It's a family affair at Betty's, Harrogate
PUBLISHED: 16:03 13 January 2010 | UPDATED: 22:01 19 January 2016
As Bettys celebrates its 90th birthday, Chris Titley talks food, drink and family with the husband and wife team who run it <br/>PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDY BULMER
Silver teapots. Gold-standard service. The murmur of refined conversation infused with the occasional 'mmm!' as another perfect pastry hits the spot. In a world beset by crises, people queue up for the reassuringly traditional - even old fashioned - experience of Bettys.
Yet this is one of Yorkshire's most innovative businesses. It went green when the big corporations were still eco-unfriendly. Chefs at Bettys cookery school were teaching children about good food long before Jamie Oliver tore up his first turkey twizzler.
Bettys may have her feet on the ground but she never stands still. 'We're great respecters of tradition - providing we can innovate,' says Jonathan Wild, chief executive of Bettys & Taylors Group.
This year Bettys celebrates its 90th birthday, and it's still trying new things. In Harrogate they've created the Montpellier Café Bar, a more continental dining venue than the tea rooms next door, and re-opened the Imperial Suite, an elegant first-floor retreat perfect for meetings and parties. But Jonathan's great-uncle Frederick Belmont carried out the greatest innovation of all, in 1919: opening a café of European-inspired style and taste, the like of which the conservative spa town of Harrogate had never before experienced.
Born Fritz Btzer, Frederick was an orphaned Swiss immigrant who arrived here without a word of English yet reinvented himself as 'Dickie', the archetypal Englishman and genial host of tea rooms in Harrogate and York. As he and wife Bunny had no children, 13-year old nephew Victor Wild - Jonathan's father - was brought over from Switzerland and groomed to take the helm.
The succession was very sudden: Frederick collapsed and died in his office above the Harrogate café in October 1952. 'My father was summoned from Bettys York,' Jonathan recalled.
'The only way to get a body out from the office on the top floor was down the front stairs which would have meant closing the café.'
'You can't close Bettys on a busy Saturday, can you? So my father sat with his uncle until closing time when the undertakers could come in and carry the body out. That's what my great uncle would have wanted - put the customers first!'
Founder Frederick would recognise 'everything and nothing' if he could see the business today, Jonathan believes.With the exception of York, the tea rooms have all moved to different locations from his great-uncle's time and the old bakery's been demolished.
The company has developed into a major tea and coffee merchant and is home to a renowned cookery school. But Frederick's self-reliance is still an abiding part of the business. 'The fact that we've kept that spirit of independence going for 90 years I think would impress him,' Jonathan said.
To mark the anniversary Jonathan and his wife Lesley, now chairman of the business, granted their first joint interview to Yorkshire Life. Their partnership is key to Bettys continuing success. Talking over tea and a plate of macaroons - another innovation - they were quick to support each other's viewpoint. And occasionally contradict it, as husbands and wives tend to do.
Being born into a family business can be oppressive, but Jonathan said his father Victor, who still takes an active interest in the company, never pushed him into joining. 'My father discouraged me on the basis I'd always do the opposite, being very independent minded.' 'Some might say stubborn,' interjects Lesley. 'Don't quote that,' says Jonathan, only to add: 'Because it's true!'
Encouraged by his father to have his own profession, Jonathan became a teacher. His wife to- be, meanwhile, went to art school then trained as a lawyer. 'I was a little confused,' she admits. 'I'm one of those people who's a bit of an all-rounder. I was very creative as a child, but also quite academic. It's difficult to know which bit to follow, unless you find a job like this which uses all those strengths and skills.'
The couple met as teenagers at a mutual friend's party in Dewsbury. But they didn't start going out until university days when Jonathan was organising a hog roast at Oxford and invited Lesley along. 'I thought that sounds like a nice weekend. I arrived on the morning of the hog roast. Johnny was there looking extremely panicky and he said: "I'm so glad you've come. Do you know how to make potato salad?" 'So I said yes. He said: "Could you make potato salad for 300 people?"' She spent the rest of the day in the basement kitchens.
'I think that was a turning point. I'd shown him I was willing to help.' Jonathan decided to give up teaching and join the family business as a management trainee aged 23. It was daunting at first.
'You had to go from a conversation with bakers about problems with the bread oven to a meeting with an architect about our buildings to a discussion about employment legislation and training.' He began at the bottom, learning every skill - some of which don't exist any more.'I was working in our tea warehouse, where we had no such thing as a fork lift truck, so we had to learn to build pyramids out of tea chests.'
Outsiders are wrong to assume Bettys has always prospered, Jonathan says. 'For most of the history of the business, we lurched from crisis to crisis.' After creating the business in the aftermath of the First World War, his great uncle opened the York café shortly before the Second. Rationing restricted the ingredients for Bettys' famous delicacies.
'There was more improvising than I'd care to relate. People still wanted to get married.We would ice cardboard boxes as a "wedding cake" and scramble together what little allowance we could of dried fruit and other ingredients to make a very small cake.'
Today Bettys is doing well.While wholesale tea and coffee prices have shot up due to the weak pound, the recession has generated high demand for the 'affordable treat' the tea rooms offer.
Lesley has developed the food side of the business in her three decades on the Bettys pay roll. Her love of fresh flavours and good ingredients comes from a mother who trained in catering and a father who ran a farm in the Yorkshire Wolds. They holidayed in the south of France which 'taught me about the more exotic things you didn't get in England at the time - Mediterranean ingredients and all those gooey French cheeses.'
'Ironically it was probably my influence that brought the Swiss and continental flavour back into the food here,' she said. 'By visiting Johnny's family in Switzerland and seeing a lot of the cafés over there, I developed a feel for the roots of the business.'
Bettys remains a family affair. Jonathan's brother and sister no longer work in the business but they're still shareholders. 'All family businesses have their dramas, just as all families have their dramas, and you wouldn't have it any different, would you? It can be very difficult and very tense,' said Jonathan.
'But family businesses have a good infrastructure of support.' He and Lesley have two children, and his sister has three, all now in their 20s. Four of the five are running their own businesses, and it remains to be seen if any of them becomes the fourth generation of the family to run Bettys.
Jonathan is concerned about what the next 90 years hold, for the planet and for Bettys. The company has a long-term charitable commitment supporting the tropical rainforests which are vital for this very Yorkshire company's enduring success.
'We don't know whether we're going to be in the tea and coffee business because, if we let the rainforests fall, there will be no tea and coffee, or chocolate either.What we'd be drinking in Bettys I've no idea.' 'A world without chocolate - it doesn't bear thinking about,' says Lesley. 'We'll have to grow cocoa in Yorkshire. And produce wine.We'll survive on wine and chocolate.' Suddenly the future doesn't seem so bad.