BeeBee & Leaf meets Geetie Singh-Watson, organic publican and ethical entrepreneur
This month in our eco hero interview series, we’re talking to the award winning Geetie Singh-Watson - organic publican, active campaigner, environmentalist, and ethical entrepreneur.
Geetie is a big believer in living life and running her business in line with her ethics and values. She is the founder of the first official organic pub in Britain, The Duke of Cambridge Organic Pub, in Islington, London and in 2009, she was awarded an MBE for ‘Services to the Organic Pub Trade’.
Her most recent venture, and fourth pub, is The Bull Organic Inn, in Totnes, which opened in August 2019. The ethical pub also has eight bedrooms. In line with their values the Inn is powered by sustainable sources, plates are full of food sourced locally, and the bedrooms furnished with upcycled finds.
The Bull inn has just been named Eco Hotel of the Year by The Times and The Sunday Times and also came runner up in Sawdays Best Food category, and the National Geographic Big Sleep Awards 2020.
Geetie, thank you for joining us.
Would you tell us about your work?
I started working in restaurants in the 80s and was shocked by the lack of sustainability. My ambition was to open my own organic values driven restaurant. This is my fourth site, an Inn, a hotel, which I haven’t done before. It seemed a natural step.
Day to day, life is talking through what’s happening each day in the hotel. We’re all on a big learning curve. One thing I’ve always applied from the very beginning of the businesses, it comes from my stepfather, is the ‘do review’ – review what you’re doing, take what you can learn and then improve. It’s a continual learning circle. We do a lot of that, but I’m not running the site. My motive for opening the site is that I love it. I love the industry. I met all these incredibly talented people who I knew could do it.
"I believe in being the change you want to see; I also believe that individuals have the power to affect society and environmental issues. We make the world what we want it to be."
How did you get to where you are now?
I grew up in a commune, we were self-sufficient and grew organic produce. We recycled, we bought fair trade, we were incredibly politically active, I was indoctrinated from a very young age into thinking about the impact I was having on society and the environment. I wanted to do something with my life that felt like I was contributing but I didn’t want to do into politics.
I wanted to be an opera singer; I did that for a while. I did get into the Birmingham conservatoire. But I didn’t love it. I quit after a year and went into restaurants and loved them.
After a couple of years of waitressing I just thought I’m working so hard for other people I’m going to do it myself. I was also really shocked at the lack of sustainability; I couldn’t believe it. The terrible food they were bringing in and then over working it to turn it into something good. I knew from my commune life that if you had really great raw ingredients you didn’t need much else, well a talented chef.
At the time there was no minimum wage, I never had a contract, never paid holidays or sick. A lot of the time I didn’t even get paid, I lived off my tips. I remember one employer drove round in a Porsche, closed the company and didn’t pay us our last few weeks wages. That was a massive lesson in the disparity of me and him, what it meant for me to not have my wages compared to his life.
When I started building up my business, I wanted something that delivered great food, ingredients and service but without the judgemental formality. I went on a mission to find a business partner and find a site. That process took four years, a time where I honed my skills – learning about organic food supply, fine wine, and beer.
Your businesses and the way you live your life, is very values driven. Can you talk us through those values?
I believe in being the change you want to see; I also believe that individuals have the power to affect society and environmental issues. We make the world what we want it to be. I believe in keeping yourself informed. I apply that to every aspect of my life. I talk about the conscious compromise at work. Everything we buy we consider the impact of our choice.
I apply that to my personal life too. My younger daughter of 11 challenges me. Greta Thunberg has been profoundly useful with that. I can always say ‘What would Greta say’ and my daughter backs down!
What do you enjoy about your work?
Enjoyment is really important. If we’re not enjoying it, I don’t want to do it. That has been a guiding light through all my work. Part of the pleasure is knowing that we’re doing good. We’re not just trying to make money. We’re trying to affect change in society, politically, and we’re supporting other businesses who are doing amazing things around the planet.
I really love the people - watching the team develop, have real autonomy and get pleasure out of their work. I believe in recruitment being key to everything – if you have the right people in place you don’t have to push that hard.
It’s feeling we’re doing something positive with people who are enjoying doing something positive – and really good at it. If we were just running a decent pub with decent ingredients, the values were there but the trade was fairly turgid because we weren’t being fantastic restauranteurs, I wouldn’t enjoy it.
First and foremost, I employ people who are skilled in our industry and then we apply the values together.
What advice would you give to people looking to start living more sustainably?
At the moment in the Inn we’re trying to educate but without lecturing so customers can make changes in their own lives. We have nine ‘noble rules’ and we’re going to pick three to put on postcards for people to take away with them. I find it second nature. I think it’s about logic – question what it is in front of you. How will it be disposed of? If you apply that to everything you’ll buy less. Think about the farming involved. And don’t eat it if your grandmother wouldn’t have known what it was.
Who inspires you?
My parents most of all – they don’t compromise. My upbringing is also my biggest source of inspiration. Those at the commune – they lived their values to the core. I often meet people who are talking the talk but they’re not living it.
"We’re trying to affect change in society, politically, and we’re supporting other businesses who are doing amazing things around the planet."
What is the future for you?
Right now, it’s about surviving. I think there will be a place in the market for those doing something ethical for their business to build back better. Our fantasy at the moment is that we will create a facility for others in hospitality to learn from what we’re doing. Our prices are the same, the margins, everything we do we consider the value – the CO2 savings are huge for a hotel like us compared to your typical air-conditioned hotel.
Where do we go from here?
I try not to think about the bigger picture and I just try to do the right thing and live in the right way. I have always been involved in bigger politics – thinking on a governmental level. I think now we need to focus on grassroots, take control of our communities and take responsibility that we as individuals can create the change we want to see.
If every individual in this country stopped buying off Amazon who don’t pay any tax. If we bought only organic and supported our local economy. If we spent our money in an ethically driven way, we can change our society. If we all just bought into ecotricity and good energy all we’d have is wind farms and solar. It would be over.