Two years after my coming to Nottingham, one of its most endearing elements is still an area with a lot to explore. If you love food and music, have a passion for tea and art on the wall, then there are a whole host of cafes and restaurants to indulge your fancy. And more excitingly, ones that offer cultural delights as tantalizing as their culinary ones.
But other than what adorns the menus and the front of house, my interest lies in discovering the people behind these cafes. And the factors that go into creating a space that works for a wide variety of visitors. So without further ado, I turn my questions to Andrew Beales, the owner and the man behind the charming Lee Rosy’s Tea. It goes without saying that if you love good tea and dessert – Lee Rosy’s is a must visit.
Gillian Da Costa (GDC): Could you give us a bit about your background and what inspired you to open Lee Rosy’s?
Andrew Beales (AB): I studied Economic History at university; at the time, I wanted to learn everything about the world – and save it. I then started working for an organisation representing small and medium sized businesses, but I didn’t really want to spend a whole career working in that sector. I wanted something more challenging that I could put a personal stamp on.
Having a cafe that would be a hub for creative pursuits was a vague desire when I was about 16, but not something I actively pursued. Then I had the idea for a speciality tea shop over ten years ago, but only decided to actually do it several years later. It took a couple more years after that to save up, move back to Nottingham and do the groundwork. Lee Rosy’s has been open over five years now and it’s still a work in progress. There were very few ‘modern’ tea shops in 2005 although they’re springing up everywhere these days.
AB: I spent about 6 months looking for the right location. At first I wasn’t sure about Hockley because there seemed to be lots of other cafes there already. But when the space opposite Broadway became available, the opportunity was too good to pass up. It was just the right balance between space and location – enough room to hold events and for people to take their time, but not too far for people to trek. Being opposite Broadway cinema is great for us as people often come in before or after watching a film.
GDC: What kind of visitors did you have in mind when you first opened Lee Rosy’s?
AB: I didn’t really have a single profile in mind but hoped it would attract a broad range of people, including creative types and people who liked their tea. I thought we might get older people and pensioners too as tea has a universal appeal. We do get some, but perhaps the music puts the others off a bit.
GDC: How much has the cafe changed since it first opened?
AB: Things have become a bit more established and bedded down over time. We’re open in the evenings; we have an extra floor which takes the pressure off seating. We have gigs, film nights and a range of other regular and one-off activities as well. In the first year I was behind the counter virtually every day but fortunately things have changed since. Good staff make a big difference. And people have added their own creative touches to the shop over time too.
AB: I was selling tea on eBay before the shop opened while getting things together, and there’s been a webshop for the last few years, but volumes are fairly small compared to the main shop. I’m hoping to improve upon that soon – I’ve added a lot of content to the webshop in the last six months and created a proper website for the ‘offline’ shop just recently.
GDC: Is there anything on Lee Rosy’s menu you are partial to?
AB: I particularly like the premium black teas. Things like Yunnan, which is a Chinese black tea, or a Darjeeling or Sikkim, or a green tea like White Monkey or Mao Feng. I think most people can find a tea they like at Lee Rosy’s, even if they don’t think they like tea that much.
GDC: What do you think is important to creating a welcoming and comfortable ambiance for creative professionals?
AB: I suppose people might like the atmosphere for different reasons. But I think the space helps – we’re lucky to have a high-ceilinged period building, and I think open spaces help the mind to wander. For the furniture, the idea is to avoid too much clutter or overt theming, but you’ll find a number of idiosyncrasies dotted around too. There’s an emphasis on organic materials such as wood, brick and ceramics, The music volume is set at ‘mid-ground’ – loud enough to enjoy and to mask the conversation at the neighbouring tables, but not too loud that you have to raise your voice to talk. We play a wide range of different genres – the staff usually bring in their own music and each person has their own musical signature, which is good because we have to fill nearly eighty hours a week with sounds!
I’d like to think that people come here to socialise, study or work, to hear music they like, to bump into someone they know or just have time to themselves.
GDC: Could you tell us a bit about the art/illustrations around the cafe? How often do these change and what kind of artists do you think best fit the cafe?
AB: The idea is to change the art every couple of months although in practice it’s not normally as often as that! In the past we’ve had lightboxes, cartoons, dioramas, graffiti, textiles and degree show photography. Right now there are pictures of stuffed animals drawn directly onto the back wall by Jennie Webber, which have had a very long residence as I can’t bear to paint over them. Whatever it is it has to fit a certain aesthetic and be a little original; I would avoid anything resembling stock photography or overdone styles if possible. It needs to be more than wallpaper and provide some kind of fresh stimulus.
GDC: Being someone who dreams of having a cafe in a few years, could you share some important lessons you have learnt over the years?
AB: First it’s crucial to do your research and work out if there is a niche for what you plan to do. Try to find a good location – it will be hard enough even if the basics are right – if they’re wrong it will probably be a losing battle. In general I’d say think about it very carefully. Unless you can afford to throw money at it for ages, which most of us can’t, you need to be prepared to sink several years of your life into it and not have much time for anything else.
Not everyone will be prepared to make the kind of sacrifices necessary, plus you risk losing everything if it doesn’t work out. There is something to be said for defined hours and pay. Eventually things may change but that will depend on how it all turns out and whether the size of the business allows you to delegate the work. It may be a long time before you get any financial return from it, even for basic expenses, as you are the last person to get paid after the landlord, the suppliers, the staff, the bank and so on.
Also the big paradox of setting up a business like this is that you may want more excitement and challenge. But for ages you’ll probably spend a great deal of time doing tasks that could be even more boring and unchallenging than whatever you did before eg. bookkeeping and other paperwork, endless shifts, tax, payroll, preparing stock, tidying up etc. It has taken me a while to get to the position where I can make time for other things. You are also on the hook for anything that goes wrong – if someone calls in sick or leaves town in a hurry and you can’t get any cover then you have to drop everything. And the more hours a week you are open, the more it can happen. But that lack of control is balanced by the control you have in other areas: flexible working hours in general, hiring the people you choose, setting the general environment and so on. If you really have to try something like this, you’ll probably know it already, and I wish you good luck!
GDC: Anyone who has visited Lee Rosy’s often enough, has seen you hard at work behind the counter. What are you favourite parts of owning and running Lee Rosy’s?
AB: I’m the sort of person who always needs a new pet project and there are lots of avenues for that within a shop like this as long as I get the time. At the moment, the thing I appreciate is having time to do other things outside the shop. And it’s also a pleasure when we host a good gig, and I think if I wasn’t here in this room I wouldn’t be seeing this.
Also, the shop can be quite a social environment and it’s good interacting with staff and customers. We have a great bunch of customers and it’s nice to work in the kind of place where you’d want to have a conversation with them because you share interests. I’d like to say thank you to all the people who make the shop what it is.
Thank you Andrew for sharing with us your experiences of setting up and running Lee Rosy’s. I’ll be back for some tea and cheesecake very soon.