This month sees one of Yorkshire’s best-loved institutions mark 100 years in business. As Betty’s marks its centennial, we spoke to chair Lesley Wild on what it’s like to run such an iconic business.
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When Betty’s Swiss founder Frederick Belmont arrived in England where he planned to make his fortune, he realised he had forgotten one vital piece of information; the address of where he was supposed to be going.
Remembering that the location’s name sounded a bit like ‘Bratwurst’ in his native language, it was suggested that perhaps Bradford was his intended endpoint.
It was this stroke of luck that brought him to Yorkshire.
In time he would utilise his skills as a baker, confectioner and chocolatier to open the first Betty’s tea room in Harrogate in July 1919.
The cafe he founded has turned into one of Yorkshire most-loved businesses and has persisted through 100 years of history.
Today Lesley Wild is the third generation of Frederick’s family to run the business and for her it was more than Frederick’s skills in the kitchen that led to the creation of a business that has endured and grown for a century.
“He saw an opportunity to appeal to women,” she said.
“Of course he opened in 1919, just after the First World War. The suffragette movement was sweeping the country and women had been required to take on lots of the roles that men had done, most of whom had gone off to fight the war and some had not come back.
“He saw that women wanted more. They wanted places they could go to meet their friends. “There were already plenty of places that men could go to meet their mates but nowhere for women really.
“He had this idea that he would create a stylish and comfortable continental cafe with flavour that would appeal to women.”
This open, stylish and upmarket ethos lasts to this day and, perhaps more than anyone, Mrs Wild embodies these principals.
She has spent 40 years of her life working in the business, during which time the firm has enhanced and maintained its position as a quintessentially Yorkshire treat for diners.
She was raised in Pocklington, East Yorkshire and went to school in Harrogate, meaning she knew all about the business as a young woman.
A qualified lawyer who also studied at art college, she got married to Frederick’s great-nephew Jonathan. It was while living together in Oxfordshire that Jonathan decided he was going to come back North and join the family business, although this was firmly not on her radar.
“There was never any intention on my part to be a part of the business,” she said.
“I just gradually got drawn into things.”
What drew Mrs Wild in was not just the family connection. She has held a life-long interest in food.
Her mother was a trained caterer while her father owned a farm. She grew up eating local produce and recalls fond memories of family holidays in the South of France when her father would scour the local markets seeking out foodstuffs that were not available in England.
One day, out of the blue, she was asked if she wanted to contribute to the business and, with a breadth of skills covering food, art and legal knowledge, she decided to give it a go.
One of her first acts in the business survives to this day. She was asked by Victor Wild to utilise her art school skills and produce drawings for what became the bees seen in the windows of the Harrogate branch to this day.
And there was a sign of things to come when her first significant contribution to the business resulted in a big success.
“The first thing I did was a project to design some fruit cakes for the export market,” she said.
“I did the recipes at home and middled around until I had three recipes of fruit cake that I liked. “Then I designed the baking tins. They were octagonal, we still do octagonal tins until this day.
“I designed the packaging and drew all the typography. I did it all by hand.
“I made the project, did the PR and marketing and sold it. - It was fantastic!”
As part of the process she managed to break new ground, on several levels.
“Until that point we had never bought any packaging in quantities of more than 5,000. I needed a minimum of 20,000 tins. So there was quite a lot of resistance at first.
“But actually they sold really quickly and really well.”
Her work in the bakery was of a sufficiently high standard that her work continued there. But Ms Wild was offering a highly diverse range of services.
Her legal training was utilised to arrange deeds for the business. She continued to work on export projects and indeed her job title was Export Project Manager for what she says was “a very long time”.
As a husband and wife team, her and Jonathan quickly established a strong partnership in the business. It was at this stage that a rebuilding process began.
“When Jonathan and I came into the business in 1975 we were still suffering from post-war make do and mend.
“The business had come through a really tough time. It was a time when people wanted modern things. It was after the war, people wanted something new.
“I think we lost a bit of our heritage at that point, There were funny things like spaghetti on toast and sardines on toast on the menu, things that were quite trendy in those days.
“We were making a lot of things for other people. We were producing frozen gateaux and we had stopped making our own chocolates. We were even buying in bread for our sandwiches even though we had our own bakery.
“So we had sort of lost the vision of what we were originally at that point.”
Lesley and her husband were able to offer complementary skills.
Jonathan was a historian who had studied the subject at Oxford, imbuing him with sense about what the history of the business was and what it had been originally.
Meanwhile Lesley had feel for the aesthetic element of the business, from its cafes to its food.
As she puts it: “Together we thought we had to get back to something about what we used to be about.”
Despite being founded as a Swiss tearoom, Bettys at that point in its history was exhibiting very little that belied its heritage and was becoming too diverse.
“We were quite fragmented,” said Ms Wild.
“We had delis, we had outside catering, we did weddings, we did a bit of everything. But not very successfully.
“We came in with two fresh pairs of eyes. We needed a bit of a renaissance. It took a long time.”
The decision was taken to stop producing products for other people and bettys began focusing on what it sold itself.
Consistency of products and service was returned. Cafe buildings were refurbished and the high quality observed to this day within the tearooms was made a priority.
Prior to the arrival of Jonathan and Lesley, Victor Belmont, Frederick’s nephew and one of the great driving forces behind making the firm so successful, had been considering taking retirement.
But the new blood provided him with a new lease of enthusiasm for Bettys. Ms Wild says his contributions were absolutely key to the firm’s success.
“Victor was brilliant,” she said.
“He was really good at improvising and was a real all rounder.”
Victor himself had taken over the business at a young age, being only 29 when he was placed in charge. Ms Wild fondly remembers seeing him sketching out by hand ideas for new recipe ideas.
His greatest achievement was in her opinion the deal in 1962 to purchase the Taylors business.
Apparently he spent many a day in the coffee factory working on new ideas.
“He was an artist,” she said.
“He understood engineering and how machines working. Jonathan used to say how bits of his Meccano set would go missing and end up in a machine somewhere.”
Eventually Victor retired but the partnership between Jonathan and Lesley endured successfully for decades. In 1997 Jonathan became chair and CEO of Bettys with her assuming the role of deputy chair.
Nine years later the role of CEO and chair were separated, with Jonathan taking the former and Ms Wild the later.
A few years later Jonathan decided to step down altogether. He had become very involved environmental projects and today works as an author of children’s books.
“He had lots of things he wanted to do, so he walked away and I was left holding the baby, “ she jokes.
For Ms Wild and Bettys it is a journey now in its fourth decade.
During our interview she speaks to several customers about their day. Some of whom clearly know her and her role with the firm while to others she just seems another friendly patron.
She is warm with them all and eager to ensure they are having a great morning in the cafe.
It is a role that she says is some distance away from where she ever imagined she would end up, but one that she nevertheless takes very seriously.
“I never expected to be here doing this job,” she said.
“It is a big responsibility and I do feel a great responsibility for the other shareholders. I always have in my head that I have to do the right thing by them.
“I am in an inlaw. I was not born into this business.
“It weighs heavily sometimes. But it is a joy.”
When asked what it takes to be a leader of the Bettys institution Ms Wild is very clear.
“We have a very strong philosophy. We want to be accessible to everyone.
“It doesn’t matter if you just come and have a cup of coffee or a three course meal - you are treated the same.
“That was very much Frederick Bellmont’s philosophy.
“This was an orphan who lost his parents at five, he had not had a sophisticated education, he was an immigrant.
“But he had a strong grasp of marketing, he really saw an opportunity. We still live by that philosophy to that day.
“We are only as good as the last cup of tea or poached egg we sell.
“A good reputation is easily lost. That is why we are so keen to preserve our point of difference and our quality.”
Last month the Bettys & Taylors Group reported record sales figures. Its tea rooms welcomed more than two million people through the doors and its share of the black tea and coffee markets remain very strong.
But for Ms Wild and her team of shareholders, the idea of establishing powerful growth in such a volatile market is not the priority.
In the last year alone national and regional chains like Jamie’s Italian and Filmore & Union have gone to the wall, Bettys is more interested in securing the next 100 years rather than exponential growth.
Ms Wild said: “Growing the business is not what we have been about as a group of shareholders. It has been about strengthening and maintaining what we have got and making sure it is safe and secure for the future.
“Because we are about quality and doing the best we can be, as well as doing what is right in the world, that is what drives the business.
“It is not about ,ore, more, more.”
When Ms Wild joined the business it employed circa 300 people. Today that figure is north of 1,500.
With such a strong reputation the obvious question arises as to whether the firm has ever consider expansion beyond the Broad Acres.
“We get approached all of the time to do things,” said Ms Wild.
“Every time some gets developed in Leeds we get asked.
“We always look then think ‘ I don’t think so’.”