Meet Adele Ashley, founder of foodie phenomenon Filmore & Union
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 January 2018 | UPDATED: 18:01 16 January 2018
Local entrepreneur raises a cup of decaf to her East Leeds roots with Jo Haywood
You’d expect the woman behind the deliciously stylish Filmore & Union chain of feelgood food outlets to be fabulous, but you might not expect her to be fun. Rightly or wrongly, people whose menus include things like vegan chickpea burgers and gluten-free, five-grain porridge are often assumed to be worthy, a tiny bit preachy and not exactly a hoot-a-minute as a dining companion.
But Adele Ashley is not any of these things. Yes, she’s an advocate of healthy eating, but she also believes in healthy Yorkshire portions. She’s a slim, pocket-sized person, but she’s also partial to the odd fudgy brownie (what it lacks in gluten it makes up for in chocolate). And while she’s undoubtedly on a mission to make us all healthier, she’s also rather keen on making us happier too.
Oh, and did I mention she’s a bit of a laugh? Our scheduled 30-minute formal interview metamorphosed into a 90-minute, wide-ranging chat, peppered with snickers (of the tittery rather than chocolatey variety), family stories and one memorable moment of synchronised air-punching when we realised we were from the same area of East Leeds and had probably narrowly missed bumping into each other mooching round Crossgates Arndale Centre as teenagers.
She makes for warm, easy company, but she’s clearly also driven, ambitious and hard-working to the point of obsession. How else could her company have gone from one small restaurant in York in 2012 to eight restaurants, two take-outs, two station outlets and a partnership with John Lewis that will see Filmore & Union’s signature taste-good-while-doing-you-good dishes rolled out in-store across the country. There’s also another significant business alliance in the pipeline that will break the brand internationally, but that’s still a bit hush-hush (so don’t tell anybody).
‘Sometimes I have to pinch myself,’ said Adele, as we talked over coffee in her Harrogate restaurant on Station Parade. ‘I’ve only really just started to let myself feel a bit of pride. I look around and think “you’ve created something that people really seem to like – you’ve done alright”.’
For those of you not familiar with East Leeds understatement, saying Adele (the pocket business powerhouse) has ‘done alright’ is like saying Adele (the multi-award-winning pop star) is ‘not bad at singing’. But her natural modesty can perhaps be explained by her modest background.
Born in Cheshire, she moved to Yorkshire when she was six. Her father was ill for most of her childhood, so it was up to her mum to keep the family going as sole breadwinner.
‘Mum was a natural entrepreneur,’ said Adele. ‘She had that spirit – that spark. She was hungry for it because she wanted to make our lives better. It meant me and my sister (now an artist and fellow foodie) were charged with bringing ourselves up from a young age, but I think that only added to our inner drive and resourcefulness.’
Inevitably food took a backseat at home as her mum worked hard to build her business, importing children’s clothes from Europe and selling them in a small shop (which, she did not call a boutique).
‘It was usually corned beef hash or brisket with Angel Delight for afters,’ said Adele, with a mock shudder. ‘But we did sit around the table together to eat – even if it was a bit later than most families on our estate.’
This idea of families and friends eating together remains at the heart of everything Filmore & Union does. Each of its neighbourhood restaurants is specifically designed to be warm and welcoming, with big tables, space for kids to run around, dishes to appeal to all generations and an open-door policy for pooches.
And don’t be fooled into thinking that ‘healthy food’ equates to fiddly little plates of leaves with the occasional seed thrown in for luck. At Adele’s restaurants, there are heaped sharing platters, bulging bagels and plenty of add-on and build-your-own options so you can customise your meal to suit your needs (wants and deeply held desires).
‘I’ve got a huge appetite,’ she said. ‘I panic if there’s not enough food on my plate, which is why my places offer proper Yorkshire portions. I also can’t stand food that’s been fiddled with or touched by too many people. Chefs shouldn’t be messing about with tweezers and pipettes – just put the food on the plate and serve it.’
This doesn’t mean the food at Filmore & Union is just dumped on the plate and frisbeed across to your table. It looks as good as it tastes. And boy, does it taste good, especially if you allow yourself to go off-piste into previously uncharted flavour territory. Charcoal cod, spirulina lamb and matcha crème brulee are just a few of the unusual combinations aimed at firing up your imagination and your tastebuds.
‘I work very closely with our two development chefs in Wetherby to ensure each and every dish we have on our menus lives up to expectations,’ said Adele. ‘No one else is doing the sort of food we do – it’s our eclectic mix of recognisable dishes with that added Filmore dimension that makes us what we are.’
Ninety per cent of the food is gluten-free (100 per cent of the cakes are GF) and there are lots of dairy-free, vegetarian and vegan options. Everything is made to order, except the soups and tagines, which are made fresh centrally every day and shipped out to ensure each outlet – including the station concessions – serves the same quality product.
‘I knew from day one that I wanted Filmores in train stations,’ said Adele. ‘I’d gone hungry too many times searching for something to eat on long journeys only to find nothing but pasties and foot-long baguettes. That’s not what my body – or anyone’s body – needs. It doesn’t nourish you, it just makes you want to go to sleep.’
So, where did her love for, and knowledge of, nourishing, healthy, feelgood food come from? It started, as these things almost always do, with a grim personal health crisis. During a decade-long stint in a stressful IT recruitment job, she would find herself grabbing a bacon sarnie for breakfast, powering through lunch with a ready meal and finishing the day with a bottle of wine. Insomnia, gut problems and eczema – she had them all.
‘Then I had my first child and my body just gave in,’ she explained. ‘I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue. Honestly, some days I couldn’t even walk up the stairs. And then my second child arrived quite soon after, and I succumbed to a thyroid problem. I felt rotten from the moment I got up every day.’
Soon after her third child was born, the family moved to France, where her then husband ran a property business. They lived there for five years, experiencing a whole new way of life – and a life-changing way of eating.
‘The French have a deeply holistic view of life,’ said Adele. ‘I was in the hairdressers one day and this lady leaned over and said ‘you need magnesium’. I looked at her like she was insane – who does that in the hairdressers? – but she made me reconsider what I was doing and how I was coping, or not coping, with my health issues. So, I made an appointment with an holistic therapist, and my health – my life – changed for good.’
In France, it’s not unusual for people to seek advice from their GP and their natural health practitioner in tandem. Once Adele got to grips with this holistic approach to health, she changed her family’s diet – clearing up a raft of niggling health problems along the way – and challenged herself to put nourishment and wellness on the menu at every meal.
On her return to Yorkshire, she launched 12 wellness clinics to share her natural, healing health programme with clients across the North.
‘As I embraced my healthy life, I struggled to find nice places to eat out,’ she said. ‘There were lovely places that specialised in this and that, but nowhere that catered for a healthy appetite, in both senses of the word. I always say that my restaurants came out of selfishness – I couldn’t find somewhere to eat, so I created my own.’
The key to Filmore & Union’s success is its flexible attitude to food. It’s largely plant-based but there’s steak and fish on the menu. It’s pretty much gluten-free, but it’s not just aimed at people with food intolerances. It’s healthy eating, but there’s no sense of punishment about it. It’s not a worthy, self-flagellating choice. It’s just delicious.
Sadly, Adele’s dad died just three weeks after she launched her first restaurant in York, but he’s still there in every one of her outlets, in the bagels he loved and the Jazz Sundays he inspired. Her children are there too, working in the restaurants and getting honourable mention on the menu (their names are always squirrelled away somewhere if you care to look – think of it as a culinary wordsearch next time you’re in).
‘I’m in and out of the restaurants all the time too,’ said Adele. ‘I love being part of a team and mine – thank heavens – is made up of the very, very best people. We’re all very passionate about what we do. We can’t heal the world but, together, we can do our bit.’
That ‘bit’ started with a small restaurant in York, expanded across the county and is now reaching far and wide nationally. With an international deal in the offing, who’s to say that ‘the world’ isn’t an achievable option?