An interview with David Le Masurier of the Pettigrew Tearooms

Followers of David Le Masurier’s blog, I Want to Bake Free, will know already all about the journey he’s been on since he gave up his ‘day job’ with the objective of fulfilling his dream and opening a tea room – a dream that recently became a reality for David as he opened the Pettigrew Tearooms in Cardiff’s Bute Park. A few weeks ago now, I went to meet David at the Tearooms to find out a bit more about him, to find out what he really thinks about social media and hopefully get him to reveal some lesser known facts…

The ever-cheerful David Le Masurier (and a tomato!) (Picture: I Want to Bake Free)

We all know that opening the tearoom was about ‘living the dream’ – but when did you start to have this dream and did you have any other ambitions as a child?

When I was very small, I always thought that I’d possibly own a restaurant one day, but when I grew up I realised how difficult and how much hard work that is, and now I personally can’t think of much worse than running a restaurant! I love running the tearoom – but it’s mainly the idea of working at night and into the evening that put me off the restaurant idea.

In terms of wanting to own my own business it sprang out of slight boredom with my career! I studied hospitality and wanted to go into hotels. I did okay in my degree, but it wasn’t until I started work, with my first real job in my second year of university, that I realised how rewarding it was to do something and to do it well. I gained confidence really quickly, so over the next few years I carried on, did really well, took opportunities when they came up, and made a few as well until I ended up with a good job  – but then the challenge was kind of gone. I could see where my career was laid out, and the next level was 4 or 5 years away! Another 5 years to have more money, but also less time, didn’t feel right, so I started thinking more and more about what I could do. I was losing my own personal time, working later and at weekends, but in my personal time I’d do things I enjoyed – escapism, like baking, gardening, or just walking around the park, and that’s the part that became so special, kind of exaggeratedly so, that I almost obsessed around that being where I want to be – having my own business. A tea room seemed like a good idea – I noticed that there’s not really anything like it in Cardiff, so that’s how it all kicked off, really!

Since you started the project, is there anything that’s come as a complete surprise that you just weren’t expecting?

This building, Bute Park and the restoration project! I didn’t dare to dream that I could have found a place as beautiful as this! It’s magic! It’s in a really good position and the restoration project want it to be a successful business so it’s successful for the park – and that’s amazing that they’re behind me. Some of the other landlords for commercial properties didn’t care what you did – all they care about is getting the money from the rent, so it’s very different to be under the lease of somebody that’s actually interested in what you do, how you do it and the standards that you’re delivering. That’s taken me completely by surprise and I love it, it’s amazing!

Any nasty surprises?

Most painful was the Old Coach House – I nearly got it, to the point the landlord was all go, I’d committed money and was working on paperwork, and then he just went quiet. I suppose the lesson was that some people in business just aren’t professional, and I was amazed, coming from the hotel industry where it’s quite corporate, and all about professionalism and standards. As an entrepreneur, people are very suspicious about how you’re funded etc. and then when this guy stopped returning calls, all of a sudden I realised it wasn’t going to progress. I was gutted, and I lost money – I was really upset but it taught me masses and led to where I am now, so I took advantage of the opportunities to turn it into a positive. I could have thought it’s not meant to be, but I thought no, I’m going to keep looking.

It seems that social media has been an integral part of your success. Could you imagine having done this without social media and the blog?

To an extent, yes, but I don’t think it would have been anywhere near as good in a lot of ways. Lots of my staff came through following me on Twitter, which is amazing as they’re now genuinely interested in what we’re trying to do, not just here for any old job. Also, suppliers, finding local suppliers for my coffee and tea, all sorts of things came linked through my use of Twitter. I don’t think there’s a part of the business that the blog didn’t touch, or that Twitter didn’t touch in some way.

Any strange or bad experiences with social media?

Strange, yes. Bad, not really! I say that, because I think Twitter is fundamentally flawed or fundamentally fabulous, depending on how you look at it. In a world which is quite dark some times, most people are generally nice on Twitter, because they want to be followed back, so that inhibits people from being nasty, rude, or mean for the sake of it – although some people do that successfully on Twitter in quite a quirky way and people do like to follow that, but people generally are obscenely nice! If people like what they’re reading, they put it out straight away on Twitter saying “This is amazing!” – it’s often a really emotional, exaggerated response, I would say (maybe I’m being cynical!) But that is good because then other people read it, so it was a great thing for me – definitely the opposite of bad!

In terms of weird or bizarre, just all the random things with media, like the BBC came and filmed at our opening, and I couldn’t have dreamt of that – and that’ll be aired for the Great British Bake Off, as a follow up to one of the contestants, who I became friends with through Twitter. I had an article in the Echo in January, just to do with the blog, and it was a really big spread, right in the centre, just through me nattering away on Twitter and people taking note. Really good times!

Although you’re a blogger yourself, you don’t write reviews. What do you think of food bloggers who do?

I think it must be quite tough. I somehow, because of Twitter, got chatting to various people and all of a sudden, because my blog is about food (although I’d been talking more about suppliers and quality and different things that were important to me), all of a sudden I found myself at the Cardiff bloggers Christmas party, so it was great, as I got to meet all those different food bloggers! I felt a bit like a fraud because I don’t review other places, but it was a really nice bunch of people! People just review because they’re passionate about it and interested, there’s no corporate side to it, and they’re all different, all have different tastes and really different audiences. I’m sorry to sound trite with a happy answer, but everyone’s been really nice, and now I have the venue I suppose there’s more pressure as I’ve got to know the food bloggers, but they need to be fair if they’re reviewing me – so it’s harder as I need to make sure it’s extra extra good!

Have you had any negative feedback or bad reviews?

No! Well, a few bits and pieces, but nothing I’ve been really worried about. There’s bound to be something, no matter how good you are, you occasionally take your eye off the ball. I set up a Trip Advisor page before we opened, because it’s a brilliant tool, if you use it properly, and it gives you invaluable feedback. When I last checked we were ranked as the 30th best restaurant in Cardiff, which is insane, we’ve only had 6 reviews, but they were all 5 out of 5! It’s a really interesting tool, and you get to respond, so I love that – I respond to every comment and actually it’s a really good sales tool if it’s used properly.

Are you always as cheerful as you look on your blog?

No! I make a point of being uncheerful when I get home! I am naturally someone who laughs at everything – I always have been. Me and my best friend have a motto “blessed are we who can laugh at ourselves, we shall never cease to be amused” – it’s so true, if you can’t laugh at yourself then I kind of feel pity for you. So many things in life are hilarious, and that gets me through really tough periods and tough times, but yeah, I generally am pretty cheerful and upbeat. That has a huge impact. When writing the blog, I don’t write negative things, I do question things, and things might be barbed or sarcastic, but people can read when you’re being genuine and when you’re not, so that’s how I tend to be.

So, back to the tearoom, as I can’t ignore all these lovely cakes! What’s the most popular thing on the menu?

Carrot cake, scones, bara brith, gluten free chocolate cake… I know I’m listing loads, but they are the ones that people love! Lemon drizzle cake flies out, and Victoria sandwich because it’s a classic. I don’t like coffee and walnut myself, so I’m not mentioning it, but coffee and walnut is really popular too.

David’s cakes

(I bought some of David’s carrot cake and Victoria sandwich to take home, and can confirm that these are top sellers with very good reason!)

What’s your favourite to bake?

I like doing a really good Victoria sandwich. It’s just such a classic thing, and it feels quite technical. My partner likes baking lots of cakes, but I always preferred technical things like breads or pastries. Pasties are probably my all-time favourite. I’m from the Devon/Cornwall border originally, so my Nan makes amazing pasties, and as my Mum tells it her Nan made even better pasties, so I kind of feel the ability has diminished down the years, so it’s my responsibility to bring it back into our family! I do make pretty awesome pasties – but I’m not sure if they’re quite tearoom fare.

Do you love the actual baking as much now it’s part of your day job?

Yes – at the moment I’m not baking quite so much. I was torn as to whether I should do the baking, and when I spoke to a lot of people who run this sort of business, or even smaller, they really struggled to do the baking and run the business, and manage it, and be here, and think strategically, so I don’t do as much, but I don’t miss it at the moment. I think I will, but when my baker’s not here I get the chance to have a go.

What inspired the style and the décor?

It’s just my taste. I didn’t want it to be chintzy and over the top, so no doyleys or horse brasses, that was always my rule! I didn’t want it to be too much of a parody of a tearoom, I wanted it to feel quite natural, like it’s always been here. A lot of the feedback we got at the opening was ‘Have you really only been here a week?’ so that was great.

How do you choose the music?

At the moment it’s just Classic FM!

Who would you most like to have afternoon tea with?

It’s probably going to have to be Stephen Fry! He’s so intelligent and humorous and he’s someone who is bipolar and has a really complex mind obviously, he must really struggle to switch off, but he clearly finds such enjoyment in comedy and humour, and he absolutely inspires me. And people like Mel and Sue, now from the Bake Off – or Light Lunch as I remember them!

Which cake do you think Stephen would go for?

I think he’d go for the Bara Brith just to try something a bit different! I thought Victoria Sandwich to start with, but I imagine he probably gets people throwing Victoria Sandwiches at him all the time, so something different!

What’s your favourite place to eat in Cardiff?

I’ve not been to the Potted Pig, although I keep trying to go, I’ve heard a lot about that. Otherwise, there are a couple of places that are quick and easy, and I like that. Wagamama – they do one thing that I like, and I can have it quickly, with never ending green tea – that ticks a lot of boxes for me! Carluccio’s reminds me of drinking a nice glass of wine and eating some good food outside. Again, it’s quick. I don’t really sit and dwell in places for long meals – I don’t think many people do any more. That’s another reason why I like doing the tea room. I think people like ‘little treats’ – like coffee with a friend. It’s quite a quick thing, whereas the days of long lunches and dinners with champagne seem to be out at the moment. I like Barker’s café round the corner from here too!

So, how do you know when you’ve achieved success? What are you aiming for?

Short term it was always about getting through the opening and getting to the RHS weekend, which was a couple of weeks ago now. I was originally told I’d get the keys on 5th March and part of the plan was always to open before the RHS weekend. I knew we had to be open and trading for at least a couple of weeks before that to iron out all the bugs! That was my real goal, to get through that and have positive feedback, because if you mess it up at the start, there’s no going back! Particularly the amount of noise I made about it, blogging and all that, the pressure was phenomenal – but we did it, and we did it really well. What it ultimately comes down to though, putting aside the blog and everything else, is whether we remain profitable, and whether we can keep it fresh.

The Tearoom

With thanks to David for his time, and for plying me with peppermint tea and a toasted teacake whilst I interrogated him! I absolutely love the concept of the Pettigrew Tearooms, and will be heading back soon to try more of their baked delights – and David is a lovely chap whose passion and enthusiasm for his new venture seems to shine through in everything he does!

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