Big interview: A perfect union

Big interview: A perfect union

What is your background?
I was working in recruitment in a stressful corporate environment. It was normal to have a bacon sandwich for breakfast, a readymeal for lunch, and a bottle of wine to help me get to sleep in the evenings. I suffered from a young age with chronic fatigue, tonsillitis and digestive problems, and this escalated to insomnia, IBS, eczema and numerous chest infections. The doctor thought I was depressed but I knew it was diet-related, so I started to research natural medicine and better ways to eat.

I decided to start following a natural path, as well as stopping eating wheat and dairy. It made a world of difference for me. I set up a wellness clinic where I could offer one-on-one support and rolled it out across the North of England. Loads of my wellness clinic clients really struggled when they went out to eat and I saw a huge gap in the market for restaurants and take-outs serving natural, wholesome food with tasty options for those with special dietary requirements, outside of London.

And that of the business?
I founded Filmore & Union – named after two of my favourite streets in San Francisco, the home of healthy eating and good service – in 2011 to try and fill this gap in the market and started working with a chef to experiment with dishes in a test kitchen in Wetherby. In 2012 we opened our first restaurant on Low Petergate in York. We created a ‘neighbourhood dining’ destination with cosy, premium interiors where customers from all walks of life, including the family dog, could feel at home, serving tasty, innovative food and drink that just happened to be healthy and cater for all dietary requirements.

What is the business’s USP?
When it comes to things like gluten-free cakes and vegan dishes we were well ahead of the game when we started out and decided that if we were going to maintain the quality as we grew we’d have to do as much as possible of it in-house. We now have our own 100% gluten-free bakery at our head office in Wetherby where all our cakes and treats are handmade, which makes them extra special.

Our main unique selling point, though, is simply the fact that we offer local customers in suburban towns like Harrogate, Wetherby, Ilkley, Skipton, Beverley and Moortown a convenient way to eat natural, wholesome, nutritious, delicious, innovative food and drink that you wouldn’t normally find outside major cities. Our development chefs are always experimenting with eclectic ingredients to offer customers something new. We have recently been on a trip to New York to check out what the hottest new foodie trends are in the Big Apple and we were surprised to find that we are still at the forefront of what we do.

Your business has expanded very impressively. How have you managed this?
We now have 15 restaurants and take out delis across Yorkshire and the North East and have secured funding to open several more across the North of England over the next few years. It has taken a great deal of dedication and enthusiasm. We never give up. We know that there is a demand for what we offer in local suburbs and we continue to strive to be the best at it.

Crowdfunding has been a big part of this and getting the backing of local customers and suppliers has been a big boost. And we certainly couldn’t do it without our amazing ‘Filmore family’ of staff. We like to train and promote people from within and bring them on our journey with us so that they can benefit from long term career progression as we grow.

What are the pros and cons of crowdfunding?
Crowdfunding is a great way to not only secure investment in your business to enable it to grow, but to also give something back to investors from all walks of life who truly believe in your brand. It is a lot of pressure knowing that so many different people are backing you and depending on you to do well but it’s worth it!

What awards and accolades have you won?
We’ve won several awards over the years including the Top 50 Restaurant and Bar Awards 2017 and the Great Taste Award in 2014, plus we’re proud to be Coeliac UK Accredited. We’ve just been shortlisted in the Menu Innovation category of the Casual Dining Awards 2018 up against a number of big high street brands and we plan to enter several more over the coming years. The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 has put us in their 10 ‘Ones to Watch’ for next year list, so we hope to be among the 100 fastest growing companies in the country in the not too distant future!

Do you have a typical clientele?
We try and cater for everyone at Filmore & Union, which is why we have vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and even dairy-free options on the menu, but we also try not to put off those that aren’t particularly health-conscious or don’t have special dietary requirements. I think we just attract people that are looking for great tasting food, with the added health benefits as a bonus. People are often surprised to find such a diverse mix of people from older men to families in our restaurants. We’ve worked hard as we’ve expanded to retain an ‘independent’ feel, so each store has its own unique atmosphere and customer base.

What are your best-sellers?
Our brownies are a massive hit. People simply can’t believe that they are gluten-free and contain no refined sugar when they taste them. We’ve had big supermarket chains approach us to stock them, but we want to keep them exclusively for ourselves because we believe that the fact they are handmade with love by us is what makes them taste extra special. Even our less conventional cakes like courgette and lime go down well. We also take great pride in our own blend of organic coffee and our freshly made, specially formulated juices which are incredibly popular.

Brunch is always a big thing at Filmore & Union and we like to make sure everyone has something to choose from, whether it’s smashed avocado on rye bread with optional poached eggs, sweet or savoury gluten-free pancakes and French toast, or kedgeree. But we’re also doing increasingly well with our evening menus, which fill a big gap that still exists in the market for guilt-free but indulgent dining out. We have options for everyone as our menu is so diverse and changes seasonally, so our best-selling dishes can be different every month.

What does the future of healthy eating hold?
We like to stay one step ahead of the game and we believe that some of wellness fads will pass. That’s why we don’t include them in dishes and drinks for the sake of it – we develop delicious combinations that first and foremost taste good. We’re seeing a big increase in people wanting to try different things, but also a resistance to the restriction of going completely vegan- or gluten-free if it’s not necessary. I say make your own rules and we’re really embracing the idea of being flexitarian, giving customers the option to try a wide variety of different things so that meat eaters aren’t put off by the odd vegan dish, and those who want to cut down their meat consumption don’t feel guilty about the odd fillet steak.

I understand you also promote fitness, how do you do that?
At Filmore & Union, we truly believe that moving for at least an hour a day is one of the most life-enhancing things you can do and is the key to feeling good. We know that fitness is an important part of many of our customers’ lives and we try and support them in achieving overall wellbeing with things like yoga classes in some of our stores, collaborations with fitness brands, and discounts for those taking part in major sporting events. We even encourage our staff to be active – our operations team do a group workout three times a week to help them stay motivated and alert! In 2018, we’re also launching a new blog which will have a fitness section in it where customers and fans can pick up hints and tips on how to improve their overall health.

What one tip would you offer on running a business like this well?
The focus has to be on quality – quality of offer, quality of service, quality of experience. It is easy to get caught up in the volume as the business grows but it is important to never lose sight of your original vision and always stay true to your ethos and values.

What are you plans for the future?
It really is exciting to have secured investment and to know that people believe in what we do, and now we have been given the opportunity to share our passion and vision on a larger scale. Not only are we opening new restaurants in new regions, but we are also investing in our existing ones. Our original York restaurant recently underwent a £100,000 makeover to include a cocktail bar, creating a new cosy evening out destination in the city.

My vision is for Filmore & Union to be a household name in the UK and to be recognized as the go-to brand for ‘feel good neighbourhood dining’. However, we also recognise the need to grow organically and slowly in order to maintain the quality of what we do. For example, we pride ourselves on using local suppliers and produce, but these relationships take time to build and we will need to embed ourselves fully into each region we expand into.