Our St Patrick’s Special Story
SSSSzzzzzzzzzzzzz……. That’s the sound of the kitchen at The Gage and Hot Doug’s and Bangers & Lace and any of the other dozen great restaurants that are cooking up Spencer’s British sausages. Nicholas Spencer’s journey from a small town in England to Chicago was a complicated path of tragedy & perseverance, humility & introspection, and finally love & entrepreneurship.
Not wanting to shy away from his British roots, but rather fully embrace them, Spencer’s is designed to showcase British food as it should be, not as just another Americanized UK knock-off. England may not be held upon the shoulders of culinary giants as a bastion of appetizing food, but Nicholas likes to brag that his food is proudly authentic British and Irish food.
“So bangers (what Brits refer to sausages as) have gone from being these fatty water-filled, wheat flour-filled bangers from World War II to like 90% meat, fresh herbs, seasoning, a little splash of water, a little splash of breadcrumbs and I thought, ‘That’s what I’m not experiencing. If I go to an Irish bar or an British bar in America, I’m not eating the same quality of food that I’d have when I’m back home’. “
He was fed up with the British and Irish sausages he was finding here in Chicago and knew something had to be done. Beyond that he knew he couldn’t be the only one missing out on the real experience. Plus he knew that this was not the side of British food he wanted anyone in the US experiencing.
“I know in my heart’s heart that if an American was to have that high quality, authentic British and Irish food experience, that they would really enjoy it. We’re talking about pies, pasties, like shepherd’s pie, steak and kidney pie, sausages, bacon. We’re talking about hearty, staple items which are not far removed at all from the American palate and the stuff that actually you eat in different guises anyway like chicken pot pie and all of your different flavors of typical American sausages.”
It comes as no surprise to Nicholas that his foray into entrepreneurship would hit some snags. He has had his ups and downs all his life, but he certainly couldn’t have guessed that people in Chicago would love his sausages so much that they would take them and run.
“I sold a whole lot of food to a distributor before Christmas. I never got paid. And that happens. So I sold four grand worth of bangers and bacon and then you get nothing. And you’ve paid for the production of all that food. And someone’s just taken all of your value. Boom! Gone!”
MUSHROOMS, NOT BANGERS, DOMINATED HIS CHILDHOOD. Nicholas’s grandfather had come over to England from Canada and settled near Leeds decades before his birth, but left the family a lasting legacy; a mushroom farm. Working as a “barrow boy”, which meant he sold wheel barrows full of fruit at the town market, Nicholas’s grandfather would eventually work his way up to buying a small farm where he thought he would grow strawberries. Instead, mushrooms grew.
Passing it on to Nicholas’s father, he would tend to the family mushroom farm and young Nicholas remembers being quite enamored with the idea of caring on the tradition as well.
“We learned French in school, so I wanted to learn, ‘When I’m older, I want to be a mushroom farmer.’ Other kids were saying, ‘When I’m older, I want to be an architect’. But, me, it was, ‘Je voudrais cultiver les champignons.’ ‘I’d like to grow mushrooms,’ which I did, actually, for a while. I really did want to grow mushrooms.”
Though Nicholas did tend to the mushroom fields for a very brief time, tragedy would strike him far too young, and end his time on the farm. While on a skiing trip in Banff, Canada, Nicholas’s father was killed in a large avalanche that also took the lives of several others. For 13 year old Nicholas, life was never the same around the farm after that.
“So my recollections of my dad, which aren’t huge, because I was young when he died, but I used to remember him coming home on – Saturdays in particular, and he would stink of compost, which they used to grow the mushrooms in. And we’ll just sit down and watch sports on the telly on Saturday afternoon. “
“The farm then went on a totally separate direction when my uncle took over. And I didn’t want to be a part of that anymore. And I know that my dad was keen on farming, but he wanted to give me opportunities to do things other than follow in his footsteps and become a mushroom farmer, because I don’t think he totally loved it. “
GROWING UP IN ENGLAND can make your fiercely independent because of the way the school system is setup. Unlike here in the US where the use of boarding schools has become rare, in England the idea of going away to “public schools” is actually very common. From the age of seven onward, Nicholas would spend the entirety of school years away from his family.
“In the U.K. parlance, they’re public schools. But in the U.S. parlance, they’re private schools. So you pay to go there. But we have this weird model where the more expensive a school it is, the less time you spend at home. So, they kick you away, basically. Your parents kick you away and you live at school. So, you live in a dorm room with like 15, 20 other kids.”
“My first time I remember my parents dropped me off and I can very vividly recall being so happy when they finally left. When they drove in the car down the drive and the car got out of sight I was like, ‘Yes! They’re gone at last! Thank God!’ Then I turned back in and walked into the school. The entrance to the school was quite smart and dramatic and I walked up these giant stairs and I just burst into tears, like everyone else.”
“You spend the first few weeks in tears, missing your parents, and then you sort of get on with it. It’s really weird. You’re seeing your parents once every month maybe. But sometimes it’s just for one night or two nights. I mean, it toughens you up. ”
Nicholas would eventually attend Rugby which was one of the top high schools in England.
“The funny thing is that the education system is reversed in Britain. There’s far less emphasis on what you’ve managed to attain at university. The university system doesn’t have the same level of respect. They’re great universities – Oxford, Cambridge, etc…., but it doesn’t have the same level of respect in the society that it does here because back in England it’s more about where you’ve been sent to high school. So the elite schools are like Harrow or Eton, where William and Harry went. Then there is Rugby, Oundle, Shrewsbury, Sedbergh. For comparison, if they were universities, they’d be like Harvard, Yale, Brown, Princeton, etc…. ”
The school wasn’t named Rugby after the sport, but instead the sport after the school. Every day Nicholas would walk past the plague in the middle of campus that read, “William Webb Ellis, who with a fine disregard for the rules of football, as played in his time, first picked up the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game.” As anyone might expect, attending Rugby meant that it wouldn’t be long before a student might find himself out on the rugby field.
“I remember it would rain a lot and everyone would run around on the rugby pitch and then it would freeze over and what happened was this mud bath turned into solid shards of frozen mud. And then you tackle someone who was running along, and you just rip your legs to bits. At the end of the rugby matches, and this I remember vividly, I’d run my hands on the freezing cold water and it would be stinging my fingers, it was that cold. That toughens you up.”
“I stopped playing rugby when I was about 27, and I’m 33 now. But it’s a really good socially. It’s good for exercise; it’s good for meeting people. You got together and you have way too much to drink and it’s fun. It’s my favorite sport.”
STUDYING ARCHITECTURE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF LIVERPOOL was an incredible eye opener. The people he met and the experience of getting outside the private school system would change his view on the world.
“Liverpool is totally the opposite of what I experienced at Rugby. Rugby is a quite a mollycoddled environment, full of like half grown school kids, basically. When you go to Liverpool, those are real world people there. I was very much in the minority as a result of my background when I was at Liverpool. It was a huge eye opener. ”
Like so many people who study architecture in college (including the writer of this story), what you find yourself doing and what you find architecture to actually be can be drastically different than what you thought going in. Nicholas quickly discovered it’s not The Fountainhead.
“I’m off to Liverpool and studying architecture and I realize, ‘I don’t want to be an architect’. What I want to do is I want to be on the client side of construction. I want to be a developer. I want to be involved in buying buildings in one way or another. So after I graduated from Liverpool, I was trying to figure out what to do next. Through my professor at Liverpool, I found a job down in London, which was to go and work for an organization called the Construction Industry Council, which is a not for profit lobby group. I found I could do a masters at University College London paid in full by the CIC. So, I went and got my masters in economics management at a brilliant university, very much focused on the construction industry.”
After thoroughly enjoying his graduate studies and falling in love with the concepts around construction management, Nicholas got heavily involved with the work done by the CIC.
“One of the things that I did at my job was developing this proposal to get financing from our government for something called the Design Quality Indicator. I managed the whole process, from getting financing from government through to helping to assemble our professional team, which is all very high profile famous and semi-famous architects and designers in Britain. We developed this system, which we launched online, and it’s actually been licensed in the U.S. by a Chicago business. It’s bizarre.”
After this enormous project Nicholas started to realize two critical things about the work he was doing. One, he wasn’t doing construction management, which is where his heart was and two, the world of non-profit lobby groups doesn’t exactly pay very well. A change was in order.
“So then I moved to Ernst & Young. At the CIC, I’d done all of this macro-level stuff, being very engaged with some strategic and also very political stuff: energy efficiency, integrated transport, amenities planning, construction economics, all of these things. But I wanted to know how that does actually worked in the nuts and bolts of a firm? In the context of a business, how does any of that stuff apply? So I got there and I went to the Construction Advisory Services Group.”
Even though this work was more satisfying and paid far better, Nicholas wasn’t fulfilled. He wanted out again, but this time there was a snag. He had met his future wife, Connie, who is a US citizen and Chicago native. He figured his future would most likely be in the US and quickly realized a transfer inside Ernst & Young would be his only realistic route.
“The only chance that I really had of getting to America was with E.Y. It took me about a year to persuade them to move me to the states. What happened was they said, ‘OK, you’re going to come over, but you’re going to New York, because what you do, you can’t do it out of Chicago.’ So in April, 2007 I moved to New York.”
THE LONG PATH TO A SON FOLLOWING IN HIS FATHERS FOOTSTEPS culminated in a final decision to make one more big move and life change. First off, life in NYC was great, but not the kind of place they saw themselves living for long period of time. Second, corporate life was draining the life out of him after another two years of consulting work, and third it was time to fulfill his childhood goal of running his own business.
“The whole time at Ernst & Young I’m thinking, ‘I’m in a very process-based, large firm, which is quite the opposite of everything that I thought I’d be doing.’ I thought at that stage in my life that I would be in an entrepreneurial, free-spirited, small company, small dynamic business, and that’s like the anti-thesis of Ernst & Young. So I got out. Connie and I moved in September, 2009 to Chicago.”
Nicholas had always had a fascination with entrepreneurship. He loved the opportunity to go out and make his own money. Having been surrounded by entrepreneurs his whole life (his father, his step-father, uncles, etc…), he always knew it was where he was destined to go. As an adolescent he did the job of salesman at all the family’s garage sales and vividly remembers the thrill of the transaction.
“It was thrilling because you get cash in hand, there and then. You’re persuading people and you can persuade people through energy and excitement and enthusiasm in what you’re selling. That is something that drives you on. ”
Now he found himself in Chicago and faced with the challenge of creating a business from scratch. Out of the bubble of NYC, he quickly discovered typical American life was quite different from the perception he had built as a child.
“When you live in England, you don’t know about all these different versions of American life. Your image of the whole of America, when you’re that young, is that America is full of cowboys who eat beef. And that’s it. My image of America was formed by watching the A-Team, and the Dukes of Hazard, and Dallas. They were the three things that we got on TV.”
Though we aren’t a nation of cowboys, Nicholas did discover that we are indeed a nation of meat eaters. He had been writing down business ideas for years that he wanted to do and upon looking at our culinary habits, realized that his idea for a British and Irish style sausage company could really excel here.
“I’ve been writing ideas down for years. Which idea should I start with? Of all my harebrained plans, which one should I go for first? Sausages. It’s been on my mind for ages. I did some planning before I arrived but only for four to five weeks and just purely internet-based. I’m going start making British and Irish sausages and I don’t have any contacts in the food business and I don’t have really any business connections in Chicago. Right.”
“I’m also a big believer that once you go down a path, other opportunities open, and you never really know what they are. So you’ve got your broad idea: You’re going start making British and Irish sausages. Then that led immediately to bacon. Ok, you’re going start making bacon as well. Your plan says one thing and you’re working towards your plan. And then you’re going take the other opportunities that you have as you see them. And it will grow. Something will happen. And you’ll never know exactly what. Your plan is so dynamic that you can write it down, but if you were to write your plan down all the time, you’ll just spend all your time writing because it’s changing so fast. Just dive in with a structure either on paper or in your head.”
He may have escaped, but his years at Ernst & Young had certainly rubbed off on him. Nicholas wanted data and he wanted a lot of it before he was going to start making decisions.
“I started from, who else is out there in the market? What are the price points? What am I seeing in supermarkets? Who do I believed my customers would be if I developed this product? Do is I see that there’s actually space for it out there? OK. So I can’t be the first Brit who’s moved abroad, and missed sausage and bacon so, can I find any evidence of other people’s failed attempts or has anyone attempted before? If so, what did they do? Why did they do it? Were they successful? Weren’t they successful?”
“I had this whole process for the actual development of the sausages. I looked at consumer surveys. There are all sorts of information you can find on sausage tasting, back in England, and information from supermarkets. I literally picked products which I had enjoyed and I would go to the supermarket, buy 40 different varieties of sausages, cook them all up, and see which ones I liked. Then I would figure out how they’re made, what’s in them, and look to replicate them with my own personal twist.”
Nicholas also noticed there was an explosion of premium British and Irish food products and restaurants popping up all across the US. Back in England there are over 400 different kinds of sausages. He knew the market for bringing premium British and Irish food to the Chicago market was huge. He also couldn’t find a true British or Irish sausage anywhere in his research.
“What’s nice about Chicago is that it happens to be the right place to be making sausages. However, I do get people saying to me, ‘Hang-on, you moved to Chicago and you couldn’t find the sausage you wanted?” I’m like, ‘Sorry guys, yeah, that’s the case.’ There are a lot of sausage companies, but that’s really good for my business. I think it fits quite neatly that I’m making. I’m a Brit. I’m making British food. I’m making sausages. I’m making them in the capital of sausages, Chicago.”