Sarah-Jane’s growing empire

In the last few years Sarah-Jane Roberts has built up a chain of eateries, pubs and bars around Norwich, including the Mulberry, Beluga and Farmer Browns. EMMA LEE meets her.

It's 10am and Farmer Browns in Tombland in Norwich echoes with the sound of chopping and whisking as the chefs prepare for lunchtime service.

On the menu, a host of locally sourced produce showcasing the best that Norfolk has to offer.

Farmer Browns, which opened in September, is the latest addition to Sarah-Jane Roberts' growing chain of eateries and bars across the city.

Her other premises, which have all opened in the last few years, are the Mulberry and the Langtry on Unthank Road, Beluga on Upper King Street, Karma Kafe in Bedford Street, the Woolie in Muspole Street and the Buck Inn at Thorpe.

'This is the kitchen, it's my favourite room because you can see the chefs in action,' says Sarah-Jane, taking EDP2 on a tour of the stunning historic building.

It's long been a restaurant – its previous incarnations have included Chess, the Aquarium, Shine and, most recently, Erpingham House.

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'I love being able to take beautiful buildings and be creative,' she says. 'We had this for probably three months before we did anything with it.'

With Farmer Browns she has created what feel like mini restaurants within the restaurant, each with their own distinct personality. Downstairs, in the buzzy kitchen there are quirky cartoons on the wall. Across the corridor is the red room, which feels completely different, with a vintage chic look. Upstairs it's different again.

As well as championing local food suppliers, Sarah-Jane used local talent when it came to the decor – the bar was created by a north Norfolk blacksmith.

Owning one restaurant would be a fantastic achievement at the age of 36, let alone a whole chain. How did Sarah-Jane get into the business?

'I suppose I have always been in the hospitality industry. My mum was involved in residential care homes and my first job was making the tea,' she says.

'I studied food at the College of Food in Birmingham, then took some time out and went travelling in the US. I then came back to the UK with a very nasty twang and my parents sent me to London to sort myself out. I worked for My Kinda Town which had individual brands like Havana, Bar Cuba, Beach Blanket Babylon. I was very fortunate to do my training there. Then I came back to Norwich and started working with Henry Watt and Animal Inns and I was there for four years or so,' she says.

Sarah-Jane then was involved with setting up the Orgasmic group of restaurants. 'I then ventured out and started my first business which was Indulge [in Queen Street].'

It was there that Sarah-Jane discovered what, in her words, a 'rollercoaster' the industry can be.

'When I lost my first business that completely broke me. When you lose something you are so close to it is just so completely demoralising. I think you've got two choices: disappear or try to rise above it and work even harder at getting something right.'

Sarah-Jane chose the latter option.

'I was sad that I lost Indulge, but what I've learned through the years is that it's a rollercoaster ride,' she says philosophically.

Speaking to her it's clear she's a very driven person.

'You have to be passionate and believe in what you are doing and have a great team. It's a tough industry. But we don't get bored because every business has a different personality and style,' she says.

Those styles range from traditional boozer to gastropub to her 'night owl', Karma Kafe.

Sarah-Jane says that she didn't set out to open so many premises in such a short space of time – especially in the current economic climate.

'It's very much about whether things present themselves to us. It's because we've fallen in love with a building,' she says.

Sarah-Jane believes in nurturing local talent – some of her managers have started out working with her part-time when they were students. And she regularly holds meetings where the managers swap ideas about each other's establishments.

'We've got such a great team around us. There's oodles of talent. We bounce off each other and support each other, which for me is the best part. It's about being able to work with like-minded souls.

'One thing for us is certainly we are being very aware of being more environmentally friendly and resourceful.

'It's not just about getting these sites, it's about being creative, saying what could they be and what should they be.'

And her belief is the key to an establishment's success isn't just about the food. While that is, obviously, important, it's also about the atmosphere and creating somewhere that people want to go to.

For example, the Mulberry holds craft fairs and is planning its own store selling home-made jams and pickles while Beluga is going to start doing afternoon teas.

'Beluga is our glamourous one,' says Sarah-Jane. 'We've just taken on a pastry chef who was formerly at the Dorchester, and we're planning on doing afternoon teas at Beluga. The whole environment is so suited to it.'

Service is important too. That's why she will regularly go out and eat at her own establishments. Recently she had an evening where she had a course in each of several different restaurants. 'It was great to go out on a Saturday night and see them all in their element,' she says.

'I think we are fast catching up with the European style of food. It's very much a service led industry. Going back 10-15 years I don't think we were particularly service led. But it's not just about delivering great dishes,' she says.

Hands-on, she's not afraid to roll her sleeves up if something needs fixing.

'If something breaks I'm only five minutes' drive to get something working. I've learned to unblock toilets and know where the fuse boards are,' she laughs.

When it comes to eating, Sarah-Jane says her own taste is quite simple.

'In north Norfolk I like the Wiveton Bell. And in Norwich the Last [Wine Bar] is always a winner – you know exactly what you are going to get.

'I'm a real plain Jane. I'm not particularly adventurous. I have a very very sweet tooth, so give me anything sweet any day. I like the Buck Sunday lunch and the Mulberry breakfast. And I love the brisket at Farmer Browns.

'I'm very much a last-minute eater. I'm a bit of a night owl and I do find that we probably don't serve late enough in Norwich,' she says.

There are signs that Sarah-Jane's daughter, Olivia, could be set to follow in her footsteps. 'The other day she was walking through the corridors at Beluga saying 'they've left the lights on'. She's five! What have I done?' she laughs. 'I have hopes for Olivia to take over shortly.' photo: adrian judd