What I did today (Berni Inns)
You know how you get days when you start out doing one thing and your brain and interest get diverted into summat else. Today was such a day. But a day when you find out something new and interesting is never a complete waste. So have it anyway:
The old-fashioned looking pub in Broad Street might not look like anything special to you, but this was where a revolution began.
Siblings Richard, Annie and Bessie Hort came from a long line of caterers. They grew up in the family business, the Exchange Dining Rooms in Wine Street; their mother and maternal grandmother had run eating houses, while their father, William Hort, had been Bristol’s chief rates collector.
The restaurant they inherited was the most fashionable in Bristol. The first cocktails ever to be mixed in the city were said to have been made there.
The restaurant moved to its present Broad Street site in 1922. Its signature dishes were oyster soup and Dover sole. As with many upper class places serving alcohol back then, women were only allowed in certain rooms. The whole place had been men-only until the First World War when wounded army officers complained that they could not bring their wives in.
Bessie, the last surviving Hort, sold it to Frank and Aldo Berni in 1943.
The brothers had been born in northern Italy, and had grown up there before moving to South Wales to join the family business. Bernis were natural entrepreneurs, though their businesses had a habit of being wrecked by wars. They had had a menagerie in Paris, but all the animals got eaten during the siege of 1870. Frank and Aldo’s grandfather set up a successful chain of cafes – so-called “temperance bars” as they did not serve alcohol – in South Wales, but the business was badly affected by the First World War.
Frank and Aldo set up restaurants of their own, starting with one in Exeter in 1931. When WW2 broke out, Frank and their brother Marco (who was a restaurateur in his own right) were interned as enemy aliens. Aldo had a British passport and carried on running their three restaurants; he was exempted from military service in return for working full-time at a nursery. All of their restaurants were damaged or destroyed by German bombing.
His brothers were later released and they bought Horts, their first site with an alcohol licence. The Bernis re-named their whole company Horts in honour of their most prestigious outlet.
Frank had visited the States and had been fascinated by steak houses, low-cost restaurants catering for a family market, and which made their money through careful cost control. The brothers determined to do something similar when food rationing finally ended in 1954.
When they heard the Council was selling the Rummer in St Nicholas Market, just round the corner, they snapped it up. It was Bristol’s oldest pub; they bought it and workmen had to spend ages scraping layers of paint half an inch thick when doing it up.
The Rummer, the first Berni Inn, opened on June 27 1956 offering steak, chips, a roll and butter and ice cream for pudding at a modest price.
Bristol went mad for it. The whole country, sick of its dreary and meagre diet, went mad for steak and chips. At its peak in the early 1960s the firm was opening a new restaurant every month; they especially liked turning historic pubs into Berni Inns – the Llandoger Trow quickly became another Berni. It became the biggest restaurant chain outside the USA. There were even branches in Japan.
Berni restaurants had a simple, set menu, the kitchens only needed a grill and a deep fat fryer. The staff did not need to be skilled; the only person who mattered was the manager, who worked from a detailed operations manual. They saved on a huge laundry bill by using place mats instead of tablecloths. They kept a very careful eye on the quality of their steaks, and – something unheard of in postwar British catering – they encouraged customers to complain if something wasn’t good enough.
Berni Inns also boosted profits with innovative ways with alcohol. They probably added 20 or 30 years to the life of Bristol’s historic sherry industry by introducing their famous “schooners”. A whole eighth of a bottle, served from a big barrel … classy! Well fellas – if that won’t put your dolly bird in the mood to be nice to you as you stop off on Dundry Hill when driving her home in your Hillman Imp, then make sure she finishes off her meal with an Irish Coffee or French Coffee. Sophisticated, or what?
Frank, the company chairman, was the quiet one, the one in charge of the figures and the cost control. Aldo was more extrovert, proud to call himself a Bristolian (albeit one with a distinct Italian/Welsh accent). Both brothers were millionaires by 1962, but both lived modestly. Aldo continued to live in a four-bedroom bungalow in Clifton and gave much of his fortune to his wife Esme. When she died in 1995 she left most of her £4.5m estate to the Bristol & District Branch of Animal Concern and its Holly Hedge Animal Sanctuary.
Aldo died in 1997 and Frank in 2000. By then, Berni Inns had long become popular shorthand for naff – prawn cocktail starter, steak & chips main, Black Forest gateau for dessert (they later pioneered chicken in a basket as well!) – but they were the first to bring decent-quality dining to the British masses and for many years, people couldn’t get enough.
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