Lesley Wild about her life at Bettys as the Yorkshire institution celebrates 100 years
- Credit: Archant
As Bettys prepares to celebrate its centenary, we talk to Lesley Wild about her 40 years with the family firm
What better way to toast the 100th anniversary of Bettys than with a pot of Yorkshire tea (is there any other kind?) and a square of fruity stollen. Served in front of a warming fire in the beautiful Harrogate home of chair of the board Lesley Wild, they highlight the company’s European roots and rich county heritage with what might at first glance seem like stage-managed precision.
But that isn’t what this is. It’s not a PR opportunity to flog the family fare; it’s an opportunity for a naturally warm, welcoming host with a penchant for baking to offer her guest a sweet treat with her cuppa on a cold winter morning.
Lesley Wild, who has worked in her husband Jonathan’s family firm for 40 years, is often described as ‘Bettys’ secret ingredient’ but her influence is obvious – and everywhere – if you look. It’s in the way the staff interact with customers, the stylish décor in the cafés, the distinctive European-Yorkshire recipes and the always perfect packaging.
The Bettys’ cafés and products we all enjoy today – oh, come on, who doesn’t love a Fat Rascal? – are largely down to her creative vision. The company was actually quite small and unsung when her father-in-law, Victor, took the helm after the death of his uncle Frederick Belmont, founder of the firm, in 1952. It was a solid business but nothing like the world-famous brand we know today.
‘The business was almost destroyed by death duties,’ said Lesley. ‘But Victor was very clever and adaptable. He bought Taylor’s in 1962, which was a very shrewd decision, and he had a very artistic eye when it came to the cafés.
‘By the time Jonathan and I joined the company in the 1970s, however, it had lost a lot of what made it special. We agreed that we had to look back to the beginning again to see what made Bettys a success in the first place – our chocolate, our European cakes and biscuits, our high levels of service. By looking back, we found a way forward.’
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Looking back to Lesley’s childhood in Pocklington, East Yorkshire, it’s easy to see where her interest in food came from. She would often help her Northern Irish mum on baking day and enjoyed hearty seasonal fare from the family allotment and from the surrounding fields (her father was a crack shot).
And while her mum gave her a good grounding in traditional kitchen skills, her father encouraged her sense of adventure.
‘From about the age of four, we went on family holidays to the South of France,’ she said. ‘My father was in the motor trade at the time and would pack the extended family into a giant American car, like a Cadillac or something, with fins and rows of seats. He loved rally driving and would really put his foot down, throwing us around each and every bend as we hurtled through France.
‘Then, as soon as we arrived, he would head out to the local market and bring back all sorts of exotic things to eat. I particularly remember juicy, orange-fleshed melons, which seemed like pure magic to us.’
Lesley always had a strong creative side, painting, drawing and making things whenever she got the chance, but her real passion was ballet, which she still enjoys now (dicky hip permitting).
‘I really wanted to become a ballet dancer but I grew too tall,’ she said. ‘And, anyway, my parents thought it was a stupid idea. They wanted me to have a profession.’
She got a similar reaction at Harrogate College for Young Ladies, where the ancient careers mistress simply looked her up and down and said, ‘teacher or nurse, which is it to be?’.
‘The answer was simple: neither,’ said Lesley. ‘By this time, I had my heart set on art college. When the school newsletter came out listing where all the leavers were going, it simply said “TBC” next to my name.’
She secured a place at York Art College but, unfortunately, life stepped in to scupper her plans. Her parents went their separate ways, leaving her to break the news to her younger brother and sister at their boarding schools.
‘I was thrown into quite a horrible situation and had to deal with it as best I could,’ she said. ‘I had met Jonathan at a mutual friend’s house when we were both 16. Dealing with the fallout of my parents’ decision to split up made me realise I needed to be near someone who cared about me. And that someone was Jonathan.’
He was at Oxford, so she applied for a place at Oxford Brookes to study history art, English and anthropology. In the end, however, happenstance propelled her into a law degree.
‘It wasn’t necessarily my passion, but once you get a law degree, it seems silly not to become a lawyer,’ she said.
Lesley was articled to a very powerful firm in Leeds but, as the only woman on the team, often found herself relegated to the role of secretary-cum-tea-maker. So, she jumped ship to a smaller but more progressive firm in York.
In the meantime, Jonathan had become disillusioned with teaching and decided to return to Yorkshire to join the family firm – just three days after he and Lesley married in Pocklington (she wore a dark blue dress, which caused something of a kerfuffle apparently).
‘He didn’t dare ask his father for time off, so we didn’t have a honeymoon,’ she explained. ‘We had to save that for our tenth anniversary.’
While Lesley ‘helped out’ at Bettys throughout the mid to late Seventies, she didn’t actually go on the payroll until 1979. Her first job was to create three cakes for export. She adapted some of her mother’s recipes, opting for special octagonal baking tins and hand-drawn decorations, and designed the packaging from scratch.
‘The most packaging the company had ever bought before was 5,000 cake boxes,’ she said. ‘I said we’d need 25,000 for my cakes. I was naïve and foolish but I was also confident the cakes would sell because they were tasty and reasonably priced. Thankfully, they did.’
By this time, Victor was becoming a little weary and was pleased to have his son and daughter-in-law on board, particularly as they worked so well together.
‘Jonathan and I have always been a good team,’ said Lesley. ‘We both have our own distinct skills and we stand resolutely back-to-back, supporting each other and facing down the rest of the world.
‘I can’t say we had a vision for the future though; we took a more instinctive approach.’
She gravitated naturally towards the food side of the company with Bettys, while Jonathan was more interested in marketing and growing the coffee and tea side with Taylors. A primary motivator for Lesley was returning the company to its original European roots.
‘We had lost our Swissness,’ she said. ‘Jonathan is half Swiss and Victor was Swiss, but the company no longer felt Swiss.
‘We’d be holidaying in Switzerland and I’d be sitting in a café thinking, this is what Bettys much have originally been like. Where are our rosti and chocolates? We needed them back.
‘As soon as I came home, I would start experimenting in the kitchen – something I still do now – looking for new ways of bringing our Swissness back.’
Under Jonathan and Lesley’s guidance Bettys’ has reinvented its ‘Swissness’, this time with extra ‘Yorkshireness’. They have also built on their great-uncle’s principles when it comes to their employees.
‘Our ethos and products have come full circle,’ Lesley explained. ‘Uncle Fred was an orphan and self-made man. He looked after his staff like they were family. That dedication to our staff is still very much part of our DNA. And that includes our suppliers and overseas partners. We couldn’t do what we do without them, so it’s only right that we take care of them.’
The Bettys family is celebrating the company’s 100th birthday this year with a host of events and happenings, including a huge party for the staff, a film, a book and on the actual day – July 17th – multiple celebrations with customers across the county.
‘Fred would be terribly proud,’ said Lesley. ‘He would still recognise the business he started, which is very important to us. I’m sure he’d pat us all on the back.’
So, what does the future hold for Bettys? She may be a centenarian now, but she still looks pretty sprightly.
‘Bettys will always be a labour of love,’ said Lesley. ‘The online part of the business will continue to grow, but we have no immediate plans for more cafés and we have no motivation to move outside of Yorkshire. We are geographically limited because our bakery is here in Harrogate and all our food is made fresh every day.
‘Taylors, however, is different. That has much more room to grow and to continue developing and expanding in the years to come.’
Jonathan retired as chief executive officer in 2011 – ‘he hasn’t regretted his decision for a moment’ – but Lesley still feels there is work to be done. She is obviously someone who thrives on the challenging pursuit of innovation. She was the creative mind behind Bettys Cookery School, which opened in 2001, and A Year of Family Recipes, a stylish cook book detailing her personal collection of favourite dishes, and can still be found experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen and designing packaging for both the Bettys and Taylors brands.
Her children, Chloe and Daniel, are forging their own successful careers. Neither is involved directly in the business, but Chloe is chair of the Family Council – ‘and doing a very good job too’. But Bettys resolutely remains a family affair, owned and run by the Wilds and the wider family.
‘It’s important to us that the family continues to be involved,’ said Lesley. ‘There’s something very special about a business that remains true to its roots.’
And it’s not just their own family that’s important to them. Bettys is inviting customers to share their recollections of family occasions, key life moments and perhaps even a few proposals that have taken place at its Yorkshire cafés as part of its centenary memory hub project.
‘We have played a big part in people’s lives over the years, so it’s only right that they should be part of our celebrations,’ said Lesley.
‘It’s also worth remembering that while we are celebrating our centenary, we’re not marking the end of something. It’s the start of the next 100 years.’