As Bettys celebrates its centenary, we catch up with Lesley Wild, who has spent 40 years making one of Yorkshire’s oldest family firms famous the world over.
Most mornings at 9am a woman walks into the Harrogate branch of Bettys. She always orders a cup of coffee, but mostly she comes for the conversation. Afterwards she returns home where she spends the rest of the day – and night – looking after her seriously ill husband.
“That half an hour or so is the only part of the day which is hers and it’s a complete privilege that she wants to spend it with us,” says Lesley Wild, who joined her husband Jonathan’s family business a little over 40 years ago. “That’s what makes Bettys so special. So many of our staff have been with us for years. They create a familiar, homely atmosphere which no amount of interior design can buy.
“For our regular customers that means a lot. As soon as they step inside one of our tearooms they feel a sense of familiarity, it’s somewhere they can escape from the world outside for at least a little while.”
This year Bettys, which was founded by Jonathan’s great uncle, the Swiss confectioner Frederick Belmont, is celebrating its centenary. Every day it provides the backdrop for anniversary celebrations, wedding proposals and family parties, but while it is now regarded as a Yorkshire institution alongside parkin and Wensleydale cheese, it wasn’t always that way.
It was 1979 when Jonathan and Lesley came on board and they discovered a company which was a shadow of its former self. The tearooms, while still popular, were looking a little tired and a move into the wholesale market had compromised quality.
“It was no one’s fault,” says Lesley, who was training to be a solicitor when her career took a detour. “The war years had been devastating for Bettys. Ingredients had been almost impossible to come by and it was incredible that it had survived at all.
“Then in 1952 Frederick died. Jonathan’s father Victor was just 29 when he became managing director and the death duties he had to pay were astronomical. All his efforts went into keeping his head above water, it was a really difficult time for the company.”
With a strong creative bent, Lesley, who had also done a spell at art college, had a hunch that if they could reembrace the company’s Swiss roots, which had once been its USP, they might just be able to breathe new life into the family firm.
“One of the first things we did was stop the wholesale and mass catering operation,” says 66 year old Lesley. “Even then I was a bit of a foodie. As a child I’d been lucky enough to go on holiday every year to the South of France. We ate all sorts of different dishes and saw ingredients like aubergines and melons which hadn’t yet made it to England.
“I could see that what had made Bettys stand apart from every other tearoom was that it was where Switzerland and Yorkshire had met. That had been lost in the struggle to survive, so we decided to go back to basics.
“We concentrated on what had made the business a success in a first place, which was quality cakes and chocolates and a friendly, traditional atmosphere. It took quite a few years, but eventually that commitment to the original ethos paid off.”
Lesley was also behind the launch of Bettys cookery school. Requisitioning a couple of old agricultural buildings, which Jonathan had earmarked for demolition, the kitchens were initially used for staff training, but now welcome a steady stream of schoolchildren and paying customers who want to learn the art of the perfect Fat Rascal and other trademark treats.
“You do wonder where the time has gone, so this year it’s good to look back and see how far we have come,” says Lesley. “Food historian Annie Gray is writing a new book about Bettys which should be out just before Christmas and throughout this year we are hosting a number of special cookery workshops and celebrations.”
While Jonathan retired eight years ago, Lesley is still very much at the heart of Bettys and the trick now is ensuring that it isn’t just seen as a nostalgia brand.
“There is a lot more competition than there used be. But just as coffee shops have raised awareness about what good quality coffee should taste like I think the same is true of chocolate.
“We spend an awful lot of time on research and development, but I always say that you can’t teach someone what makes a Bettys product. I remember when I first joined the company Keith Harris was a big star and they were making bright green chocolate Orville’s.
“I took one look and thought, ‘That really isn’t us’. It’s about instinct and that’s something either you have or you don’t.”