70: Behind the scenes in setting up a cafe and restaurant with Paul Rawlinson from Baltzersens and Norse
How do you set up a cafe and restaurant with zero experience? This was the question I had for Paul Rawlinson, formerly a Platoon Commander and Training Officer in the British Army. I interviewed Paul in the new premises for his Scandinavian inspired restaurant, Norse, in my home town of Harrogate (North Yorkshire, UK).
Norse used to share a small kitchen in the basement of Baltzersen's, Paul's successful (and also Scandinavian inspired) cafe. Service prep during the day was not ideal as everything had to be prepared in a small basement kitchen, then moved upstairs in the evening when the restaurant opened, and taken down again at the end of the night to make way for the daytime cafe business.
As the standard of the food moved more in the direction of fine dining at Norse, Paul wanted to match the standard of the food with a more comfortable environment. As well as taking on funding from partners he needed to take on additional investment to make the move to new premises.
So he launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise £20,000.
They reached this target within an incredible 4 days; hugely supported by existing customers of Baltzersen's, who advance purchased meals and other rewards-based benefits.
The career-changing idea
Baltzersen's was something which had been bubbling away in Paul's mind for two years before he decided to leave the army and take the plunge to start it.
The army had sponsored him through an electronic engineering degree at university after A levels at their Wellbeck Sixth Form College. After an early career on active service and having recently got married. Paul and his wife, a dietitian, decided they wanted to be together and not move around. Paul applied for a few training and recruitment roles but ended up talking about the cafe in the interviews! Re-inforcing his conviction that this was something he had to do!
Inspired by his Norwegian grandmother who was always baking biscuits and cakes, Paul was influenced by this culture of design and baking, as well as by a desire to blend Yorkshire produce with unique Scandinavian cooking.
And so Baltzersen's cafe was born.
Paul and his wife used their savings as well as help from family to start this Nordic cafe with it's relaxed environment. They bake all their cakes and pastries in-house. Waffles are particularly popular - a throw back to Paul's childhood when his father would heat up the waffle iron at the weekend and cook waffles for the neighbourhood children.
Paul now employs 35 staff across the two businesses and, unusually for the hospitality trade, many have been with him since the start.
What are the main challenges of starting a cafe business?
- The cafe opens 7 days a week and Norse 5 nights a week, and now in the new Norse venue will also open for lunch. Paul lives about 7 minutes work from the cafe so the boundaries between work and home get blurred. The couple now have 2 children so Paul's wife no longer works in the cafe on Sundays. Many of the team have worked with Paul right from the start which allows him to step back from the day to day operations.
- It's a competitive business, especially in Harrogate. This is particularly true of the lunchtime trade as Harrogate doesn't have the volume of people that York or Leeds has.
- It's difficult to track the engagement you get from social media through to a sale. However they get alot of engagement through Instagram and regularly write blogs - although you never seem to do a much as you'd like to!
Advice for someone wanting to set up a cafe or restaurant?
Go and work for someone who runs the kind of business you aspire to. Paul says he would have made less mistakes had he done this and shortened his learning curve, especially as someone who was new to the industry.
Paul has used some of the suppliers he met on the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses programme. Paul felt this was a fantastic (free) programme, even if it did come a little early in the Baltzersen's story.
An unusual aspect to Baltzersen's is their pub-like water station where you can serve yourself water using taps - which the kids love! This was part-funded by the council by an award the business won and has the dual benefit of a) being free to customers and b) freeing up time as staff no longer have to serve water. Just an example of how a simple piece of design can differentiate you, attract customers and save money.
Overall it's a great business, one to which many people - including me - feel a connection. Going behind the scenes has certainly made me realise the huge amount of work that goes into creating something like Baltzersen's and Norse, and I wish them best of luck as Norse moves into its own space.
Recommended Podcasts and Books for restaurant / cafe owners
'People are your business. Good service can rescue bad food, but bad service can't rescue good food.' Paul Rawlinson
Thanks again to Paul for giving us his time to be interviewed.
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