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Opening a new restaurant can be a costly venture, and a lack of startup capital is often the biggest challenge for food entrepreneurs in a fiercely competitive market.
But Aga and Lewis King, owners of The Old Bank in Snettisham in north Norfolk, have proved that success in the restaurant business isn’t necessarily reliant on huge financial resources.
The husband and wife team opened their small bistro restaurant in 2016 with just £15,000 ($19,000). Two years later it was named Best Local Restaurant in Britain 2019 by the Good Food Guide and was listed in the Michelin Guide.
Lewis, a native of Norfolk, had started training as a chef at 19 and honed his skills working in restaurants all over the country, while Aga, who moved to the UK from Poland to study for a degree, had worked part time in catering roles since her teens. The pair shared a dream of running their own place, but they also knew the risks they’d be facing.
“It is really tough,” says Aga. “Profit margins in the restaurant business are low and the reality is you are going to struggle to get rich running your own restaurant.”
On the other hand, however, it would give Lewis the chance to escape the constraints of someone else’s kitchen and pursue his own culinary vision. In 2014 they began scouting various parts of the UK for the right location.
“We eventually came to Norfolk and spotted The Old Bank, which at that time was being run as coffee shop,” says Lewis. “We wanted a 30-cover restaurant and everything about the place just felt right.”
However it was to be another two years before they achieved their goal, signing the lease, leaving their jobs and taking the plunge into the challenging world of restaurant ownership. Funding was the first obstacle.
“There wasn’t a lot of financial support available to a business like ours as we were considered high risk,” explains Aga. “We did look at the government’s Start Up Loan scheme, but it could take around eight months to secure funding. We’d both given up our jobs and didn’t want to wait that long, so we used our own money.”
The premises needed a lot of work; the kitchen had to be completely stripped out and refitted, and the restaurant needed decorating. With Lewis’s family roped in to help, it took them 17 days from getting the keys to opening for business, and they did it on a budget of £15,000.
What they lacked in startup cash, they made up for in the place already having a good reputation locally. “News travels fast and from the start we had people coming in,” says Lewis. “Our initial plan was to offer the same things they’d had from the previous owner; breakfasts, snacks, sandwiches, etc., not necessarily what we would choose to offer, but we needed to start earning money to reinvest. People loved it.”
With revenue coming in, they begin evolving their offering and stamping their own mark on the restaurant, gradually phasing out the breakfasts and focusing on a more modern and sophisticated cuisine, with local produce at its heart.
“When we first started we weren’t absolutely clear about what we wanted our restaurant to be, ” says Lewis. “But if we’d offered what we offer now on the day we opened I don’t think we’d be still be here.”
Word of mouth recommendations soon saw the bistro topping Trip Advisor review rankings for the region. Last year the Good Food Guide named it Best Local Restaurant for the whole of Britain, an award that relied on customer nominations to make the initial shortlist.
“For a 24-cover restaurant to get enough customer nominations to be shortlisted against so much competition was amazing,” says Aga. “Then to find out we’d won the national competition was completely overwhelming and very emotional. We were just blown away.”
The restaurant was also listed in the 2019 Michelin Guide.
Now the Kings’ sights are set on their next phase of growth. “We’ve actually never stopped working on it – we’ve only just replaced the chairs – so everything is a work in progress,” says Aga.
Lewis has a small team, including a full time and a part time chef, and what he’d really like is a bigger kitchen. His ultimate goal would be to buy the building instead of leasing in order to expand the premises.
But for now they are delighted to have created a destination restaurant in a quiet little village that has virtually no passing trade. When people come to Snettisham, they are invariably coming to The Old Bank.
“We always wanted to be a destination restaurant, and it is very flattering to have people prepared to travel a long way to come here,” says Aga.
For Lewis, the proudest moment of their journey came on July 7, 2017. “We had been open for a year,” he says. “So many restaurants don’t make it – I know, I’ve worked in some of them – but we’ve been very careful with money, we had good industry experience and a vision, and our food is different to anything else around here, and people love it.”
May 26, 2019 at 05:48AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs