After 30 years, Browns Pie Shop is as familiar a resident of Lincoln’s Steep Hill as its well-worn cobbles, and that’s just the way it will stay after the family business was handed down to a new generation.
When former owners Allan and Christine Gill announced their retirement at the beginning of 2017 questions hovered over the future of the business – but thanks to the ambitions of son Danny, Browns is staying in the family.
With expansion of the business’ takeaway enterprise on the cards and talk of a possible second restaurant, accomplished chef Danny said he’s building on the success of the brand but added that Browns would be keeping its much-loved qualities.
Thought to have been built in the 17th century and once occupied by Lawrence of Arabia, the former tavern (along with resident ghost Humphrey) has become an attraction of its own over its life as a pie restaurant.
Taken over by Chris and Allan in 2005, the pair described their first years in business as a ‘shock to the system’.
Allan said: “I joined the Air Force at the age of 17 as a chef and then came to Lincoln at 28 and began moonlighting at Browns. I went back off to Germany for a period, worked at Lincoln College and even a spell at the prison but then in 2005 the former owner Sandy McFarlane decided to sell Browns and I said ‘okay, I’ll buy it’.
“Our daughters Claire and Louise have worked here as waitresses and Danny started work in the kitchen washing dishes from the age of 11 too.”
Chris added: “It was a massive shock, we were skint, we had a young baby. Allan knew how to run a kitchen inside out and brought fantastic skills to the business, but my work had been for the Church of England. I had never worked in catering so it took a few years to build my confidence.”
In their 12 years at the helm the pair saw the turnover of the restaurant grow year on year, bucking trends through the recession and adapting to a rapidly changing city scene.
Allan added: “It’s a lot harder to run a restaurant now. We were pre-university and pre-chains.
“I think the reason we’ve been so successful and driven forward through economic downfalls is our consistency and our passion.
“People come back because they know they’re getting a consistently fantastic meal they won’t get anywhere else.
“Our fondest memories have to include when we hosted a wedding here,” Chris recalled happily. “We had no idea if it would work, but it was so special. Christmas Markets were always a buzz for us too.
“The staff were another hugely important part, we had fantastic staff. And of course we loved reading the reviews.
“One newspaper from New Zealand did a tourism segment on Lincoln and we were the first thing they mentioned, before the cathedral and the castle.
“The other one was from Japan and the writer called Browns Pie Shop an English institution in Lincoln. That was just brilliant. We’ve also had ‘Browns Pie Shop is the Carlsburg of all restaurants.”
A taste of the future
Since the pair’s retirement at the start of the year, the business has slowly been transferred to Danny Gill, and already his young family are beginning to echo the all-hands-on-deck approach inherited from his parents.
Danny, 30, had previously worked at Browns, the neighbouring Wig and Mitre restaurant, Jocastas in Lincoln and also went on to develop his skills and gain recognition in the fine dining industry across the country.
He went on to work at Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons in Oxford (Raymond Blanc’s restaurant) for four years, Midsummer House in Cambridge and as head chef and Rousillion in London, where he won three rosettes at 23.
He marks his career highlights as cooking on Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. He also made the finals of the Great British Menu in 2016.
Danny, alongside finance Carly Turner, and with the help of head chef of 13 years Paul Fields, has lots planned for the restaurant, but says he’ll not be changing the ‘Browns way’: “I came back to Lincoln after about 15 years of working away and it’s great to be back with Carly and our two little ones.
“I’ve had too many people dangling carrots for me and I thought, ‘I want to do something for myself, I’ve got too many ambitions and too many ideas to work for someone else all my life I need to be my own boss’.
“In terms of plans for the future, it’s Browns. I’m not going to suddenly turn it into ‘Danny Gill at Steep Hill Lincoln’, start putting white table cloths on and making it pretentious because that’s not what Browns is all about.
“People come back for our signature pies and quality locally-coursed dishes. I want to keep it Browns Pie Shop for another 30 years.
“We’re looking at expanding the takeaway side of the business so people can perhaps in future order Browns from home, and Paul and I are making subtle tweaks to the menu.
“We’re also in talks with Lincoln City Football Club. It’d be great to get our pies into the stadium at half time!
“Another exciting thing to come is a series of special guest chef nights, which we’ll be announcing nearer the time.
“And we’re building our relationships with a number of local suppliers such as a new rearer of Dexter beef and Odlings butchers in Navenby.”
Head chef Paul added: “We have a great vision for Browns and Danny and I both value the reputation we’ve built.
“It’s a special place. Browns has always been a success because it is an institution.”