From budding golf pro to leading local businessman… we follow the story of Chicken & Blues co-founder Joshua Simons…
London-born Joshua Simons first arrived in the Poole area (specifically Lilliput) in 1999. The son of a restaurateur, his father owned multiple restaurants in Richmond, before opening the original Café Shore in Sandbanks when they moved down. “[It was] the peninsula’s first style-conscious food and drink concept […] a visionary move, and one that I’m proud of my dad for having the balls to do, when everyone around him was telling him he was mad. I worked part-time behind the bar, making coffees and pouring wine”.
The catering and hospitality industry may be in his blood, but would you believe that Joshua did not start off down that path? Back in the day, the co-founder of popular barbeque chicken restaurant business Chicken & Blues was on track towards becoming a professional golfer. He told us why he turned away from golf, and about his successes in the restaurant trade since…
WHAT INSPIRED YOUR FIRST LOVE, GOLF? HOW DID YOU GET INTO THAT?
My grandad was an avid golfer and a member of Wentworth Golf Club in Surrey — quite a prestigious club. I wasn’t interested in golf in the slightest until he dragged me up there one Sunday morning when I was about nine years-old and I hit some balls on the driving range. From then on I was totally obsessed. Within three or four years, I dropped every other sport that I was playing at school and played golf at every opportunity. We pretty much lived on a golf course in Kingston at the time, and I played before school, after school, the weekends… just totally obsessed.
I had a half-decent run up until the age of 18, winning the County Junior Championships a few times amongst being highly placed at international events… played around the world for five years and represented England and Great Britain at junior level. I wanted to turn professional — that was the goal.
A few of my friends have gone on to achieve great things in the game – winning tour events, playing in Ryder Cups, coaching stars of the sport, presenting on television and such like. It’s great to see them succeed in the game, and I still follow their journeys closely.
WHAT PROMPTED YOU NOT TO GO PROFESSIONAL WITH THE GOLF?
There was an extended period of time where I just stopped enjoying the game. I wouldn’t like to call the life of a golfer monotonous, but when you’re trying to make it as an elite amateur before turning professional, there’s a lot of time on the road… staying in dodgy B&Bs in random locations around the UK and Europe… I just lost a bit of the love.
When the decision was made that I would leave school at 16 and play full-time, things got serious very quickly. I heaped pressure on myself and, in hindsight, I think I was too immature to handle it all. It may have been a premature decision to stop playing. I’ve since learned through my business journey that you can go through periods of not “enjoying things”. It’s pretty normal. You just have to keep applying yourself, and more often than not you get back on track. I try not to look back at my decision to stop playing so early with disappointment.
FROM THERE, YOU ENTERED YOUR FAMILY BUSINESS — SPECIFICALLY IN RESTAURANTS, AND THEN NIGHTCLUBS. WHAT SPARKED THE IDEA TO MOVE INTO THE FAST-FOOD BUSINESS AND LAUNCH CHICKEN & BLUES?
I opened my first nightclub when I was quite young, at 21 years old. Shortly after my dad had opened a restaurant and bar in Bournemouth called Jimmy’s. I convinced him to back me in opening a nightclub next door, which we called Jimmy’s Club. It was a great success, selling for a decent profit. We then went on a journey of opening large concept venues in Bournemouth town centre, which whilst trading well, came crashing down in the banking crises of 2009.
That was a harsh lesson and a tough period – and proof that the saying, “One day you’re the cock of the walk, and the next, a feather duster” rings true. I then opened a boutique nightclub brand called PRIVA. We had clubs here and in the Caribbean – specifically Barbados – for five years or so. We also promoted hundreds of events, including full-scale concerts at the BIC.
I suppose it came to a stage where 5am finishes just weren’t sustainable. I was beginning to feel like I was burning out, and wanted to put my energies into building something I felt was more suitable to someone who was married with kids and approaching their 30s. Utilising the skills I had learned through years as a promoter and marketer.
Street food was becoming quite a big thing in London, and a friend of mine who used to run one of our restaurants had moved back there – he was always telling me about these cool, specialist street food vendors, pop-ups, doing one thing really well; whether that’s burgers or pizza or whatever. So I went up there and had a look, and realised there was a distinct lack of high-quality barbeque chicken on the high streets of Bournemouth and Poole. You had what you might deem your lower-priced, unhealthy fried chicken shops, and then Nando’s, which is more your large-scale dining concept. An opportunity arose to take over a shop with a few friends in Boscombe, and Chicken & Blues was born.
IT’S NO SECRET THAT THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY HAS BEEN PUT THROUGH THE WRINGER DURING THIS PANDEMIC. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE KEY TO A BUSINESS SURVIVING SOMETHING SO CHALLENGING AND UNPREDICTABLE?
The unpredictability has been one of the major challenges, because the regulations have changed so regularly. One minute you’re closed, the next minute you’re open… From what I’ve seen in hospitality, it’s been a traumatic experience for so many of our friends. Chicken & Blues in some ways has been very lucky — we have spent many years developing our “at home” services. We’ve partnered with Deliveroo over the last six years, and had built an online business in Bournemouth and Poole where we were delivering to in excess of 4,000 customers a week before the pandemic had taken full effect. When Boris closed all dine-ins around the country, but kept takeaway and delivery open, it was something we could slot into.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still been a challenging year to stay operational. But in essence, Chicken & Blues has managed to keep its head above water. In terms of other businesses surviving something like this, I think some of it has been down to fortune. If your business was geared up for this kind of operational concept of delivery and takeaway before, then you could slot in quite easily. But some have been victims. If you have a product or service that is reliant on seeing your customers in person, it’s impossible to trade. Hairdressers, for example – not much you can do other than sit, wait, and hope for government intervention.
DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER COMMENTS REGARDING THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY’S TREATMENT DURING THE PANDEMIC?
There’s been the good, the bad, and the ugly. My friends that own nightclubs and music venues have been treated harshly. They’ve had next to no support, alongside suggestions from the Chancellor to retrain and find another job – an extraordinary response from the government. That’s an example of a part of the sector that has been hung out to dry so far.
Regarding everyone else, some have struggled to get grants, owed to their rateable values. Some have small grants that haven’t even covered their overheads. And some have moth-balled their sites, furloughed their staff and sat tight. It’s been particularly hard for the many businesses that have attempted to trade under various restrictions. The reality is, for most businesses, anything worse than Tier 1 trading results in them losing money. It’s important that the government continue with support measures until all restrictions are lifted.
IN OCTOBER 2020, YOU PLEDGED TO GIVE 1,000 MEALS TO FAMILIES IN NEED IN THE BCP AREA AS PART OF THE MARCUS RASHFORD CAMPAIGN. DO YOU AND CHICKEN & BLUES REGULARLY WORK WITH ANY OTHER CHARITIES OR CAUSES?
It’s an important part of our brand and business. When we opened in Boscombe in 2013, we were taken aback by the support from the neighbourhood. But we were also mindful of the social issues that the area faced. You could see them with your own eyes, standing outside the shop for an hour during the day, watching things unfold.
My partners and I decided that Chicken & Blues shouldn’t just be a barbeque chicken shop. We should also be a brand that gives back to its community and supports local causes. For example, we partnered with Deliveroo that first year, and launched the Chicken & Blues Christmas Gift Bank, where up to 50 local families were delivered a box of food and children’s toys on Christmas Eve. This initiative has been running every year for six years across Bournemouth and Poole (apart this past year because of COVID).
Aside from this, we have supported hundreds of causes and charities over the years. Anything from Julia’s House Hospice and Dorset Mind charities, to giving away meals for raffles at local schools. This year, we are delighted to launch the Chicken & Blues Neighbourhood Fund. This is a way for us to formalise our fundraising and support, with the help of our patrons. We’re inviting our customers in Bournemouth and Poole to nominate what they believe to be worthy local causes and charities. We then intend to distribute money to selected causes throughout the year. We’re very keen to give back to the community when we can.
WHAT ARE YOUR NEXT STEPS AS A BUSINESSMAN, POST-COVID?
Essentially, we intend to grow a successful hospitality business with our company, Aviary Hospitality. Alongside Chicken & Blues, we are soon to be launching Flamingo, a spacious indoor-outdoor all-day dining and drinking concept in Bournemouth. We are diversifying our brand portfolio over the next few years to encompass different types of hospitality businesses.
In regards to Chicken & Blues, we aim to grow that brand with multiple store openings when the pandemic settles down. I’m fortunate that I have talented and experienced partners that share my ambitions for our business. We have some exciting plans, and I think the next couple of years should see them come to fruition.
WHAT IS THE DREAM OR END GOAL FOR YOU AS A BUSINESSMAN?
The goal is to grow a business that my partners and I can be proud of, and that our people love working for. And to continue to love what we do on a daily basis. It’s very easy to prioritise money – you can start making some irrational decisions. We love creating hospitality concepts and seeing the public have a good time. That’s what gets us going in the mornings. If we continue to focus each day on delivering quality experiences, improving all elements of our business as we go, then success should take care of itself.
When all is said and done, I don’t want to look back with any regrets. My business partners and I see the next ten years as a huge opportunity to make an impact in our sector, and that’s what we intend to do. This isn’t a rehearsal. Hopefully, I’ll have some more time to play golf again in the future.
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