Busy mother Sarah-Louise Walker is shaking things up at an historic private members club with new ideas. Catherine Scott meets her.
Say ‘private members club’ to almost anyone and they will more than likely think of lap dancing or something similar.
The Leeds Club was, until recently, the oldest private members club in the city, but there wasn’t a lap dancer in sight.
“People were confused about what it actually was,” says the woman now at the helm of the 164-year-old establishment in Leeds city centre.
“You tell people it’s a private members club and most people think one thing, lap dancing.”
So it was decided to change the Leeds Club into a an events venue.
“We can cater for up to 400 people in 13 different event spaces, including two for 110 people.”
But reinventing the historic Leeds Club wasn’t enough for 35-year-old mum of one, Sarah-Louise
This month saw the launch of The Leeds Club Kitchen, an outside catering arm of the historic brand.
“I’ve always been a hard worker and have spent much of my career within hospitality,” explains Sarah-Louise who took over as general manager of the Leeds Club 18 months ago.
“Although I’ve enjoyed working for other people there was always a niggling doubt in the back of my mind that I should be taking greater control and launching my own business.
“Thankfully, after taking on the position of general manager at The Leeds Club I was encouraged by the owners to make suggestions and come up with some new and more dynamic ideas.”
Not one to sit on her laurels she got to work straight away.
“After a lot of soul searching I created the business plan for a company that I felt would really work. I approached my partners and suggested we meet with a gap in the market; taking bespoke fine dining to businesses and private clients throughout Yorkshire.”
Although she was convinced her idea was a good one, she wasn’t sure how it would go down with the owners.
“In some ways I was suggesting setting up in competition to our own business, but the Leeds Club was at capacity and being a grade 2 listed building there is no where to expand,” explains Sarah-Louise,
Despite taking an approach that could have been seen as controversial, the partners recognised the value in taking their business to an extended audience that would require expert catering services at their homes and offices.
With start-up capital, Sarah-Louise invested in a mobile catering unit, which was purpose-fitted to meet with the diverse requirements of her prospective client base. In addition, she started to consider chefs that would have the expertise required to deliver her expectations to the boardroom and dining room table.
“Suddenly my plans were becoming a reality and I knew I had to make this work. I had so much to do but my drive and enthusiasm kept me going. I had fantastic feedback from those I spoke to and it was so apparent that people were screaming out for good quality food that could be delivered to them. I did my research and found that there are so many businesses in the city that host events and private clients who want to create their own menus, rather than relying on the often restricted choice that is given to them.”
Thanks to head chef Craig England, The Leeds Club Kitchen can cater for a sandwich box for five people up to a event for 2,000.
Sarah-Louise’s determination to succeed, she says, comes from wanting to provide the best for her son, 16-year-old Kaine.
“I was only 19 when I had Kaine and we had just bought our first house and so money was tight,” explains the Bradford-born mum, who moved to Leeds as a child.
“I went back to work when he was just three months old. Some might say I put work first, but I don’t think I did. I am one of four and had a pretty hard upbringing. I wanted Kaine to have the things I didn’t have.
“It was a struggle at times, but I only ever wanted one child, I think it would have been a lot harder with more. Kaine enjoys the lifestyle I am able to provide him although he doesn’t really understand how important my job is.
“I can get 19 missed calls from him when I am in a board meeting and so I think it must be something really serious. When I ring him back it’s usually because he can’t find his PE kit or something similar.”
Sarah-Louise is passionate about Leeds and the unique place the Leeds Club holds in the city’s past, present and future.
“I always wanted to run a business and I did think it would be a bit further down the line, but when I was approached to become general manager of the Leeds Club I knew it was my chance. It would have been easier to jus run that business, which has enough going on as we look to the future, but I saw there was an opportunity for a new business and it is already paying off.
“We did talk about whether to launch an entirely new brand, but the Leeds Club has all the history and is a really important part of Leeds. It is like an historic country venue in the middle of the city. People don’t really understand it until they walk through the doors and then get it.”
Sarah-Louise isn’t fazed by the scale of some of the events they are being asked to quote for.
“If you are catering for ten it really isn’t that much different catering for 150, it’s all about planning.”