I’m staying not far from the lovely, and traditional Devonian town of Ashburton currently. Everything is exactly as it should be….cream teas, antique shops….
…until I reach one unexpected entrance among all the Englishness…. there’s something rather California here. And suddenly I find myself among an eclectic mix of biker paraphernalia, and a great place for a cup of strengthening joe. Looking more closely I noticed you could also get a damn good evening meal at The Spray Shop Café within Rust and The Wolf.
Mat Hayles is the owner of this unlikely paradise – I asked him how it happened and …
MH: ‘Rust’ reflects my insatiable appetite for anything old and vintage with a story to tell; ‘The Wolf’ is about being wild and free-roaming. It’s a good name because people ask about it so much…they remember it.
SD: How did Rust and The Wolf and The Spray Shop Café all start?
MH: I’ve always been into biking as well as Americana from the early pioneer days up to American counter culture of the 60s and 70s. I scoured yards and collected enough to start an online shop. That’s been going for the last three years, and I’ve supplemented the online sales with a series of pop-up shops at motor cycle events and weekend fairs. Also, I’m now buying more day to day vintage Americana. It’s worked well, but this is a very niche market and it’s limited. Motor cycle culture is not ‘high street’!
“I’ve always been into biking as well as Americana from the early pioneer days up to American counter culture of the 60s and 70s….. but motor cycle culture is not ‘high street’!”
SD: So where did the idea of The Spray Shop Café come from, and what were the challenges to setting it up?
MH: The idea of the café was to appeal to a wider, more stable market. The problem was to find a site big enough, but a chef friend of mine knew of this place – it was originally an old garage. We’ve been open since November 2018, but it took 18 months of planning to get it ready before then. I had zero experience of running a restaurant… it was quite an eye opener!
“I had zero experience of running a restaurant… it was quite an eye opener!”
The shop side was fine – no problems there. But the restaurant was a steep learning curve. We have an open kitchen, we needed front of house staff was well as chefs and others. Staffing was a problem, organising the rotas – we have 22 on our books currently. I have to do all the payroll and pensions….
Initially finding staff was a problem. My restaurateur-chef friend helped to begin with, then I used an agency. Now I find people tend to drop in and offer their services – word has spread in the hospitality industry and we’re better known now.
SD: Who is your main market – is it changing?
MH: We get ladies who lunch here on a weekly basis, and the bikers come, en masse, at the weekend. But we decided to turn it into a restaurant rather than a café fairly early on – that made us niche…different… there are several other places in Ashburton that offer teas and coffees.
SD: You now offer an enticing menu for dinner three evenings a week – how do you develop that?
MH: I work that out with our chef, Jodi, we’re looking for a Mexican, south California vibe. On the menu at the moment for example one of the starters is a chipotle-glazed mackerel with beetroot salsa and avocado purée, with So-Cal-style fish tacos with slaw, salsa, and chipotle crema being a choice for a main course.
SD: Where do you source your ingredients?
MH: We get the Mexican-style ingredients – the tacos for example – from Mexico, via a supplier in London. But as much as possible we try to source locally. Aside from our Corona beer (which is Mexican) all our beers are local. And we stock loads of different Devonian gins, Wicked Wolf and Papillon for example, and rums too.
SD: The décor of Rust and the Wolf is also very eye catching, how did develop?
MH: My wife, Siobhan, who’s an interior designer, helped with that. There’s an industrial feel to it, which goes well with the nature of the site. There’s nowhere else in the South-West like it except perhaps in Bristol. I always knew we would stand out!
“There’s nowhere else in the South-West like it except perhaps in Bristol. I always knew we would stand out!”
SD: What are your plans for the future?
MH: I plan to build on what we have. Rust and the Wolf is slowly getting busier and busier. We used to only open on Friday and Saturday nights – now we open on Thursday evenings as well. But it’s very seasonal down here. After a year I’ll take stock. It’s been suggested to me that we grow by franchise, but the development of our brand…our look… is so personal to me, I’m not sure that that would work.