The Ragged Trousers bar has just celebrated its first decade of trading on The Pantiles. Eileen Leahy spoke to Richard Simm, who co-owns it with Jason Dormand, about how they’ve made one of the town’s oldest drinking establishments a modern-day success
Anyone who regularly frequents The Pantiles will be familiar with The Ragged Trousers. The popular period pub, where you can pop in for a pint of craft beer or enjoy a sit-down meal in its chic brasserie, has just celebrated its tenth year in business under the watchful eye of Richard Simm and Jason Dormand, the successful duo behind The Forum, The Sussex Arms and The George public houses.
Richard and Jason have known each other since the early 1990’s when the pair met while Jason was running The Forum. Just over ten years ago they decided to go into business together and when The Ragged Trousers’ lease became vacant they decided to take it on. They enlisted the help of their mutual friends Ian Carvell, Lawrence Price and French chef Seb Mouzay, who still runs the kitchen, to come on board.
“The vision when we started was to open a bar that would complement The Forum and be a place where people could drink before and after gigs,” explains Richard.
Although Ian and Lawrence are no longer involved with the business, The Ragged Trousers has gone from strength to strength over the years and this, Richard says, is primarily due to their talented Parisian chef Seb, who has made the food side of things a great success.
“We decided early on that we wanted to go for that hybrid of offering the best of an English pub alongside the best of a French bistro,” he adds.
The pub’s unusual name comes from a book called The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists which was written at the turn of the 20th century by Robert Tressell and is considered to be one of the most powerfully written political works and a working-class literature classic.
“It’s a novel but it’s really based on Tressell’s personal experience as a painter and decorator in Hastings and the struggles he faced,” explains Richard.
“It focuses on the differences between the working class and their employers and also the need for the welfare state. At the time our business partner Ian was Tunbridge Wells’ only Labour councillor so we thought it would be funny to name a bar in the heart of the town after this famous socialist work.”
The Ragged Trousers building dates back to the 1700s and has a long history of being a popular watering hole although it had lost its way before Richard and Jason took it over.
“When we took it over it had been six different places in something like five years,” says Richard. “We just wanted somewhere you could go in and have a pint and some food.”
When he and Jason started running The Ragged Trousers, Richard admits that he naively thought it would be a project he could fit in at the weekends around his full-time job as a journalist. He says: “It was a really steep learning curve and it quickly ended up taking over!” Within three months he was involved full-time.
Due to its popular and historical location The Ragged Trousers has never really suffered from business dropping away. The challenges have come more in the shape of commercial costs and rates rising and the fact that The Pantiles has become more competitive.
“When we started we were probably only the fourth licenced premises and now there’s something like 15 here, but that’s a good thing and it’s been amazing to see The Pantiles transformed into somewhere really buzzing with a lot of money being spent on it.”
So how did he, Jason and the team chose to celebrate their tenth anniversary? “We had a very casual meet-up with as many former and current members of staff as we could lay our hands on – as well as a few regulars!
“We were going through the old pay roll in order to contact people and we reckon we must have employed somewhere around 100 people over the past decade. Being a bar the turnover is big: We’ve had a lot of students, actors and musicians working for us over the years.
“They’re with us for a bit then they go on to do bigger and better things but the great thing is they still come back. So it was nice to celebrate with them as they have made The Ragged Trousers what it is.”
Given the often unpredictable nature of working in the hospitality trade, what does Richard feel is the most enjoyable aspect of it?
“The people you work with – definitely. It’s not very well paid, it’s often very hard work and the effort you need to put in is huge, but at the end of the day you try to have a great time.”