Indie Oxford Interview: Arbequina
Today we talk to Ben Bateman, General Manager at Arbequina on Cowley Road. Ben has a real passion for independent businesses, food and our local community in Oxford. We chat about where they source their produce, how they work with other Oxford independents, and how important the neighbourhood is to the business.
Tell me about Arbequina, how it started.
Arbequina has a lively, buzzing and friendly atmosphere with the best produce and service we can find. Everyone who works here is incredibly passionate about the highest quality ingredients and result. It was started by Rufus Thurston (owner of Oli’s Thai) and Ben Whyles (owner of the buildings’ former Door 74) teamed up for a new, exciting venture. Arbequina aims to encapsulate the best qualities of small, independent businesses in an ever growing and exciting industry.
What did you do before starting at Arbequina?
Other than my first job working at the Phoenix Picture House in Jericho years ago I have spent my life in hospitality. I started out bar tending and soon found a love for good service, products and the incredible people you meet in restaurants. I started restaurant management 7 years ago and have worked mainly in Branca (Jericho) and Quod (High Street), both of which I think would be considered Oxford staples. I knew Rufus through previous work, and when he approached me with the opportunity to open a new site with Ben and himself, I jumped at the chance to work with such passionate and driven people – and here we are!
Hospitality should not be about making as much money as possible, but about the passion and love that everyone holds for the industry.
Arbequina has a wonderfully simple menu, what’s your criteria for selecting dishes?
I think Tapas is a great style of eating which allows you to really express the quality of ingredients you can use in cooking. Dishes can tend to become over-complicated and I think you can lose the beauty in the simplicity of
good, well produced fare. As I mentioned, we are blessed with a team who are incredibly passionate and driven to create the best that we can. Apart from the owners our chefs are Spanish, and our head chef Norberto brings some wonderful influences of his own to the table – you get some amazing twists on what he grew up with in Cadiz. To be honest the core ethos we hold is giving the best quality product at the fairest price. Hospitality should not be about making as much money as possible, but about the passion and love that everyone holds for the industry.
What is the business best known for?
Well, I would hope what I mentioned in the first answer! We are all aware that eating at Arbequina is not a traditional, typical, 3 course meal in a standard Brasserie – but it was never intended to be. We are always striving for it to be a lively, buzzy, fun, cool and adult atmosphere where people really want to be. That is where the true love lies. In terms of our dishes we are probably most proud of staples like the Onion Tortilla and Beetroot Borani. I am very proud of our wine list which strives to be unusual, and especially the sherry that we have in stock – certainly underrated and we are pushing for it to have more of a place.
Where do you source produce for Arbequina?
A lot of the traditional Spanish products we use must be imported. We use a mixture of suppliers for all things, to get the best mix (or so we feel!). Brindisa & Mevalco supply a lot of our products as well as a Spanish couple who live in London (a friend of a friend kind of thing!), Alsur. Everything that we need fresh we get from independent, local suppliers in Oxford. We use Four Seasons for veg and Alder’s Butcher on Cowley Road for our meat! A lot of our spices and herbs we use from the Maroc Deli (our neighbours a few doors down) and they have some wonderful flavours to play around with.
My aim is to have a place that is as much fun for staff to be in as the customers
What makes Arbequina unique?
A mixture of things I suppose. The eating style is not very prevalent in Oxford, so it makes a nice change of pace for customers – sharing plates and a constant, flowing service and food feels a bit more interactive. The people in it is a massive factor, to have a group all driven towards the same goals makes for a great environment to be in and around. My aim is to have a place that is as much fun for staff to be in as the customers – when you get that balance right it can only be beneficial for everyone! I think a lot of the kudos must go to the owners as well – to have a restaurant driven by a love of good food and the industry goes a long way.
What would be your advice for anyone wanting to open their own restaurant?
A very difficult thing to answer I think. It takes a lot to open and run a restaurant, and it is not the kind of business that starts reaping rewards very early on – so requires dedication for sure. Depending on what kind of focus your restaurant will have, a good knowledge of the food, quality of products (ingredients), wine and drinks is a massive help – as well as previous experience working in them of course. I would say get to know places that you love, and the people that work in them. Restaurant environments are ever changing, and you are always faced with new challenges that need new answers, so if you speak to people about their experiences you will learn a lot.
I think bravery and a ‘stick to your guns’ attitude is important. Make an environment that you love, food that you love, in an area that you love. This is not always easy at first and everyone has an opinion (always welcome
constructive criticism of course!), but if you keep chopping and changing what your end goal is you will end up with a mess! I think any business with no clear-cut direction will only confuse staff & customers alike! Passion. It takes dedication and sacrifice to keep a restaurant open. Without passion a restaurant will never survive.
…your regulars and local customers are the bread and butter of success.
How important is the local community to your business?
Everything… as I am sure the case is with all independent businesses. Especially in restaurants, your regulars and local customers are the bread and butter of success. To be part of a loving, welcoming community of both customers and other businesses means the world to us!
Finally, what are your favourite independent businesses in Oxford?
I guess I have to say Oli’s Thai… But in all seriousness of course it is! I must admit I am heavily biased towards anywhere that serves food because I love it so much. That said to list just a few; The Chester, The Ultimate Picture Palace, Indigo, Edamame, The Magdalen Arms, Annie Sloan & Bicycle Blooms.
It’s wonderful to see a business thriving due to their passion for good ingredients, great service and for creating a warm and welcoming neighbourhood hub.
Love, Rosie xxx