Adapting to survive – The BBQ Project is the fruit of Gavin’s labour of love

At eight o’clock this morning Gavin Steedman’s dreams were another step closer to fulfilment when at last he was able to invite people inside to enjoy his unique style of cooking. Tom McCann recently met-up with the entrepreneur and discovered a man with vision and a relentless determination to make his business succeed.

It’s been a few weeks since hospitality businesses reopened their doors and welcomed back customers for the first time this year. In some ways it’s been as if nothing has really changed with people back out and spending again but until today it has been outdoor service only.

Gavin Steedman in his favourite place – hard at work, building his business.

So for Hastings born and bred Gavin Steedman, boss of The BBQ Project on Hastings Pier, its a huge day in the development of a business he has built from the ground up.

Before this year The BBQ Project had never actually had a home base, so for Gavin, just how busy it has been so far has been genuinely unprecedented.

“We knew this place would be busy, but it’s been a monumental task trying to get it right,” says Gavin. “You take on challenges in life, but by April 12th it became very apparent it would be one hell of a challenge.”

Since opening The BBQ Project has seen staff numbers increase almost tenfold, with the original five having risen to a total of 45.

“To me, this has been the scariest part of it all,” says Gavin. “It’s the amount of lives now dependant on us to make a success of this. With the space we have—170 outside covers—we’ve taken on even more people this week just to make sure the experience is what it should be.”

For Gavin, Barbecue has always been a passion, going back to his childhood.

“It’s that raw, back to basics of cooking over an open fire,” he says. “I was in the scouts for years. I still remember cooking over and sitting around an open fire and just absolutely adoring it. Fire and flame, they give meat and veg and fish so much flavour, and it’s so different to anything else.”

“The dream of this began nine years ago,” Gavin explains. “The basis of what we do is slow smoked, barbecue food, but the reason why it’s a project is that it’s creating dishes that have barbecue elements but aren’t what you’d normally view as barbecue. It can be taken from all over the world, so it’s always about evolving and trying new things out.”

Joan – the 1957 van that started the whole thing off.

Created by Gavin after receiving an early inheritance from his dad, The BBQ Project is a family business. It began with a single truck—Joan they call it—refurbished with help from friends and family in a two year labour of love and from which they first opened in 2017, popping up with immediate success at festivals and events all around the country—until the pandemic hit, that is.

“We were grand finalists in the Sussex Food and Drink awards three years in a row, in our first three years of trading—it was bonkers,” says Gavin.

“Before the first lockdown, we had such an amazing array of festivals and events lined up to go to with Joan, but obviously they were wiped out.”

To survive throughout the summer last year, they worked alongside the Fountain, another local business, supplying food for their in-house menu and for deliveries through the Eat Out To Help Out Scheme, and also for Queer On The Pier via Maurice—the latest addition to their truck fleet. Their partnership continues still, with The BBQ Project also supplying for the recently opened Sovereign.

But despite the pandemic, the rise of The BBQ Project has continued.

“In 18 months, we’ve gone from one food truck to two, to two food trucks and a pub, and now we have two food trucks as well as a pub and a restaurant—and all of this through Covid.”

“It’s been a bloody unique journey,” says Gavin. “Two years ago, I never would have thought this was going to happen, but it’s always been about evolving, adapting, and trying to move forward and finding a path.”

After their food truck successes, The BBQ Project was approached and offered a three year lease by the operators of the pier, an opportunity Gavin says he couldn’t turn down: “It was one of those situations where you just go with it—like an unplanned night out,” he laughs. “Life throws these things at you, and all of a sudden you see it and go ‘actually, that could have gone a lot worse.’”

“The vision was always to have a nice little place like the Bull will be in May, but this is such a beautiful place—such an incredible, iconic structure. We do just want to do it proud, really. The structure and the town.”

For all their success, however, they’ve still struggled through Covid—as most businesses have: “It was really hard,” says Gavin. “Eat Out To Help Out—it worked as a kind of cash-cow, to support the staff we had and to move on. We then adapted into deliveries, and it was difficult to get our heads around the logistics of that.

“We started in the Fountain on Queens, then in January we moved into the Bull which we had completed on the previous November – which is in Battle. So not only were we serving the Hastings area, we were serving Battle. We just had to push and push and push, and organically we kept growing, but delivery, it’s difficult. We ended up with four or five drivers alongside me some nights.”

“There were times where we did just think ‘are we going to get out of this?’” says Gavin. “But in the end, it was just adapting to survive.”

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