Caroline Stewart is the Maître t’ at Bari Tea Brewery in Alnwick. Here she talks about setting up a business post-redundancy.
I was working in the not-for-profit sector when austerity cuts hit, and you don’t need middle managers when you’re losing 80% of your budget.
Luckily, I had nearly 6 months to prepare for redundancy as the organisation I was working for was delivering to a contract.
The best advice I was given at the time was “develop your business while you’re in a job”. I’m glad I was able to take advantage of lots of business support that was available and develop my plans while still on a monthly salary.
I decided to set up the Bari Tea Brewery because having spent nearly two decades working to deliver other people’s projects and business goals, I realised that I wanted to take the opportunity to set the business agenda – and to live or die by my own decisions.
In the early days, most of my support came through the then Business Link training sessions and advisors, and from people I knew who had set up businesses themselves.
As I had been working in the tourism sector previously, I had lots of useful contacts who generously gave me their time to talk through their experiences and offer their advice.
Established small business owners are usually happy to help – they genuinely want to see others thrive, though it’s probably best not to ask someone you’re setting up in direct competition with!
On one of those early days, a friendly local café owner said to me, “I can give you lots of advice. But until you’ve lived it, you probably won’t really ‘get it’.” I often think back to that conversation – it was truth.
The early days setting up Bari were challenging. The news talked about us coming out of a recession post-austerity, but the reality was that North East England lagged behind for several years.
There were also some big changes in how visitors moved through our town, reducing our footfall overnight by nearly 50%. Many tears were shed that summer. Money seemed to pour out of the shop. Staffing was the hardest part and there were times I felt very alone and, frankly, quite scared that I was going to lose all the savings I had invested to bootstrap my business.
Happily, the Bari Tea Brewery is now 8 years old, and financially sound and growing. Our team is well established. There is a genuine trust, respect and friendship. I set up an unofficial junior shop assistant apprentice-type scheme, and that has been my biggest joy, seeing their skills and confidence develop. In turn the business gets an injection of youthful energy and ideas, and insightful, challenging questions (“But WHY do we have to do it like that?”). Many of our juniors who started out as 14yr olds now come back during their university vacations to work – so we have experienced, well trained adults available during our busiest periods ie the holidays, and they have guaranteed work in an environment they enjoy.
The Bari Tea Brewery is two businesses now – our tearoom and retail shop in Alnwick is separate from the online and trade tea sales. I made this decision several years ago for operational reasons. COVID-19 has proven that to have been a good decision. And I made it. Based on my experience. I didn’t need anyone’s permission to do it.
I’m often asked, “If you knew then what you know now, would you do it again?”.
It’s certainly been an education. I’ve been heard to say that setting up the Bari Tea Brewery has been like doing an expensive 8-year MBA.
But I don’t regret it. I can’t imagine being anything other than my own boss now. I may work long hours, but it’s doing something I love, and I get to make the decisions about what I do and how I manage my hours. My business also gets to reflect my personal values, eg staff working conditions, environmental issues, deep genuine respect for our customers.