University Church of St Mary the Virgin, where Vaults and Gardens is located
Image Credit: Tony Hisgett

Vaults, gardens, and a court case: in conversation with Will Pouget

If you’ve been in Oxford for more than a week or two, chances are you’ve eaten Will Pouget’s food. He’s the man behind spots such as Alpha Bar, Chickpea, Salsa del Sol, and the Oxford institution that is Vaults and Gardens. Yet now, he’s facing a legal battle with the Church in a dispute that has both divided and united Oxford. I sat down with him to learn more about his story so far, and what’s next for Vaults. 

Having met in Vaults on a cold Sunday afternoon, we decided to escape the bustle and headed over to the quieter confines of his new office above Chickpea to have a chat. Even before we arrived, we’d launched into a discussion on Pouget’s Oxford food empire and the previous owners of the Chickpea site. By the time we were heading upstairs, we were on to the dispute. Once we had settled in, I asked Pouget to walk me through how we’d got to the current situation.

Go back twenty-seven years, and catering wasn’t even on Pouget’s mind. Fresh out of university, having studied environmental science, he joined the Television Trust for the Environment. That job took him all over the world, working on environmental film production. Within a few years, though, he wanted a break, so when an opportunity came up to run Alpha Bar in the Covered Market, he seized it. As with every enterprise Pouget has set up since, Alpha Bar embodied his personal beliefs, providing healthy, sustainable food. 

As Pouget explained to me, his “core belief is that a lot of problems in the world stem from environmental problems”.  So, when in 2003 the opportunity arose for him to take over the cafĂ© in the University Church as a socially positive, environmentally sustainable business, he leapt on it. At the time, Pouget says he was a “one man band with a few employees” rather than a “catering force”. But within a few years, it was a “roaring success”. 

From the start, Pouget appreciated the Church’s role. The deal agreed, whereby the Church would take a percentage of turnover as payment for use of the site, was designed such “that the church would directly benefit from the success of the campaign”. For Pouget “as a Christian who wants to support the Church and the work of the Church, and to align the Church’s ethos with that of sustainability and care for creation”, this deal was perfect, allowing him to work on getting to grips with the site. 

From there, Vaults and Gardens grew and grew until it “just took off” at the start of the 2010s. For him, it “really became a professional level where I could take more of a step back and start to mentor people”, enabling him to work on “developing new relationships with suppliers.” They catered for events all over Oxford, from the Oxford Song Festival and conferences at the Said Business School, to talks from environmentalists such as Jonathan Porritt and George Monbiot. The years between 2013 to 2018 were a “golden point” in Vaults’ history. By then, they’d invested hundreds of thousands of pounds into the business of the café, and had set up a separate production kitchen to help Vaults cope with its busiest days.

Yet in 2020, things started to fall apart. Even before the lockdowns kicked in, there were “the telltale signs of problems”, as numerous conferences were cancelled. When they did kick in, the café closed, and for Pouget, the business started “haemorrhaging money”. As Pouget notes, Vaults isn’t “in a neighbourhood”, and is dependent on tourists and students.dx

Then, a few months into the lockdown, Pouget received a message from William Lamb, the current vicar of the University Church. Despite the lockdowns, Lamb wanted Pouget to make a payment of £60,000 for the year, a figure which Pouget says was discussed but never settled on in 2018. And just months later, he received a notice of eviction from his offices in the University Church. In the midst of the second lockdown, Pouget remembers it being “very stressful for the staff to come in and perform the office move”. Thus began what some have come to describe the “battle of the Wills”.

Pouget believes that it was around this time that his relationship with Lamb was “really cemented to be toxic”.  After a meeting a week earlier, Lamb sent Pouget an email on Christmas Eve saying he had to sign an agreement removing “all [their] existing rights”. Pouget admits that if one of his investors hadn’t pointed out the problems with Lamb’s argument, he might have signed it. After speaking to a barrister, he was told it would be “ridiculous” to sign the agreement, and that the church “didn’t even have a legal right” to force Pouget into signing it.

By this point, it is obvious that Pouget is starting to get slightly upset by everything that’s happened. The situation has clearly taken its toll; Pouget describes himself as a “very trusting person”, and acknowledges that he “wasn’t really cut out” for a fight with the Church. In fact, the only time he seems to be angry rather than upset is when talking about Lamb. Pouget admits that his “defences were down”, and that he assumed Lamb “would have [his] best interests” at heart.

Given what followed, perhaps this isn’t so surprising. At the start of this year, the Church requested vacant possession, asking Pouget to vacate the premises and allow work to be done to the building. For Pouget though, this was “completely unacceptable”; “in 2011 the cafe was closed for four months during development work yet vacant possession was never given”. And in his words, “that’s when things really went ballistic”.

The Church say they need to carry out repair works to the site, including to the kitchen, which they need Vaults & Gardens to leave for. They now say they want to run the cafe themselves as a “social enterprise”, and are pursuing a court case to try and force Vaults out. The case is likely to revolve around whether the agreement between the Church and Vaults was a licence or not. The question in Pouget’s head is “why would you invest 400,000 pounds in a business where they can close you in three months?”. To him, the answer is “you’d never do that”.

On a personal level, Pouget seems immensely stressed about the way things have worked out. He admits “there’s a lot of friends in the church who [he’s] lost”. He remarks that “Oxford is a small pond”, and describes the situation as “heart-breaking”. Now, he “[doesn’t] dare to” go to church, despite having gone for much of his adult life. 

Pouget has two children, who it’s obvious that he cares deeply for. He told me he had “the expectation that my children would grow up, knowing that this is daddy’s kind of little cafe with a church community.” He describes it as the community he’s “chosen for [his family]”: “to feel it being under attack is very stressful”.

There is some respite though. A petition to save the vaults has received more than 10,000 signatures, and Pouget has been amazed “to hear the solidarity from regular customers”. And while he’s lost some friends from the Church, “some of them are still coming in, which is really nice to see”.

However, what happens next for Vaults is up to a court, and not a petition; there is still a “huge cloud of uncertainty”. What really upsets him is that he feels the church are “not willing” to talk to him, and the churchwardens will not agree to a “mediated, conciliatory meeting in order to reconcile and find any common ground”. Pouget says that he’d be more than happy “to transition the business into a social enterprise to meet the aspirations and objectives of the church”, and the hope is there will be “common ground that [they] can agree on”. Either way, Pouget has a long way to go before Vaults will return to its old self, and until then, it seems like he won’t either.