Gemma and Mike Simmonite are the husband and wife duo who own and run Gastrono-me, the all-day café in Bury St Edmunds. Inspired by café cultures from all over the world, Gastrono-me serves up bottomless brunches and lunches by day, and by night special dinners and nights out to remember ‘Under The Tables’ in the clandestine karaoke bar. Although Gemma and Mike were on a theatrical path as they met at LAMDA drama school in the 90’s, Gemma had hospitality in her blood, having grown up in her grandparent’s hotel in Cardiff that she absolutely hated! Read on to hear their story in Gemma’s words.
As a child I grew up in a hotel that I despised! My grandparents had run it before my parents, it was the brainchild of my grandmother Tilly who was determined to find a business that she and her husband Doug, my beloved Grandfather could work together in. The Imperial was built from a disused nightclub that she discovered on her many scoping out bike rides around Cardiff.
I say I despised it – because despite being an obsessed stage brat (with ringlets and big teeth) I was ultimately shy of customers. Performing on a stage in front of thousands absolutely fine, but carrying a soup to a table – horrifying! I subsequently spilt said soup all over the customer’s lap, excused myself politely after offering napkins apologetically, then promptly ran away and hid for about three hours!
I am quarter Greek Cypriot, but spent every half term, Easter, and summer in Spain with Tilly and Grandfather who’d emigrated. My world in Spain solely consisted of swimming pools, long lunches and even longer dinners – to this day despite never cooking at the side of my mother or grandmother, memories for me are measured in meals – what people ordered, how the dishes smelt, or tasted, just how shiny and exciting my bowl Mussels Marina was for the first time. The joke in the family was that at the age of six I was very offended not to be handed a menu in a restaurant (it was bigger than me) and when I did get to peruse it I eyed the waiter very solemnly and ordered the lobster! So despite eschewing any catering/hospitality career it was clearly morphing and mutating around my DNA getting ready to burst forth.
Mike and I met as nervous first day drama students at LAMDA in September 1990- across a sea of screechy students, our eyes locked. A Cardiff girl and a boy from a small village in Staffordshire ended up becoming good friends for the three years of the course.
On graduation night, during his band’s set – Mike was on drums (playing ‘Every Little Thing She Does is Magic’, incidentally) I knew watching him it was definitely something more than friendship… Almost instantly we moved in together into a little flat in the scorchin’ summer of 94’ above a fishing tackle shop on Garratt Lane – a ropey old place but we thought it was actual paradise.
Our careers flourished – I got my dream job of doing a season at the National Theatre, and Mike played every leading role in a summer season by the sea.
We got married in Cardiff in 1996, a completely unorthodox wedding, when weddings were anything but. I wore crushed corseted crimson velvet, actors sang and read poetry, and everyone threw each other around to a rousing Motown and Northern soul band.
We migrated from London to Surrey to buy our first home and looked forward to the future. On the horizon we were unaware that my mum was suffering from heart failure, and Mike’s dad was terminally ill. We navigated the next year on separate trips to Cardiff and Staffordshire to be with them. We were delighted when my mum had a chance of heart surgery in Cardiff, and I planned a two month stay. Two months turned into four, and four into six as her conditioned worsened progressively in hospital. After tragically losing his dad, Mike knew that it was more important than ever for us to tackle these hardships together and he moved to Cardiff to be with me. Through the next year, we lived in a caravan and spent every single night and day in intensive care. A couple of weeks before my mum’s battle sadly ended she told me that I was pregnant – no mean feat as at the time she couldn’t speak, and I was only 4 weeks pregnant. So started the next unexpected chapter of our lives…
Our beautiful little girl Tiger Pearl was born on October 1st 1998 at home in Surrey, a literal miracle considering what we’d lived through. Our theatre careers were put on hold, as being near our daughter was even more precious especially with no family to around us. Mike went to work for a newspaper group, and I wallowed in the wonderfulness of a being a mum.
We moved our life to Brighton in 2001, to regain some of the creativity and vibrance of the London life that we yearned for. Days were spent on beaches collecting pebbles with Tiger, and Mike found a new niche in the motor industry – very well suited as he has always been car obsessed.
Six years later along came our little blonde explosion called Ocean, the sister that Tiger had always yearned for. All through these years we longed, well practically pined to be together more. Mike worked exceptionally long hours to support us, and the dream was to find a business that we could run together. We were introduced to investment company around this time by a colleague. Over the course of five years we talked to them about so many different projects, play centres, pubs, hotels, campsites – they listened wisely, but nothing that they felt was right to invest in, yet.
For years nothing indicated the life that we would begin to lead, that is I suppose until Tiger’s 9th birthday. She wanted a sleepover birthday, and that of course meant with my compulsive nature she needed a sleepover cake to complete the theme – not readily available in Tesco’s, so I set about creating one. Nine little girls, all cwtched up in a giant bed, complete with our pet Yorkshire terrier on the end! It caught the imagination of local parents, and I weirdly found myself in the role of a cake maker. Celebration cakes of every kind flooded in over the months, and it graduated to me to selling cakes to local cafes and farm shops.
We moved once again to Suffolk in 2009. Mike’s sister and mum were now living down here, and we thought it would be fun to have a change of scene. My cake business was formed and called The Vanilla Bakery, it was at the zeitgeist of the cupcake boom, and demand was high, so high that Mike eventually left his full time role as Dealership manager and became a baker too – his forte believe it or not was decorating the perilous towering cupcake displays at weddings we catered for, the more elaborate the better – ones with flowers and butterflies on stems he really relished!
The cake business turned into a regular market stall, and alongside the cakes we made pastries, tarts and savoury foods. Fortuitously our stall faced Holland & Barratt, and the staff would buy their lunches with us – things like our Big Fat Greek Roll – a Greek inspired feta and spinach sausage roll, and our Tiffin Eggs – Indian vegetarian scotch eggs. This caught the eye of HB, and we were asked if we would attend a meeting with their area manager about creating a ‘food to go’ range. This escalated quickly and we were invited to go to HB’s head offices in Birmingham to discuss a range for the entire chain – we were a tad daunted and once more contacted Karel and Richard for strategic support. The range was never realised as HB changed their minds on fresh food entirely, but we came close and it made us see our future in a different way.
This is exactly how Gastrono-me was born – our idea for HB had been to have the onus on fresh, artisanal, and wholesome food in a marketplace setting, and when discussing this with Karel and Richard we realised that we could do this for ourselves. We took up a small let on a former beauty salon, and with their investment we turned it into a deli and artisan bakery.
As the months progressed, we realised it wasn’t the bought in items that were causing excitement with our customers, it was our food. We had daily rustic salads pies and tarts, fresh sauces, and meals for customers to take home to enjoy at home. People were constantly asking for a space to eat in – so it started with a rudimentary breakfast bar with stools, but gradually became 38 seats in a very tight squeeze! Food at first was everything that we had in the counters with soups and breads. But breakfast and brunch caught my eye as a meal of the day to own, and we became famous for it.
Mimosas followed, and suddenly we had this crazy new identity of breakfast, brunch and lunch café. We couldn’t cover the demand and with our devout following growing we felt it was time to get in touch with Karel and Richard once again.
Our search found us on 22 Abbeygate Street. We sought branding and landed on the company Mystery as we knew that this time when Gastrono-me hit the street, it was with a view to create more. We created a beautiful space from a former chemists and set about creating a larger and more evolved Gastrono-me, a Gastrono-me for the future if you will.
We continue to rock the daytimes like no one else, and our evenings are finally finding their mojo with the help of new menus, that purposefully try not to be like anyone else – a mistake we made at first. For the first time two weeks ago, our evening trade equalled the day – a huge turning point for us.
So here we are on the cusp of our next adventure, looking for our next restaurant in the next city, and with Cru’s help with a greater presence and prominence.
Our daughters are now 21 and 15, their lives have been equally dominated by Gastrono-me as the Imperial did mine (both have rejected it as fully as I did!) It has been all consuming, and bloody hard work at times, but I do bless the day that we began the adventure. In fact, I can’t or wouldn’t want to imagine doing anything else now, so is my obsession for food and the restaurant industry. It just proves that you can never be sure where your life will lead you…