Eastender – Robins
Words & Podcast: Toby Harris
Grub doesn’t get more east London than jellied eels and pie and mash. We caught up with Claudia and Joseph Holmes from Robins, a local institution and family business open since 1929. Now with five shops across east London and Essex, and as suppliers to the Hammers, few people know more about tatties and liquor than this venerable pair.
How did jellied eels and pie and mash become so closely associated with east London?
Pie and mash was originally the poor man’s food – it was one of the first takeaways, along with fish and chips. The liquor came from the Dutch – originally pies were filled with eels, and liquor is a parsley sauce, so it accompanies it really nicely. When meat became cheaper than fish, the liquor sauce stayed.
Is Robins only London-based or do you supply eels nationwide?
Before we delved into pie and mash, my great grandfather – who was nicknamed Binkles – had eel yards in east London and he supplied Osborne brothers and places all over the UK, from Brighton to Clacton to South End. Then, at 27, our grandma got her first shop in Upton Park and it went from there. She’s been going for 50 or 60 years – we hope it carries on because we’re the only grandchildren out of eight who have pursued this as a career and we want to keep it going.
Are jellied eels still popular today?
Yeah, definitely. As well as jellied eels, you can also have hot eels with mash and liquor, but jellied eels are hard to get hold of now, so people who know we sell them come here solely for the eels.
Where do your eels come from?
We use Dutch, Irish and also New Zealand eels – the latter because when it gets too cold their skin gets really thick, so you don’t get as much meat.
Did you grow up in east London?
We’ve lived in Wanstead all of our lives. My nan lived a road away; my uncle lives a few roads away – we’re very family-orientated, we’re just always together. We supplied West Ham for a lot of years at Upton Park. Since they moved to the Olympic stadium, we now supply their corporate boxes. We’re proud of being east Londoners.
What’s it like working with family?
I’d be lying if I said there weren’t ups and downs but you could say the same of any job, family business or not. We have a laugh though. It’s a 24/7 job, but you have that when you own any business. Sometimes when we go out for dinner my Dad will say, “No pie talk”, because we need to learn to switch off, but that’s only because we’re so passionate. Our personal life and work are combined, but we don’t know anything different – it’s normal. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
East London has changed a lot over the last 20 years. What impact has that had on your business?
East London has changed but I think a lot of it’s for the better. It’s been revamped. In terms of business, we still have our Londoners, our regulars. We have moved out a lot through Essex but only because we’re following our clientele and now they bring their children and grandchildren, and that’s the next London generation. Everything changes; everything is affected. We’re just moving with the times.
How would you define success?
There are two sides to success: there’s a personal side and a business side. On the business side, you don’t work for fun. You work to get on and to have a comfortable life. But success is not all about money; it’s seeing customers come in every week; it’s the familiar faces that tell you you’re doing something right for them to keep returning. It’s the nice comments and people saying, “Well done, I’m proud of you.” And it’s appealing to people’s nostalgia – that’s big success to me. Personal success is happiness. I know it’s cringey, but for people I love to feel comfortable and happy is the best success of all.