The historic charm of Paul Rothe & Son
Sometimes the Speciality & Fine Food Fair team travel the length and breadth of the UK to meet with deli owners and hear their stories, and sometimes we just pop next door.
Luckily, a short walk from our central London office is one of the capital’s most unique delis - Paul Rothe & Son – and we were delighted to sit down with owner Paul Rothe (named after his grandfather) to learn more about the business’s history.
Tell us a bit about the history of Paul Rothe & Son
My grandfather started this place on 2 August 1900. Like many people he came over from Germany because at the turn of the century they thought the streets of London were paved with gold. He traded as a Deutsche delicatessen, and I think in those days most of the food in the shop was imported from Germany.
It was purely retail. There weren't any yellow lines or parking restrictions or anything to stop people shopping in the West End of London.
My father entered the business at age 15 or 16 in the 1930s and he would deliver rye loaves all over London on his bicycle, even going as far as Hampstead Heath.
According to my father we were the third delicatessen in London. How true that is I don’t know but he would have it that we were the third!
In the 1930s the business began to change, obviously you had the Second World War but notwithstanding the effect that had on the business we also started having parking restrictions, which transformed the business from being someone to buy a week’s groceries from to somewhere to have lunch.
Our locality became less residential and now we have solicitors, architects and professional practices.
As we became somewhere that someone would want to eat their lunch, we did away with the area of the shop that was formally dedicated to retail and put in tables and chairs to seat 32. That was one of the biggest gamechangers in how we operate.
Historically our refrigerated display counter was dedicated to rows of butter, margarine, sausages, bacon etc., now we rely on sandwiches.
So you wouldn’t say it’s currently an equal split between retail and foodservice?
No really the vast majority of what we do is foodservice. Although we do specialise in jams and preservice, condiments and honeys. Rather than being somewhere where you can buy a pack of cornflakes or a bag of self-raising flour, we now sell any type of jam that you would require.
People come to us for things like crab apple jelly, or mulberry jelly. Supermarkets are all run by accountants and if a shelf space doesn’t turn over quickly enough then they don’t want to know. They do strawberry and raspberry jams whereas we do everything, and we apply that principal to other products too.
Apparently there’s a Dijon mustard shortage at the moment but we’ve got ten different types of Dijon mustard downstairs. We’ve been lucky with our supplier and every time we reorder, they deliver it. We’ve got floor to ceiling Dijon mustard in the cellar (so hopefully the shortage continues!)
How often are you sourcing new products to stock?
I've fallen foul of getting carried away with looking at something that that looks nice but then just hangs around because no one wants it.
We know that the thing that keeps us solvent is sandwiches, so if something gives us a better sandwich than anywhere else then we're interested in it.
What was happened with the business during the pandemic?
Not a lot!
I made a decision not to come into work. My son was operating for about two or three weeks at the start of the pandemic, but he was getting maybe four or five customers all day. I think he was closed about eight weeks and that was the only time we closed.
We had very beneficial help from the government regarding not just business rates but the self-employed help as well. That got us through COVID and now the football is amazing. We're busier than we were before COVID.
I've been trying to take things easier, because I'm in my early 70s, but there are so many customers I've got to come into work!
Maybe people have a renewed appreciation for a local, independent delis?
I think with our shop, they like the transparency. If you go to somewhere like Pret or anywhere where they have barcoded sandwiches, people who don't like tomato have to open up their sandwich and pick the tomato out. With us, they can have every single thing that they want and nothing in there they don't want.
Are there any sandwiches that are particularly popular at the moment?
Well, we've got two which we didn't do in my father's day. We've got coronation chicken, which is very addictive. They love their coronation chicken. The other is our pastrami with pickle, Swiss cheese, mayonnaise and mustard.
I have to say our pastrami is really nice. It melts in your mouth. In my father’s day we cooked our own gammons and would carve it by hand. No sandwich mixes or anything like that.
When we have a long queue, I sometimes think it would be nice to be serving pre-packed sandwiches. But the reason the queue is there is that they want to see their sandwich made.
How has the building itself changed over the years?
As you might guess, we’re quite historic and people like that. My father had a hard enough time when he changed from the old globe lights to strip lights.
A lady who lived across the road came in and said: “Robert, you’ve spoiled the character of the whole shop.”
People like the traditional white coats and to an extent we trade in our historic qualities.
One change was the tables and chairs. My father didn’t like having to step out from behind the counter to rearrange the chairs when customers left, so he had the chairs and tables screwed to the floor. Which is fine until you need a new floor covering.
Any other changes?
We've got a young lady who takes the money now! So we don't have to handle money. That's another upgrade.
I can't think of anything else from my point of view. My son Stephen, being a generation down, might have some sort of entrepreneurial, enthusiastic agenda. I don't know what it might be, but I'm happy. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, that's the old story, isn't it? I've never done anything else, and I never wanted to do anything else.
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