Queena Wong interviews Honey Spencer

I am Queena Wong and I am a hospitality lover. Among the many amazing women I support in the hospitality industry, I have a special respect for Honey Spencer. She embraces the pure spirit of hospitality and her passion for natural wine extends across every facet of our industry. 

You’ve been in hospitality for many years and were named in the CODE 100 Most Influential Women in Hospitality in 2022. But in case someone doesn’t know you, give us a quick elevator pitch…

I’m first and foremost a female sommelier and have worked for restaurants around the globe. I have a broad experience, but have a passion for natural wine. I am currently the Wine Director for PASKIN & Associates, curating the wine lists for The Palomar, The Barbary, and our 1-star Michelin restaurant, Evelyn’s Table. I am also about to open my first restaurant, with my husband Charlie. But more on that later….

You’ve had a variety of positions – front of house, back of house, wine  importers, consulting… Was hospitality always an ambition?

My family was just always very hospitable. My mum would throw tea parties in the garden for all the old ladies in the local area. So from a very young age it was built into me to care for others via the medium of food and drink. But I had also always been told that hospitality was “not a proper job”. Initially I listened, taking a traditional path in marketing. But it wasn’t long before I realised it wasn’t the right path, and luckily I was working as a sommelier at the weekends, so the transition was simple. I’ve never looked back. It all clicked. Now I can be having the worst day, but when my guests come in and smile, I’m completely fixed.

Supporting women in hospitality has been my mission for years, and I’m thrilled you have an all-female team. It’s notoriously difficult to find – and retain – great staff today. How do you find staff, and how do you keep them happy?

Everyone who works for me has come through my relationships. I’m very lucky to have an all-female team who constantly blow me away with their knowledge, graft and passion. Watching them grow and flourish is an honour. I want them to have a brilliant life in and out of work, and I do what I can to make sure they get paid well, get qualifications paid for, and have the right opportunities presented to them.

You also somehow found time to write a book. ‘Natural Wine No Drama’ will  come out next year. First, how did you get involved with natural wine, and then tell us about that great title!

In 2013 I started drinking natural wine, and after I was determined to get to know it inside out. I found the whole category utterly beguiling, completely non-linear. The book is really my love letter to natural wine. It’s a compassionate take on agriculture and cellar-work mixed with profiles of brilliant people I think are really pushing natural wine forward, and also some personal stories. It’s about flavour, life, cultural conscious and beyond! And really good wine, with no drama. You can drink excellent wine that is natural, and that’s it.

I am proud of the book, but I found the process isolating– it’s against my nature to be sat alone at a computer! But, words are eternal, whilst hospitality is so ethereal. I felt a draw to create something that will live on. It was such a challenge but I love pushing through my fears. I can’t help myself.

Over the years, Honey has worn many hats, always making quite an impact, yet she has a gentle ease and natural ability to go with the flow. The evolution of her career somewhat mirrors that of the natural wine movement – she has diversified and softened and settled into sure footing. But no matter the project, she sees everything through a lens of sharing that experience with others.

Your next challenge is opening your own restaurant, Sune. You have tremendous amount of experience, but also a lot on. What was the genesis of this?

Opening a restaurant has been a life-long dream. My husband Charlie (formerly restaurant manager at noma in Copenhagen) and I have always wanted to look after people on our own terms. When you work your way up in hospitality, it becomes quite apparent that in order to have financial freedom and personal freedom, you have to run your own business.

The timing was finally right. We feel very settled here, Charlie and I felt we’d reached where we wanted to be in terms of working with others. But it really was the site… we came upon this space in Broadway Market, which is the busiest, most exciting spot in East London. The site is incredible, on the canal, it’s all windows and flooded with light. It’s about 40 covers, and we can have a cosy outdoor space, adding another 15 or so. Let’s call it an ambitious neighbourhood restaurant.

The list at Sune will be all about fine natural wine, i.e natural wine all grown-up. It’s in line with my trajectory - I’ve matured in line with a lot of the world’s best natural wine producers. I don’t drink a huge amount of funky wines, or cloudy pet-nats these days. I Iike pure, crystalline wines that brim with natural energy.

The priority is the guest experience. We want a visit to Sune to be restorative, and guests to leave replete from the service. There has been so much focus over the last few decades on chefs and cooking, and as a result it’s quite hard to find a bad meal in London, I mean that! But often, service is overlooked. Sune will be service-led, warm, and truly hospitable.

I want guests to remember the service. I always think of what Mya Angelo said, “You forget what people said, you forget what people did, but you remember how they made you feel.” That’s so true, and that’s what I try to do every day.

Recently, Queena conducted a survey, centred around the hurdles women in wine in the UK experience. To check out the results to the survey, simply click here