Bill Sewell, serial restaurateur, gives business insights for aspiring restaurateurs
Bill Sewell, owner of Cafe @ All Saints in Hereford and owner of Michaelhouse Cafe in Cambridge, has set up several successful restaurants. In this episode of the show, Bill shares what he has learned about what to do and what not to do when thinking about launching your career as a restaurateur.
Bill’s insights on running a successful food venture, whether it’s a restaurant, cafe or pop-up, are especially useful because Bill’s not just creative in the kitchen, he’s also a qualified accountant: a magical food-business mix.
This is the second of a two-part episode with Bill Sewell. You can check out the first part here: Ep #030: Bill Sewell, Cafe @ All Saints. A life in food: restaurateur, food writer, food blogger.
What You’ll Hear About in this Episode
In this episode of the show, Bill Sewell:
- Describes two key lessons he has learned about what not to do when setting up a restaurant.
- Defines the qualities he looks for in suppliers.
- Gives tips on traits to look for when hiring staff.
- Explains how he uses food blogging to build awareness and rapport with (local) customers.
- Lists important 3 things, based on his own experience as a restaurateur, that people should do when setting up a restaurant or cafe.
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Get the Show Transcript
If audio isn’t your thing, you can download a transcript of the show here: Ep #031. Bill Sewell, Cafe @ All Saints. Insights for aspiring restaurateurs.
You can also find the full transcript of the show at the end of this post.
Very Sound Bites from Bill Sewell
Check out the image below for some very sound bites from Bill during the show.
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Links Mentioned in the Show
Cafe @ All Saints website
Cafe @ All Saints on Twitter
Cafe @ All Saints Facebook
Michaelhouse Cafe website
Court Farm and Leisure (farm shop and wholesale and retail fruit suppliers)
Bartonsham Farm Dairy (which makes the most sensational cream in the UK)
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Transcript of the Show
Catherine Moran: Hello, and welcome to episode 30 of The Artisan Food & Drink Business Show, the show where artisan producers tell their brand story and share the secrets of their success. I’m your host, Catherine Moran.
Today’s show is the second of a two-part episode with Bill Sewell, restaurateur — owner of Café @ All Saints in Hereford in the west of England and owner of Michaelhouse Café in Cambridge the east of England — and cookery book writer and food blogger.
Actually, it’s fair to call Bill a food entrepreneur as he’s launched several food ventures, most of which were successful, and a couple that were not. And I suppose this is one definition of “entrepreneur” — someone who spots an opportunity, and goes for it knowing that there’s risk involved and not being deterred by this risk or uncertainly.
I think you’ll find it particularly interesting listening to Bill’s insights on his food ventures that “got away” — the ones, in other words, that didn’t succeed.
In this episode Bill talks about suppliers, staff and pitfalls to watch out for when setting up a restaurant or café. Here is my conversation with Bill Sewell. The background noise is Bill’s staff preparing lunch.
So, going back to the business of your restaurants, what do you think are the two biggest mistakes that you’ve made over the years?
Bill Sewell: Well they’re easy to say because there are two restaurants. One of them was the deli and café I had in Widemarsh Street in Hereford. It was a great place, customers loved it, but the numbers didn’t add up. The bit that didn’t add up was the deli bit of the deli and café, and the whole plan…
I had this idea of creating a version of like Villandry in London, which is a beautiful deli with a really, really good café restaurant, wine bar bit attached, and a kind of, seamless, no real join between the two. The bit that didn’t work in Hereford was the deli, to run a deli, you need people coming in with a gold Amex card and not thinking about spending 50 quid [pounds]. In Hereford, they were wondering whether to spend £2.50 or £3.00 and actually that just doesn’t work, you know.
We were ordering from some fantastic suppliers in London, with minimum orders of 250 quid for great finocchiona fennel salami, and other lovely meats. You know, we could have offered such great things, I’m not saying it’s the customers’ fault. They didn’t want what we were offering in sufficient quantity. Actually, possibly, we didn’t have the space to do it in a way that was right, and for shopping, maybe you need to be nearer parking.
Anyway, the deli and café idea, either it’s not right for Hereford or it’s time hadn’t yet come, and I lost more money there than I’ve ever made anywhere else, so that was one thing. That was basically about, you know, a new business, it’s about making a guess about how different bits of that business is going to work, and one of the guesses I got massively wrong.
Then the other thing was the café we had in a refectory at St. David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. Again, the numbers looked good on paper, but the degree of seasonality was something I’d completely underestimated, and the degree of managing a staff team within the context of that degree of seasonality.
So, it would go from being more busy than we could conceivably cope with in the middle of the summer holidays, and the place was, you know, on wet day when everyone had left the beach and come to the café, it was a madhouse in there. Then in winter, we’d be serving soup to three ladies who’d came to look at the carvings in the cathedral, and you’ve still got to have a manager, you’ve still got to have a deputy, because it was a seven-day week, you’ve still got to have chefs. In the winter it so didn’t add up, then the summer didn’t make up for it. Actually trying to keep a team motivated through that peaks and troughs was a nightmare. Again, we’re not there anymore, the café still exists, but we’re not there anymore, so yeah those are both really, really hard lessons.
Catherine Moran: Yeah, yeah, but particularly with your accountant’s hat on?
Bill Sewell: Yeah, but the thing is, the accountancy’s like a tool, but it doesn’t give you the answers, it tells you this is how you make up the spread sheet of your cash flow and your profit and loss, but you’ve got to decide on the number of how many plates of rabbit and cider casserole are you going to sell that day. Nobody but you, the person whose backside is on the line, can decide what number to put in there. Yes, you can look at other cafes nearby that already exist, you can say, “Well there’s this many walkby’s on the street, let’s pick a number out of the air for the percentage of those that we’ll get in the café,” but the truth is, it’s all guesswork.
Catherine Moran: Which is quite scary.
Bill Sewell: Yeah, it’s scary if you’re going to be scared by it. It’s scary if the potential losses are so bad that it could destroy your life. Luckily, I just stop short of that point. That would be bad to mess up your life, basically. Obviously, you know, you can make a thing a limited company and so you can limit your potential losses, but that’s a tricky thing. To be honest, in Hereford, I didn’t want to walk away from any of the people we owed money to, because it just didn’t seem right, you know. It was a limited company but, yeah.
Catherine Moran: So that didn’t happen?
Bill Sewell: Yeah.
Catherine Moran: What qualities do you look for in your suppliers?
Bill Sewell: There’s almost two separate sets of suppliers, because the local suppliers like the Tudge Family, that we’ve talked about are one thing, and you know, we also need caster sugar, we need washing up liquid, we need lots of boring stuff, as well as the interesting stuff. What we look for is a mixture of three things probably, quality of what they’re selling, the price, which is obviously important, and the logistical competence. The quality covers quite a range, it’s from, is this washing up liquid that will do a decent job to is this a very best bacon that we can buy in the whole country? It depends slightly what we’re looking at. The truth is, that whatever restaurants like us say about sourcing from local suppliers, which we absolutely do, an awful lot of what we buy is generic stuff, and comes from, you know, whoever the efficient national distributor is.
A second load of stuff is not generic and so, for instance, our fruit and veg, in the season, we will a buy a certain amount of fruit and veg from Tillington. We’ll buy asparagus from Tillington, we’ll get their soft fruit. We get supplied by a wonderful setup called the Hereford Community Farm, they engage with people with learning difficulties and stuff. They have a farm in Breinton, and they supply us with tomatoes and courgettes and stuff like that in the season.
But a lot of our fruit and veg through the year, we need big, fat onions right the way through the year, we need potatoes, we need salad leaves, you’re not going to get in December, great salad leaves from Herefordshire, so we use Total Produce, who are a great, very efficient, very well organised supplier. They are actually based in Hereford, but realistically, that’s only marginally significant. In the season, they will source a fair bit of produce from Herefordshire or Worcestershire, but it’s more about the quality and the efficiency.
When we first opened at All Saints, we got all kinds of people coming saying, “Oh you know, we grow some blackcurrants, we grow strawberries, would you like us to supply them?” We said, “Yeah, yeah that would be really fantastic. Can you deliver them on Monday?” They say, “Yeah, yeah we’ll be there on Monday morning.” Monday morning, no strawberries, so there’s nothing to put in the strawberry meringue. We learnt very quickly that actually, organisation and efficiency are equally important to selling beautiful stuff. It is useless selling the most sweet, beautiful strawberries if you don’t get them to the restaurant when you need them.
Catherine Moran: If they don’t deliver, you can’t deliver, it’s as simple as that?
Bill Sewell: Yeah, yeah.
Catherine Moran: Yeah, it’s such a shame.
Bill Sewell: Yeah so it’s a mixture of stuff. The fun stuff is the stuff like the Tudge’s and our apple juice that we now get from Bentley’s Farm down towards Three Choirs. Our goat’s cheese which Charlie Westhead often delivers himself, because when he does his banking in Hereford, he drops off our goat’s cheese with us.
Catherine Moran: He’s Neal’s Yard?
Bill Sewell: Neal’s Yard Creamery, yeah.
Catherine Moran: They do, in my opinion, the most wonderful Greek yoghurt in the UK, the whole of the country.
Bill Sewell: Right, well that’s interesting because we are just switching from serving Bircher muesli, which we’ve made ourselves for years, and we get nice, but not incredible yogurt to serving homemade granola, and we’re looking at whether we can get Charlie’s Greek yoghurt, so I’m encouraged to hear how good it is. We will be trying it.
Catherine Moran: It’s just something else.
Bill Sewell: Yeah.
Catherine Moran: It’s extraordinary, yeah.
Bill Sewell: Yeah, well his crème fraîche to me, is the same, and you know, you might think crème fraîche is a kind of generic thing, but actually, their crème fraîche is fantastic and that’s what we serve with our cakes and tarts here. They’re just wonderful people to deal with, so on top of the great produce, Charlie’s a lovely person to deal with, and the Tudge family are great. They just make your day. Ken who you saw just now delivering our milk from Bartonsham Farm, another fantastic local supplier, Ken is just a lovely person to have a chat with every morning. He makes toast for all our staff when he comes in. We make him a cappuccino and he makes toast. I mean, you just don’t get that from the guy, who I’m sure is a very good guy, who delivers to us from 3663, who we use for washing up liquid, and castor sugar, you know, dull things, dull but necessary things. Actually, they’re a great company in a way, but they are a dull company.
Catherine Moran: Sure, sure, absolutely, yeah. What qualities do you look for in your employees?
Bill Sewell: The first quality we look for is that they answer the ad, that’s a good start if we’re advertising. Actually, most of our staff have not come through adverts, most of them come to us because they like what we do, and they knock on the door and they say, “have you got anything going?” Very often we don’t have anything going. What we’re looking for is, people who can look you in the eye, have a great attitude to customers because we’re a very mix and match, that is, none of our staff who are purely, purely, a 100% cooking, everybody does a bit of everything. We’re looking for people who both are good with customers, some of them do just do the customer facing stuff. Then obviously for the food people, we want people who care a lot, people who will mind whether it’s right or whether it’s wrong.
The same is true for the front of house staff. The product we sell most of is coffee, and everybody who starts here has a coffee training, usually by me. My first kind of line of that is, we sell more coffee than we do everything else, so need to make sure that every cup of coffee is good, and that takes care. People they’re very dismissive about, “Oh, you know, we live in an economy where people only make frothy coffee and that’s all they do.” Actually, making a great coffee is something. We mind about people who mind, that’s what we want, people who mind and people who have a great attitude, and can look you in the eye.
Catherine Moran: Very well said. That’s a very trite response on my part, so I’ll cut that out later. What restaurants do you most admire, and why? It could be throughout the world, it doesn’t have to be in Hereford or in the UK.
Bill Sewell: Right. Yeah, I should have thought about this a bit more beforehand, I mean I absolutely love The Stagg. One of the things I love about The Stagg, it seems to me, they don’t rest on their laurels. We used to go there when it first opened, and it was great. In fact, I did a day, when I was first learning to cook meat, I did a day in the kitchen there, which was really, really interesting.
I think their food is consistently fantastic, these many, many years on after they’ve started, but they don’t stand still. Certainly, when I go there, I find I’m eating stuff I haven’t eaten before, or the presentation’s new. Over time they’ve made this lovely garden outside, in the front. They are always trying to make the place better, and I love that about it, and simply the food is fantastic. I love Nicola’s straightforward kind of fairly brusque front of house style, so that’s an example.
Where else would I say? I love what the guys round the corner are doing. Dorian who actually worked for us, who set up A Rule of Tum with his brother and partner. The burgers they make are fantastic. It is part of what we were talking about earlier, this, “Let’s serve great, simple, fantastic tasting food.” In London, I love places where you can see stuff being done. There’s a place called Caravan, I quite often go to, near King’s Cross, which is a big coffee roastery, and restaurant café. You can see the coffee being roasted, you can see your breakfast being made, you can see the sourdough bread being made, all in one, big cavernous space. I love the excitement and the honesty of that place.
Catherine Moran: The transparency, I suppose, as well?
Bill Sewell: Yeah.
Catherine Moran: Yeah. I was in London, maybe two weeks ago, and I went to Dishoom.
Bill Sewell: Right, I’ve never been there. Is that good?
Catherine Moran: It’s fabulous, you know, you must go.
Bill Sewell: That’s like modern Indian type stuff?
Catherine Moran: That’s right. They’re strapline is, “a Bombay café”.
Bill Sewell: Right.
Catherine Moran: It’s Indian tapas, so to speak, but it was a great experience. While the food was wonderful, the service was as wonderful, there was this guy who took care of us for the night, and he was every bit as memorable as the food.
Bill Sewell: Yeah, well that’s something that’s came to me as I’ve got older, that the service side of things to me, is more and more important. I remember going years ago, probably 30 years ago to the Pierre Koffman restaurant in Chelsea, which is long gone, but was a 3 Michelin star restaurant then, in the days when I used to go to such things, where my now wife was a barrister, and she could afford to take us to these places, and what was so nice was, we were there for the lunch, which was the only realistic way of eating there at a sensible price, fantastic food.
I remember asking the wine guy what we should drink, and he could see that we were not their regular gold plated customers, and he advised us for some delicious wine, but very much from the lower end of the price list, and we didn’t feel bad about that. They were lovely us throughout the meal. I just think that is a great place. Similarly, you know, a place where you can get a really good fry up, but where they, you know, treat you as a human being, give you a smile. It makes all the difference in the world.
Catherine Moran: It’s all about how you feel isn’t it, and the customer experience?
Bill Sewell: Yeah, yeah.
Catherine Moran: Making someone feel good, really?
Bill Sewell: Yeah.
Catherine Moran: You can do that with food.
Bill Sewell: Absolutely.
Catherine Moran: You can make them feel very bad as well, if give them bad food.
Bill Sewell: Well either bad food or snotty service [service with a superior or conceited attitude].
Catherine Moran: Yeah, there’s nothing worse than snotty service.
Bill Sewell: No.
Catherine Moran: It’s worse than bad food, I think.
Bill Sewell: Possibly, yeah possibly, because bad food, actually, I mean, even bad food, you know, it will fill you, which in the end, is the point of food, you have to have calories to go on.
Catherine Moran: There might be some nutrition in there, but it doesn’t taste very good, yeah. Bill, what is your approach to marketing your restaurants?
Bill Sewell: That’s something that’s kind of, again, evolved over time. Something we’ve become much better at over the last 5 years is to make sure that there’s a kind of graphic consistency between the table notices that we have, the signage outside. Signage is actually a very difficult thing to get right, and I think we’ve now got a kind of format that works for us in our particular sites. There’s this kind of physical stuff, that’s the paper, the signage, the banners, all that sort of thing.
These days of course, there’s also the whole internet side of things. Again, you know, we’re learning all the time with that, the blog is part of that, the website’s a part of that, we’re now learning to do Facebook and Twitter, which you know, I’m not great at, but I’m kind of getting there. We’ve now taken the plunge and got some people to help us do that, because actually, you know, if you don’t know how to cook, get a cook to teach you, if you don’t know how to do social media, get a social media person to help you, so that’s what we’re doing.
Catherine Moran: Sure, sure, absolutely, yeah. You’re keeping up to date with all the digital and stuff out there?
Bill Sewell: Doing our best. Yeah.
Catherine Moran: Yeah.
Bill Sewell: I guess we want people to feel that they’ve got a connection with this place, and that’s what the social media stuff is about, so when they come in, the connection is a direct one. When they’re not here, it’s great to be able to email them a recipe or to say, “Go look on the blog” Or to share a tweet saying, “Here’s the bread just come out of the oven.” It’s making connections at points in their lives where they’re not physically present, and hopefully, making them feel more part of what we’re doing.
Catherine Moran: Yeah, and I think it’s very important for local people as well, being able to connect with their local Bill’s Café @ All Saints.
Bill Sewell: Yeah absolutely, yeah.
Catherine Moran: Yeah, and it makes you more human.
Bill Sewell: Yeah, well I think that is one of the things about my cafes, and I think other local cafes, is, they are human. They are, you know, are owned and run by the people who are there, and that does, in the end, feel different.
Catherine Moran: Yeah, yeah. Just to wrap up here, I’m wondering what three things people who might be thinking of taking the plunge and opening up a restaurant, what three things do you think they should absolutely do?
Bill Sewell: The first and the biggest one by far is, do the numbers and do them properly, and don’t kid yourself. The second, I would say these days because you know, normal high street venues, the rents are out of touch of most people setting up restaurants for the first time. The second thing I’d say is, think outside the box. When Rule of Tum opened, they first of all did a pop up in a local real ale place. I think that’s incredibly hard work, but it’s a great way of sticking your toe in the water, or do a market stall or something, so find ways in and look at sites that other people haven’t thought of. Obviously we’ve done that through doing it in churches or other buildings, which are not regular high street sites.
Catherine Moran: Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting, there seems to be a move towards people who are dipping their toes in the water, like Rule of Tum, and then the Beefy Boys, another Hereford company. There’s a company in, I think they’re in the Vale of Glamorgan, in South Wales, yeah Cardiff, the Cardiff Bay area, called Hang Fire Barbecue.
I don’t know them. Right. They another one of these real…
Hang Fire Smokehouse, yes. They won the BBC Food and Farming Award last year. They’re just taking on a restaurant, so it’s quite interesting.
Yeah it is a really sensible way to do it.
And then, thirdly, I would say is, believe yourself. It’s pointless going into this world unless you have it in your heart. I don’t think it’s something that you can do well purely as a technical business enterprise. I think it’s got to come from the heart, so stick with your heart because that will guide you. I’m not meaning to sound romantic about this because in the end, it’s a business, it’s a way to earn a living, but your heart will guide you to stick to stuff that is fantastic, at least if your heart’s in the right place, it will. Stick to what you believe in, yes adjust it, don’t be unrealistic, but keep at the core what matters to you.
Catherine Moran: Then what about the three things that people should absolutely avoid doing? I’d probably put that first, actually.
Bill Sewell: Okay, so I’d say don’t spend too much on your first venture. Find ways of doing if cheaply, whether that’s by taking over a place that’s failed or buying second kit or doing it as a pop up, or doing, what do they call these suppers at home? Pop up…
Catherine Moran: Yes. Supper clubs.
Bill Sewell: Supper clubs, exactly, that kind of thing. Find ways of doing it. It doesn’t risk too much money straight away, even if you’ve got money to lose, you know, don’t lose it unnecessarily. Be careful with the money that you’re investing. I’m trying to do the negatives here, aren’t I?
Catherine Moran: Yes, I should have asked you about those, first, actually.
Bill Sewell: Don’t invest too much money. Things not to do? Don’t employ staff just because they’re the only ones that have answered the ad, if somebody’s not right, don’t employ them, just survive somehow. The third thing, I think I’ve only got two.
Catherine Moran: As an accountant…
Bill Sewell: As an accountant, don’t lose sight of the cash.
Catherine Moran: I was going to say, you’re going to have a very firm opinion…
Bill Sewell: It’s more of a “do”, than a “don’t”.
Catherine Moran: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Bill Sewell: Don’t forget the money.
Catherine Moran: Don’t forget the margins.
Bill Sewell: Well don’t forget the margins and don’t forget the cash. Have a cash flow, have a week-by-week cash flow, and watch it every week.
Catherine Moran: As it’s getting busy in here I better shoot off.
Bill Sewell: OK!
Catherine Moran: Thank you so much for your time, and best wishes for all your future food adventures.
Bill Sewell: Lovely, great. Take Care.
Catherine Moran: You too, Bill.
I hope you found to Bill’s insights on how to deal with the challenges of running a restaurant useful. You can visit Bill’s website at www.cafeatallsaints.co.uk/. And Bill is on Twitter as @cafeatallsaints. Café @ All Saints’ Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/cafeatallsaints.
All links Bill mentioned in the show are available at the show’s website, which is www.myartisanbusiness.com. And you can download a free transcript of my conversation with Bill there.
To get updates on when I publish new episodes of the show, subscribe to my email list at myartisanbusiness.com and I’ll let you know when new episodes are live.
You can find me on Twitter as @FoodDrinkShow, so please get in touch if you have any comments, questions or suggestions.
Until next time, I’m Catherine Moran, happy cooking, happy brewing, happy fermenting, and thank you for listening.