Honesty Group founder Romilla Arber talks about her expanding café and cookery school empire.
After giving up her busy London law career to spend more time with her four children, Romilla Arber now finds herself busier than ever again.
A lifelong interest in food and cookery has led her to the helm of the Honesty Group.
What started with bread in 2014 has now grown into a business of more than a dozen coffee shops, a bakery and kitchen and a cookery school. And that’s before you add in the cookery books she has also published along the way.
Romilla, 56, grew up in Basingstoke; her father was a teacher and her mother stayed at home raising her family, before going into teaching herself.
She went to Cranbourne Comprehensive School in the town, before heading to Keele University to study law and history.
The mum-of-four then began practicing law in London, right up until she was pregnant with her third child, commuting from the home they had moved into in 1997 in North Sydmonton.
“My husband just said one day, ‘do you want to go up to London every day?’” she explains. “I didn’t want to get a nanny so it was a decision on whether to give it 100 per cent – which would mean getting a nanny – or step back from it for a while.”
She chose the latter and says she “enjoyed it very much”.
“I stopped working and did some voluntary work for a while,” she adds. “I was a governor at a local school and I started writing my first cookbook.
“I have always been interested in food and how people eat and so I started investigating whether I could start a bakery.”
Then, she says, the Crown and Garter opportunity came up.
“It needed a huge refurbishment and I was umming and ahhing but my friend said I would always regret it if I didn’t go for it,” she says.
“It has been a learning curve, that’s been interesting but it has been challenge upon challenge.”
She says they quickly realised the bakery at the Crown and Garter was too small and that she would need to start supplying other people too to make it sustainable; so they moved to premises on Greenham Business Park [they have since moved again to Turnpike].
The next step, she explains, was when a little shop in Kingsclere came up in 2016 – the perfect place to “showcase some of our bakery products”.
Since then the growth of cafes has been organic – “just seeing where locations come up and going there”.
Her only “mistake” so far, she concedes, was opening in Lambourn.
The latest move into Newbury, however, is the company’s first foray into a town centre.
“The landlords were interested in trying to get a different emphasis, which really appealed to us,” she says of the coffee shop currently under renovation in the old Costa Coffee unit in Parkway Shopping. It is due to open in March.
“Where we have opened previously there has been loyalty to independents,” she says. “Parkway may not have that loyalty but people may be changing their opinions.
“If you can get across to people that the pound they spend in your shop has so much reach in the local community rather than just going into another large organisation; get them to look at how you connect with local suppliers, employ local people.
“It was something that was thrown up in the pandemic.”
Despite the positive signs, Romilla admits the last two years have been tough, with enforced closures due to the pandemic.
“We used the time well though,” Romilla explains. “We revamped our back office, the software and applications.
“That has changed the way we run the business. It means we can now make decisions quickly, based on what customers want.
“The lockdown highlighted the need to move to e-commerce. We do now have some click and collect and we want to build that further.
“We lost all of our wholesale customers during the lockdown and that was a big hit. But it is building back slowly.”
Romilla has 13 cafes, with three more opening in the first half of the year – the one in Newbury as well as one opening in the Eli Lilly building in Basingstoke and one in Ascot – employing around 130 staff in total.
But with three new cafes – and the two seasonal venues due to reopen soon – there is a lot of recruiting to be getting on with.
And this is an issue, magnified by the pandemic, that Romilla says started back during the EU referendum.
“It feels like we are just fire-fighting all the time at the moment,” she adds. “Since we had the [EU] referendum a lot of people have decided they don’t want to come back into the UK looking for work, so from 2016 it’s been hard to recruit.
“But we now have a ‘Sponsor’s License’, which means we can recruit skilled workers from overseas. We have been interviewing some chefs from India and Dubai and we have recruited some now, which is great.
“Add to it that we are in a rare situation too, with Covid, and we are spending so much time trying to find staff from an ever-decreasing pool.
“With the pandemic we have also had to deal with staff absences because of illness.
“There was an understanding from customers in the beginning but it’s disappointing for them if things are not open now.
“We have some amazing staff and the reward is seeing them develop and enjoy their jobs.”
Romilla spends her time outside of work watching her beloved Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, playing tennis and polo, travelling – when Covid allows – and gardening.
Moving forward she is focusing on ensuring her business is as ethical and sustainable as it can be.
“My motivation is to get more people to realise cooking isn’t the chore or drain on time that they think it is and that it is affordable,” she says. “I think all these things are going to keep growing in importance.
“And I just hope people keep wanting to connect with their local businesses.”