Eat Wild is a burger restaurant based in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, and Mary Bremner went to meet founders Will and Calum Thompson.
Will and Calum Thompson spent their formative years near Cirencester fishing and shooting with their father, and what they killed they ate.
“For as long as I can remember I have been plucking pheasants and gutting fish,” says Will. “The only thing Dad cooked was game so we took a great interest. It was satisfying to shoot and dress a bird and then enjoy the fruits of our labour, so to speak.”
The boys grew up and went their separate ways; Will travelled the world while Calum made the short trip to Cirencester’s Royal Agricultural University. On returning from his travels, Will didn’t know what to do so started helping a friend out at music festivals. He quickly realised there was an opening to offer alternative catering with good quality game.
“Game was all I knew because of what Dad had taught me so I decided to set up a mobile catering van selling venison, pheasant and partridge burgers,” says Will. “I got a friend who was a game dealer in Chippenham to make them for me.”
This was back in 2010 and he spent the next summer attending local festivals and shows selling his burgers, very successfully as it turned out. Will broke into the big time burger-wise in 2011 when he got the catering rights for the Download Festival. This is a festival for heavy-metal fans who, surprisingly, couldn’t get enough of his burgers.
“I was taken aback but they loved the venison burgers in particular. They liked that it was ‘real’ meat and good quality,” he says.
In 2012, they got the concession to sell at the Wireless Festival in Hyde Park. Calum was now helping Will during the holidays and the burgers were selling like hot cakes. They were so popular at the Wireless Festival that the brothers were asked to stay on during the Olympics when big screens were set up in Hyde Park for viewing the events and when musicians played at night.
“We just sold the burgers and bottled water and that was it,” says Will. “We slept in the back of a van and worked from 7am until midnight every day selling burgers. We sold 15,000 of them in total and everyone loved them.”
No gimmicks at Eat Wild
It’s not just about selling burgers out of the back of a van, though, as Will explains:
“I feel very strongly about sustainable meat and locally produced food that is ethically sourced. I really think most people have lost touch with where meat comes from and are almost in denial when they buy ready-chopped chicken in a plastic container from the supermarket. They don’t have to acknowledge that it was actually a live animal.”
The boys timed it right as the supermarket horsemeat scandals hit at a similar time, which has led to even more people thinking carefully about what they are eating and where it has come from. And, of course, game meat is becoming more and more popular, so the Thompsons have tapped into a growing market.
“People want to reconnect with the food they eat. They want to know its origins and are demanding good quality, wild meat,” says Calum.
So successful were Will and Calum that they won a Local Food Champion award from The Countryside Alliance. And this spurred the brothers’ next move.
“We quickly realised we couldn’t compete with the larger game dealers selling burgers at farmers’ markets as we just didn’t have the same economies of scale,” says Will. “So we started to play around with the idea of opening a restaurant, thinking it would be wicked to have one.”
Eat Wild’s dirty food route
The restaurant happened sooner than they thought, thanks to one of Calum’s contacts. Calum says:
“I was having a drink with a friend – now our landlord – who was telling me that the Chinese takeaway in his premises had closed down and he wanted to open a sustainable fish and chip shop. I’d had a couple of gin and tonics so managed to persuade him to lease us the shop to open as a restaurant.”
“We had to persuade the bank to lend us some money – and that took some doing,” says Will, “but the Thompson charm worked… eventually. We then had 10 days to turn the place around, and very little money to do it with, so friends and family stepped in to help. Failure was never an option, it was going to work.”
They set a budget, realised they couldn’t afford to do all they wanted and so had to work on a shoestring. They found a local graffiti artist to paint their distinctive mural, a local taxidermist to supply them with stuffed foxes and pheasants, and made some tables out of old cable reels and others from scaffolding and wood from Cirencester Park. With the help of friends and family they had their restaurant ready in 10 days.
Calum was two-and-a-half years into his university course but gave it up to run the restaurant. Neither brother was a trained chef so they roped in a friend to help them for the first few days, showing them how to cater for large numbers.
“We decided to go down the ‘dirty food’ route,” says Will. “It sounds odd but it’s basically American diner classics such as burgers and ribs, and English comfort food like bangers and mash, but really good quality. And, in our case, the meat was going to be predominantly game and sourced locally. We want all our ingredients to come from within a 20-mile radius and to be ethically and morally sound. Our chicken has to be free-range, and our pork and beef are rare-breed. The venison is wild and stalked, and the pheasant and partridge shot locally, along with rabbit and pigeons. The bread is from a local baker.”
Interestingly, the boys won’t serve hare at Eat Wild.
“I hate seeing hares shot so we won’t put hare on the menu,” says Will.
Even some of the alcohol is local: ale brewed in Bourton on the Water, cider from Sherborne and vodka distilled in Herefordshire from English potatoes.
The boys admit they were “bricking it” when they first opened in May 2014.
“We always have the attitude of ‘we can do that’ but it did give us some sleepless nights.”
The restaurant seats 30 and on their first day they served 120 covers. With the boys cooking and Dad helping out in the kitchen, they have gone from strength to strength. They are now ninth on the Trip Advisor list for their area – quite an achievement for a restaurant that’s only been open for a few months.
“I think people eat too much meat,” says Calum. “They expect to eat it every day and pay little for mass-produced, frankly horrible stuff. They would be much better off eating meat a few times a week and paying more for better quality, locally-sourced produce. We want our food to be accessible to everyone and to teach people what’s in season. It’s not expensive and everyone is welcome. We are building up a large number of regulars of all ages and from all walks of life, which is just what we want. We are also attracting vegetarians and serve a delicious halloumi and aubergine burger. They realise our meat is ethically and morally sourced. We might even convert a few…”
Will and Calum have managed to build up a large clientele quickly using social media. They have an Eat Wild Facebook page and a blog, both of which are followed by large numbers.
“We are able to keep customers informed online about what we are doing,” says Will. “We tell them what’s on the menu this week and where our meat is from. We are planning to shoot some pheasants this afternoon to make tikka masala tonight. There will be pictures uploaded of us shooting so everyone knows what’s on the menu later.”
Now they have established one Eat Wild restaurant, they are keen to expand.
“A lot of our customers are telling us to go to the King’s Road in London,” explains Will. “We haven’t decided yet but we are certainly planning to open more places. We want our food to be real food for real people, and for it to be easily accessible.”
For reservation enquiries at Eat Wild, based at 4 Castle Street, Cirencester, GL7 1QA, tel. 01285 657399 or visit eat-wild.co.uk