It’s been a good couple of months since four local business people stepped in to save iconic Norwich restaurant, The Last Wine Bar. Emma Outten heads to St George’S Street to find out their plans.
One of the four saviours of The Last Wine Bar in Norwich can remember going to the iconic restaurant as a teenager, spending many a late night with his parents, celebrating some special occasion or other.
Back in the 90s, little did Mark Loveday know that he would end up saving the iconic Norwich restaurant from closure and buying the business with three other regulars!
The Last Wine Bar and Restaurant, which opened 29 years ago last month, was bought by the quartet in March – as founder James Sawrey-Cookson, 67, was retiring from the business.
As well as Mark, there’s Mark Duffy, chairman at Dardan Security; Vince Pearson, chairman of Waterfall Elior; and management consultant Lynda Baxter.
The two Marks already knew one another, through Norwich Rugby Club, and they then met Vince and Lynda through a charity cycle ride a couple of years ago which took in each rugby ground in Norfolk.
For Mark, of Loveday & Partners, it’s been the venue of many an end of season rugby dinner or business lunch. Or somewhere to simply enjoy a steak and a glass of wine.
Let’s face it, The Last has been all things to all the people over the decades. ‘It’s the whole package,’ agrees Mark. ‘It’s a bit like the bar in Cheers where everybody knows your name.’
Sitting in the bar, he explains how it all came about: ‘It was a bit serendipitous. James mentioned it was time to move on to the next phase of his career – retirement. And it’s always been a romantic goal of mine.’
The four of them are promising to retain everything which has made the restaurant such a much-loved Norwich institution – the 20 people it employs are being retained, with the management team made up of longstanding manager Emma Neal, head chef Iain McCarten and deputy manager Gracie Sutton, along with business support coach Richard Maxwell. ‘The continuity of the staff was one of the key things,’ says Mark, ‘Iain and Emma are pivotal.’
Emma has been working at The Last for the past 20 years. She says of her tenure: ‘It’s been an adventure! When I first started it was just me – now I’ve got a husband, two children and a dog, so life has evolved.’
Founded in a former shoe factory on St George’s Street in April 1990, The Last has also evolved, as she says: ‘We used to have a really big drinking fraternity here on a Friday night. And when I first started we used to do sandwiches.’ Once the à la carte menu was introduced in the restaurant, the food offering has never really looked back.
She thinks what the quartet have done is ‘brilliant’ and adds: ‘I already had a really good relationship with Mark and Mark. They were my firm favourites!
‘James, at Christmas, said he was going to retire and could I suggest some people who I thought I could work with – I mentioned them both straight away.’ It was probably never in doubt that she would stay: ‘I come as part of the fixtures and fittings!’
Iain, meanwhile, has been Head Chef for two years. Originally from Devon, he came to Norwich to start a family with his partner, who is from the city.
He is passionate about local and seasonal produce, as he says: ‘The menu then writes itself.’ Local suppliers include Archer’s and Clarke’s, both butchers; Easters fruit and veg, plus Howard & Son fishmonger and game dealer.
The bar menu represents good value, with the cheesecake rather famous around these parts. Iain says: ‘Moving forward, we are going to keep some of The Last Wine Bar classics on there – I would never take the cheesecake off.’
Iain is not surprised four customers have stepped in to save the day: ‘It’s a bit of a gem and I don’t think anyone would have let it go.’
Mark says of this dream team: ‘We want Iain to express himself in the kitchen and be dynamic and creative with his menus, and Emma to just keep on being Emma really, giving people a warm welcome when they arrive.’
The team are looking to invest in improvements and ideas being kicked around include turning the à la carte restaurant across the walkway into more of an all-day brasserie, offering pastries and such like in the morning, as well as al fresco seating.
Downstairs, in the basement, there are ideas for a bar, offering craft beers, cocktails, and maybe live music.
Upstairs in the bar Mark reveals: ‘And I love the booths concept, so we might have booths and more of a Continental feel – where Paris meets Norfolk.’ Oh, and expect to see monthly theme nights.
‘By the summer we are hoping to implement some of the changes,’ he says,
‘but keep the same key themes of The Last Wine Bar: inclusiveness, the warm welcome and the quality of the product.’
For his own part, he says: ‘I’m looking forward to making the wine list more dynamic and exciting. I’m doing the
Featured in issue 36 – May 2019 – Spotlight Feature