Sarah Cotton

Sarah Cotton – Smorl’s

Name: Sarah Cotton.

Occupation: Director at SMORLS Ltd

blue table laid out with delicious Smorl's vegan dishes including falafels and pittas

Please can you share a whistle-stop tour of your career?

I didn’t start my career as a foodie. I trained in art and music finishing with a postgraduate in architectural glass from St Martins. Then I was a gigging musician for a chunk of my working life, playing jump, jive, swing, blues and rock-and-roll.

Like most self-taught chefs, food is a passion which bubbles up around other disciplines refusing to be ignored. I found exploring food through recipe innovation both easy and fun. The skills and discipline were learned over time in a gradually expanding kitchen. My passion allowed me to manifest a small food producing business in a very organic way, and I set up Smorl’s Houmous in 2009. We opened Smorl’s Houmous and Falafel Bar as a family business in Brighton’s Open Market in 2014.

Describe your job in three words:

In its most rudimentary form, my job is TENDING THE CHICKPEAS.

What has been your philosophy that has seen the successful development of your career?

The art of CONSISTENCY – Every day is chickpea day and you can’t make a business from selling mediocre houmous when there’s ‘supermarket houmous’ pots piled high in a labyrinth of large chains.

Never give up on COMMUNICATION – Listening to staff and customers shapes one’s day and helps orient yourself in business.

INNOVATION in simplicity – Don’t be scared to keep things simple. With food, you can push to innovate, even if your menu is derived from plant-based pulses and salad. 

over head shot of the hands holding white plate filled with colourful vegetables at Smorls

How and when did you train in hospitality, was there a particular reason for this career path?

I accidentally became ‘the houmous lady’ on a market stall back in 2009. I met a lot of people and had some great interactions. People were very forthcoming about their food preferences. They were always telling me how hungry they felt and how much garlic they liked in their houmous, which grain options they would like me to cook for their gluten-free salad and how appreciative they were to find delicious food reasonably priced. In my experience, you kind of get hooked and, before you know it, a path in hospitality has opened up wide.

What excites you most about your role?

Envisioning how we could grow the business in the future.  

The toughest aspect of your job?

Suffering from intense fatigue and managing the potential for burnout. I’m not always comfortable with my shortcomings. When you’re working hard in hospitality, it’s also hard to find the energy to make good decisions for yourself and the business.

Is there a moment in your career that stands out above the rest?

When Smorl’s won the top spot in the Eat Well for Less category of THE BRAVO AWARDS.

side shot of the blue table and two vegan dishes served at Smorls Brighton - Sarah Cotton interview

What are you most proud of?

Right back at the start, I envisioned a business model incorporating the selling of small batch, artisan, highly nutritious foods to local retail outlets whilst maintaining our own shop window. I wanted to be able to provide affordable, vegan, wholefood faire in local farmers market settings. We’ve managed to keep this model and ethos alive at Smorls over the years helping to educate market shoppers in sustainable healthy eating, whilst satisfying the flavour curious dwellers of our vibrant city.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Maintaining the consistency of all the food we offer whilst navigating post-Brexit, post-pandemic, climate change and generally uncertain times.

What advice would you offer for women looking to embark on a similar career?

Be passionate. Be confident. Be generous. Start shopping for comfortable shoes.

Do you have a go to or failsafe plate of comfort food? Or favourite restaurant/cafe/bar and why?

Honestly, I don’t get out much! If I’m flagging at Smorls, then I dive in for the spicy sambar dal with squeezy tamarind chutney. This is a life-changing comfort soup when I need it most. My current favourite restaurant is the Bonsai Kitchen in Bakers street. I need to go more. It’s so reassuringly vegan with a full umami hug japan style. 

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