John Pearce pioneered low-cost dining in Victorian London.
John Pearce (1847 – 1930) came from a poor background in Shoreditch. His strict Baptist mother had a lasting influence upon him. His father died when he was young, so from the age of nine he had to earn a living.
While working as a porter in Covent Garden, Pearce recognised the difficulty that workmen had in procuring good food early in the morning. In 1866 he hired a barrow from which he sold coffee, bread and cakes. He would set up his stand from four o’clock in the morning on City Road.
After six months Pearce had saved enough money to build himself a stall, which he named the Gutter Hotel. Within a few years he was serving 2,000 customers every day. Eventually Pearce was able to sell the Gutter Hotel for £200.
In 1879 he used the proceeds to buy the lease of 68 Aldersgate Street, London, which he turned into a working-class restaurant. There he sold as many as 600 beef-steak puddings each day. Future Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was numbered among its customers.
Pearce leased two adjacent properties on Farringdon Road in 1882, where he sold as many as 1,200 beef-steak puddings a day. Soon, 6,000 people were being served on a daily basis.
Shortly afterwards, Pearce partnered with Edward Sullivan, Baronet, who provided the business with the capital to expand. Pearce opened restaurants across London. He began to brand his outlets under the Pearce & Plenty brand from 1883.
Pearce was inspired by the temperance movement, and offered his restaurants as alternatives to public houses and taverns. Despite this, he was never an idealist, but a hard-headed businessman.
Unwilling to miss out on the middle market, Pearce opened two British Tea Table outlets in the City of London, aimed at young clerks, in 1892. Popular meals included eggs on toast and ham salad in summer, and soup, chops and steaks in the winter.
There were 22 Pearce & Plenty outlets and 24 British Tea Table outlets by 1896. Much of the food was prepared centrally at Farringdon Road, where 40 bakers were employed. Over 800 people were employed across the business, of whom almost half were women.
The company was incorporated under the name British Tea Table in 1897, with a nominal capital of £300,000. Assets of the business were valued at just over £225,000. Independent directors were nominated to the board.
Between 60,000 and 70,000 people were served every day by 1897. There were 64 shops and over 1,000 employees by 1898. Upwards of 100,000 meals were served every day by 1901. Business peaked in 1903, after which profits began to decline.
In 1904 the board investigated the decline in profitability, and concluded that a failure to update and modernise outlets was to blame. The competition had increased, and rivals such as J Lyons had made a greater effort in the décor of their tea shops. Also, food quality failed to match that of its rivals. Some outlets were rebranded as British Restaurants.
John Pearce resigned as a director in 1904, furious at the direction the company was taking. In 1905 he founded a new company, J.P. Restaurants.
33 out of a total of 70 outlets were loss-making by 1905. By 1907 this number had risen to 48.
A committee of shareholders was appointed to investigate the affairs of the company in 1907. The board of directors all promptly resigned following the nomination of John Pearce to the committee.
By 1908 the company was loss-making. That year the shareholders committee reported that many outlets were trading at a loss due to inefficient management and mistakes in policy.
In 1909 the 32 outlets that remained profitable were sold to J.P. Restaurants for £28,000. Five other outlets were divested separately. British Tea Table was liquidated in 1910.
J.P. Restaurants had 51 outlets around London by 1923.
Pearce established Associated Hotels, a low-cost hotels company, in London in 1925.
J.P. Restaurants was taken over by the Aerated Bread Company, a large catering concern, in 1927. John Pearce was retained in a consultative capacity. The freehold production facilities on Farringdon Road were immediately closed down, with production transferred to the central ABC facility in Camden Town.
Pearce and his sons were forced to resign from the board of directors in 1930, following a stormy meeting. Following this, John Pearce had a heart attack and died. He left an estate valued at £51,073.