digestion which is used to power the homes of Bristol.
Ben is clear that this was never going to be a profit-driven venture but he admits that when they’re paying 20 people’s wages it can be a delicate balance to strike. “Being really strict with what we buy and where we buy it from which does mean we compromise our profits in a significant way. For example, buying more expensive quinoa that’s grown in Essex rather than Peruvian quinoa, which strips local families of the ability to buy it”.
Quinoa may sound like a middle-class cliché but Poco is the real deal when it comes to their ethical commitment. It’s evident that there is a deep love and pride in what they do which drives the team and has made the restaurant success. “Without it we wouldn’t have been able pull those 90 hour weeks in the first few years, or not pay ourselves for the first months. We just wanted to bring people together, create community and operate sustainably.”
The words family, community and connected come up regularly during the interview. It’s obvious that Ben loves Bristol and moreover, sees food playing a vital role in connecting people here. “Bristol is really diverse and a much larger place than you often think it is. We should be embracing the fact that there are so many different cultural and ethnic groups here that bring their own flavour. They are all as much a part of Bristol’s food scene as we are.”
When asked about the role people like the Poco team can play improving our food system Ben is unequivocal. “I think we should be taking some of the dynamism that the Bristol food scene has and reaching out, taking that conversation about what we’re eating and where it’s coming from to a broader demographic across Bristol. If only the top 5% of the country buy organic produce is that going to change the carbon footprint of our city? We talk about building a sustainable food system but unless we actually educate everyone it won’t work.”
Poco’s relaxed atmosphere and its friendly staff make the whole operation look effortless, but there are definite challenges for Ben and his team. The main one is having constant access to good quality, locally-grown food.
Poco works with multiple small producers, all with their own delivery schedules, which can throw up all sorts of logistical issues. Working like this relies on strong individual relationships with the producers, and chefs must work responsively with what comes in.
Whilst Ben acknowledges that this is “in many ways the best way to work”, it is admin heavy and doesn’t give the chefs much chance to plan or develop menus ahead of time.
Poco goes the extra mile to make this work and are lucky enough to have The Community Farm as one of their suppliers who bring other smaller producer together. For many other restaurants this isn’t an option and they often fall back on bigger wholesalers whose produce might not be of the same quality.
Despite this Ben, Jen and Tom continue to fight the good fight, turning out crowd pleasing food at affordable prices that can be eaten with a clear conscience. It is a model others should be learning from. You can’t help but wonder if there were more people doing what these guys are doing the world would be an infinitely better place.
One more thing….
What’s the biggest challenge Bristol faces when it comes to food?
Trying to get something up and running that connects well-grown produce with everyone in the city. Everyone should be able to access well-grown nutritious food, that isn’t laden with chemicals and has actually been grown in a way that looks after the land, at a price point that they can afford.
With the exception of amazing local food heroes like The Community Farm, our current food systems aren’t serving us with this.
Which local schemes are you inspired by?
Bristol Food Producers do amazing work supporting our local small-scale producers in a raft of ways and helping them to collaborate effectively.
The Community Kitchen have a core ethos that isn’t profit driven, work with organisations like the Bristol Drugs Project, and teach kids about nutritious food. I find it really inspiring.
Who is your Bristol Food Hero?
I’m tempted to say Ari Cantwell from The Community Kitchen. She’s my flatmate but she’s one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. The heart with which she approaches her work and the philosophical purity with which she does it is exceptional.
Do you have a food resolution for next year?
Jen and I have been talking about getting a little growing space to produce back into the restaurant, but also to become bit more engaged with what it takes to grow food.