Lead feature: Green dream

Lead feature: Green dream

Ironically, the motivation to reinvent oneself and find a better life often comes through misfortune, loss and the realisation that the only way is up. Maggie Nuttall lost her job as a senior executive in post-production TV. She’d also lost her mother, to whom she was much attached. Middle age was looking distinctly forlorn and Maggie, in her own words, had hit “rock bottom”.

As the 56-year-old hunted for another post, she was approached by the producers of a reality TV show, The Retreat, who wanted her to be one of its participants. Her involvement in the programme was to prove truly life-enhancing in more ways than one. The programme, which was fronted by DIY SOS presenter Nick Knowles and broadcast on BBC2 late last year, also featured 32-year-old Claire Langdon, a police detective, who had spent much of the previous year off work following a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

As part of the programme, both Maggie and Claire underwent a 28-day detox in Thailand. It included fasting, then following a plant-based diet, along with a lot of counselling and yoga. The experience not only triggered the start of a return to health for both women but was to prove the beginning of a firm friendship. It also led to them planning a business together, a café of their own based around healthy plant-based food. Their enthusiasm and determination even encouraged Knowles to come in as a sleeping third business partner in the venture.

The Retreat Kitchen, their café named after the eponymous programme and based in Richmond in Surrey, began earlier this year with a soft opening in February. That gave Maggie and Claire time to fine tune their business and tweak their recipes in preparation for their official opening in June. For Claire, the initial process of transforming her diet, let alone providing healthy vegan fare for paying customers, was something of a challenge, given that her policewoman’s intake

tended to comprise takeaways, white bread sandwiches and Diet Coke. Yet both women possessed a keen interest in cooking and were determined to transform their ways. You only have to look at early exerts from The Retreat on YouTube and compare them with our photograph of the two women now, with their glowing skins and confident demeanours, to realise how large their physical and mental transformation has been. They are literally the best adverts for their business.

“Both Maggie and I already had a keen interest in cooking and were always asking how our food was made when we were in Thailand,” explains Claire. “We had a few lessons there and also had some recommendations for good cookbooks and websites to help us get started.”

There was a big element of trial and error. Neither woman wanted to launch their business without first trialling and perfecting their vegan recipes. “We both cooked solidly for 12 months between returning home and opening the café,” says Claire.

Their unique selling proposition is that their food is entirely vegan and freshly prepared by them on site. But as Claire says, the real challenge has been keeping pace with demand. Finding a good location for their business, in this case Richmond Hill, was definitely a challenge, but burgeoning demand suggests it was a good choice of location.

As neither woman had any real experience of the hospitality industry, the learning curve was steep. “We threw ourselves in at the deep end and started swimming very fast… we were nervous about coping with food orders and even using the machine to make our speciality coffee,” says Claire.

But customers have been supportive and patient, and so too have friends and family, who have also helped out when things got particularly hectic. But the joys of running such a community-based business have more than compensated for the pressures involved in running their own business. “Maggie and I love interacting with people and enjoy being customer facing, especially when we get to talk about our food and our Retreat experience,” says Claire.

Menus have expanded along with their confidence. “We’ve been blown away by the positive response we have had to our dishes, especially as Maggie and I have no professional training in this area – we just work hard at making food that we think people will enjoy.”

Significantly, the Retreat Kitchen has become the first café in the country to have its full menu accredited under the Vegetarian Society Approved vegan trademark scheme. They not only fulfilled the organisation’s requirements that its food is vegan based and thus free from animal-derived ingredients, but impressed them with the quality and imagination behind the dishes involved too. They Sociery also found Claire and Maggie’s back-story particularly inspiring.

So what are the big favourites with their Richmond clientele? The café’s oat mile flat white is apparently the best seller. “We use Oatly barista edition, which is creamy and sits so well on our coffee bean, which is sourced from Old Spike Roastery in Peckham, a social enterprise that supports the homeless,” says Claire.

Old Spike roasts once a week, with local delivery runs being made by bicycle. Unfortunately, however, The Retreat Kitchen is just a little too far away for that mode of transport, though wherever possible the business is striving to keeps its carbon emissions to a minimum.

In terms of food, Maggie’s cashew cheesy leek and broccoli quiche has also proved highly popular with customers and so too has the café’s English breakfast muffin topped with spinach, Portobello mushroom, sliced avocado and homemade vegan hollandaise sauce. “It goes down a storm for breakfast,” says Claire.

So what’s next for the business? Claire says that once they have secured the long-term future of the Richmond business, they would like to consider more openings, but for now, she says, it is one step at a time. Her advice to any would be entrepreneur who would like to follow in their green footsteps is to keep close tabs on the figures. “Know your figures and do your research,” she counsels. “Be realistic about what you can achieve, plan for the worst case scenario and ask yourself the difficult questions before starting out.”

Being realistic, both Claire and Maggie appear to have a bright future ahead with the difficulties of their past being well behind them. They appear to be living their dream.