Essex/ Suffolk: Milsom family marks 60 years in hospitality

THE Milsoms have always aimed to be the best at what they do. From modest beginnings running a small tearoom on the banks of the River Stour 60 years ago, the family now has five properties and a vibrant catering business.

Le Talbooth is a fine dining restaurant and Maison Talbooth a country house hotel, while milsoms and Kesgrave Hall are brasseries and the Pier at Harwich a fish restaurant, offering casual dining but with no compromise on quality.

“We provide three things that people need to do every day of their lives,” says Paul Milsom, “they need to eat, drink and sleep, and that’s never going to change. Our challenge is to get them to come out of their houses to do those things and that is one things that has changed massively in the last 25 years since I have been in the business.”

Back then, he says, when he left university and returned to Constable Country and the family business, dining out was still a luxury, a once in a blue moon situation for special occasions and only for the wealthy and certainly not something that everyone was doing all the time.

“All that has changed; the breadth of the restaurant sector and the availability of food at different pricing points and so forth and the fact that people like to go out has made the industry, in a sense, a lot more recession proof.”

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What has also changed is the average age of his customers. While back in the 80s and 90s, most diners at Le Talbooth were 50 plus, today, thanks to the brasserie restaurants, the clientele are much younger, often starting in their 20s. Indeed, people who first experienced milsoms as children with their parents are now returning as diners in their own right, which Paul loves.

“That is a great thing to see,” he says.

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This fascinating story starts just after the war when Paul’s father, the late Gerald Milsom and his parents took over Le Talbooth, then a modest tearoom. Despite post-war rationing and a less than mobile population, the family aimed to have the best tearoom. The decision was made to employ a chef and the family moved into lunches and dinners and so Le Talbooth evolved into a restaurant, eventually ditching afternoon tea altogether, allowing the team a couple of hours off from their busy schedule each afternoon. (The irony that afternoon tea is back in fashion and on the menu at Kesgrave Hall and Maison Talbooth is not lost on Paul, who says his Dad would be ‘up there smiling’ at the idea.)

It was in 1969 that Gerald bought a country house that was to become Maison Talbooth, a hotel a few hundred yards from Le Talbooth offering luxury accommodation, quite ahead of its time.

“People thought he was mad to buy it and it made the headlines at the time,” said Paul. “You take it for granted now but in those days the concept of every bedroom having it’s own private bathroom was completely new. But these weren’t just bathrooms, they were

huge bathrooms with perhaps a round bath and taps shaped like swans, it was quite unbelievable.

“And for every bedroom to have a television – albeit a black and white one – was groundbreaking.

“From the start it was at the top end of the luxury market and we have always worked to keep up those standards which is one of the reasons we spent so much money on it five years ago (when it was closed for six month for renovation and the addition of a swimming pool and spa) to make sure it stays at that top end.”

The next chapter in the Milsom story came after Gerald paid a visit to America in the 1970s and enjoyed the fabulous seafood restaurants all along the coast.

Back in the UK, he headed to Harwich and in 1978 bought The Pier, with the ambition of creating a great fish restaurant looking out to sea.

“We had this great coast but no really good fish restaurants,” said Paul, “and so he set about creating one.”

These days The Pier has two restaurants, and rooms, and expanded into a neighbouring pub a few years ago.

The next opportunity to expand the business came in the millennium when a property once known as the Dedham Vale Hotel and owned by Paul’s grandparents came back on the market after a brief spell as a training school.

It had been sold with a buy-back clause and so the family took the property under its wing once more and created something completely unique – milsoms.

“We set about creating a new style of business that would be different,” said Paul. “The old Dedham Vale Hotel competed with Le Talbooth so what we wanted was something groundbreaking and I am pleased to say that 11 years on, it still is. It has a great atmosphere and people love it and as a result of that we looked for another property and eventually found Kesgrave Hall (near Ipswich) and thought we would do it again.”

Throughout the development of the business, one fundamental has remained at the core of this family business, quality.

“The highest standards were vital and that was true when they started the tearooms and remains so today. Back then there was less competition but there was less business as well, so the two things have marched forward together.

“Food developed in terms of aspirations and what people want to eat and we mirrored that. All these years later, we aim to be right at the top end of the restaurant market locally and hopefully nationally as well so people see this as the great restaurant to come to and we have managed to make sure standards have continued right through that period.”

As you might imagine, maintaining standards has had a lot to do with the quality of local produce.

Despite the arrival of ‘exotics’ and nouvelle cuisine in the 80s, Paul’s family always considered local produce to be really important.

“I think that if you run a restaurant in the country that has always been the case.

“If you are in a city, you are miles from the countryside and have no connectivity with it and your customers are coming from all the way around the world so you can get sucked into believing you have got to import food from far away parts. I think now there might be less of that because of modern trends, and air miles and sustainability. I’m not sure being in the country we ever fell into that trap. We have always had good local suppliers. That’s the good thing about being here, we are near to the coast so our fish doesn’t even make it onto the market, particularly at The Pier where the day boats come in and the fish go straight into the kitchen and we have lots of other local produce – strawberries and raspberries or asparagus and great meat here as well Dedham Vale beef and that’s always been here – and game in season – and the pork. We are quite blessed.

“A big difference with the food these days is that we cook for our diners and not for accolades as was the fashion back in the 80s.”

But to talk only of the food would do a disservice to the stunning interiors of each property – the public areas and private rooms – created by Paul’s wife interior designer Geraldine Milsom, and the huge team of people employed to deliver the vision.

Milsom Hotels and Restaurants employ up to 400 people at peak summer times. Whilst there is a hardcore of permanent staff, many of whom have been with the business for many years, a lot more are casual staff, particularly during the busy wedding season.

Training is paramount to ensure service is also the best.

“Again I think we are lucky here because we are close to local raw ingredient, from a personnel point of view. We have Colchester and Ipswich and the greater boroughs with a big population of young people and college and university students so there are plenty of people here to recruit and what’s great is that today’s young people are well travelled and a lot of them have a good deal of experience of dining out as it has been part of their life. So the raw material is good and we live in a wealthy area where young people have a good idea about food and restaurants and that really helps. Restaurants used to be about formality whereas today it’s about friendliness and good quality – we are merchants of happiness and we try to find young people who buy into that and who are happy in this environment.

“At the end of the day we are in the entertainment business. People choose to spend their money with us and for that we compete with football matches and the theatre and everything else. Staff have to enter into that and understand that when people walk through the door they want to have a good time – we sell happiness.”

Reflecting on the company’s achievements ultimately brings us to what the late Gerald Milsom would have made of Paul’s progress.

“A lot of people – our customers and staff - remember Dad and say to me he would be very proud, which is a lovely compliment.

“He never saw Kesgrave Hall but I think he would be proud of what we have done, and when I say we I mean the whole team.

“I shared an office with him for 18 years and we were the greatest pals and it is lovely that people still talk about him.”

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