For lovers of food and good company, starting a cafe is often just a pipe dream. But Lauren Irlam made it a reality. Read on to find out how she did it, why she wants to champion women in hospitality, and learn about the tools that are changing her business for the better…
Nestled in Manchester’s city centre, Lauren Irlam’s Nibble café is the kind of place that offers up instant warmth in the form of decadent delicacies and a cosy atmosphere.
Not only did she start her own independently run business at the age of 27 in 2017, she’s also managed to successfully navigate it – with her all-female staff by her side – through the Covid-19 pandemic.
It’s this type of tenacious attitude that makes Lauren’s café such a welcoming place.
It’s also inspiring for other young women looking to reach the top of a male-dominated industry.
The hospitality industry is the third largest UK employer, with women accounting for approximately 60 per cent of its workforce, yet only 11% of women hold a senior managerial position.
With that in mind the past 20 months have been a testament to Lauren’s talent, skills and savvy business acumen.
Here, she describes where it all started and talks about the everlasting power of female solidarity and her grand plans for the future of Nibble…
Where it all started
“Food was always kind of the thing that I wanted to be involved with.
“One of my earliest memories of food was baking, with my mum, or my brother and I creating a three-course menu for our parents and making things for them for their dinner on our own.
“I’ve always wanted my own café or bakery. From an early age, I was always making cakes and loved the whole process.
“A couple of years after finishing university I started doing small farmers markets on my own, when I was working in a job I didn’t want to do.
“Then I found my way into the hospitality industry, but I was working on a reception desk. It wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with my life, but it was the first job I got after university and I needed to pay the bills if I wanted to stay living here, which I did.
“Really, I wanted to be on the fun side of food.
“Having my own place was in my plans, but way in the future. It was a case of right space, wrong time for me really, but the café was something I just couldn’t turn down when the opportunity arose.
“I was working as a general manager for someone else and my parents had come up for a visit to Manchester. We were looking online to see how much it would cost to do something on my own and happened to find a space in the Northern Quarter, where I’d worked before and felt like home.
“The space was small, so it seemed like it would be a good starting point for me to have a go at doing something myself.
“I went to see it and two weeks later I had a cafe to run. I was still working my notice at my other job and had barely any money to scrape together everything I needed to do it my way and open Nibble.
“I ran the café, as it was previously, with their existing team, until there was enough cash flow to redecorate and rebrand, which had to be pretty cheap as running your own business, and starting one in hospitality, definitely isn’t an easy road, and it was a long, long time before we were in any kind of profit.
“I got everything together by doing it all myself. I created logos, websites, painted the walls and everything with the help of a few friends.
“I took the café online and used Google My Business to build a business profile so that people could search for us.
“The brand and the café has changed organically over time as we had a little more money in the pot, and we decorated again in lockdown to keep us busy, but again, most things we do ourselves. It’s our home.”
Turning company into a company
“It’s important that we fight our corner as women.
“Hospitality is pretty progressive as an industry compared to others, but still, there are more men in kitchens, or owning businesses, and you still have to fight harder to be heard and to be respected.
“Women have so many strengths that hospitality needs. It was important to me that we championed this and used these strengths to create a positive working space for us and a safe space for our customers to come to as well.
“Recruitment often takes a while for us as we are such a small team. I would much rather that someone was the right fit personality-wise, and had the right attitude, than someone who had all the skills.
“We can teach those, but we all work the same shifts, and work just as hard as each other. We need to make sure it’s a good fit for us, that we can all get along, and that egos are left at the door.
“Because we are a small space, we do literally everything and often all at the same time, so it’s so important that someone can multitask and focus on more than one thing at once.
“None of us were trained chefs, we learnt that on the job – it really is just finding the right fit and someone who’s proactive and wants to talk to people.”
“Female solidarity is so important for us.
“We feel so much more like a team than any other team I’ve worked with. We work together. We come together to fix problems. We’re all proud of what we do, and thank each other at the end of a day.
“We respect each other, we’ve become friends and we understand some of the physical things about being a woman that sometimes mean you might need a little bit of a lift that day.
“A lot of my time is spent fostering the right team, so when it comes to the business side of Nibble it’s all about simple but effective solutions that help take care of the administrative side while I work on creating the right environment.
“I get statistics every month from Google My Business. It’ll tell me how many people have asked for directions or called us, which helps me see patterns in why and when we’re busier. In turn, that helps with things like knowing how many staff to put on at certain times and how many cakes to bake depending on demand.
“I can also see how many people have clicked through to the website – that was really important, especially when we developed online, because the analytics are right there in front of you. It makes you ask: what have we been doing and how can we improve it?”
Finding female friendship
“Hospitality is a pretty stressful industry – people want things quickly, to a certain standard and they’ll tell you if you’re not doing well enough.
“I wanted to create a space that was fun to be in too and where I wanted to spend my working days, where we had ultimate control of how we did things without jumping through other people’s hoops.
“Nibble is all about making absolutely everyone welcome and being really inclusive – whether you work here, or you’re coming in to eat and drink. I wanted to create a really positive space, that we enjoy being a part of, and people enjoy coming to.
“I work alongside the girls, it’s not an ‘us and them’ management structure, we go through the same days, and want to have a good time while we’re working. We laugh, have a drink at the end of the day when customers have gone and it’s not ego-led.
“I close the café one day a month to have a staff meeting and cover any outstanding jobs we haven’t had time to do. I then take the girls out, and the business foots the bill.
“It allows us all to be together, go somewhere other than work, let our hair down and do something fun, while saying thank you to the team.
“I want us all to be able to be creative and let our individual personalities and skills shine. We think of it as our living room.
“Zoe, who joined the business right at the start, is my right-hand woman. She manages the café when I’m not around and alongside me when I am. It’s so lovely working with someone who knows you so well, and makes things even more fun!
“We met years ago, when I worked in my first ever hospitality job as a supervisor. She managed another site for the same business, which was much bigger and busier than the one I worked at.
“We went for drinks as a group a few times and then I worked a crazy event with her and her parting words to me were, ‘So, do you want to come to the dark side?’ and I did.
“I went to work at the site she managed and we quickly became best friends and worked really well together. We’ve been pretty much inseparable since and now she’s going to be maid of honour at my wedding!”
Navigating the pandemic
“Even though we thought it was coming, the first lockdown was still a massive shock.
“When Boris Johnson announced it, we obviously didn’t know what help we were going to get or anything like that. At the time, it was so dreadful.
“Zoe and I sat on the phone to each other for ages and cried. We were devastated. We didn’t know what this meant for us as a business. Was that it forever? How would we survive? Would our customers be OK? Would they come back whenever we could reopen? Would we be OK? Would we have jobs? What do we do when we aren’t working? We’d worked so hard for so many years, so it was completely alien to us to not be there.”
“We supported each other massively and spoke all the time. We seemed to go through our ups and downs at different times so that one of us could support the other when they needed it and then it’d come back around the week after.
“It was super-stressful with the pressure of loving the people who work for me and not knowing if I could keep them – and me – in jobs, but having each other’s support made everything so much better.
“Having said that, I learned loads in the pandemic. I built on the café’s online presence and made it easy for people to search for us and order deliveries. From that, people could also find out about what we were doing to keep things ticking over and this evolved with each lockdown and it’s something we’ll continue to do now.”
“At the time it was about survival, but now it’s an extra revenue stream and one that allows us to be national rather than just in Manchester as we deliver all over the UK.
“It was the most stressful time of my life, but I’m grateful for the chance to step back and take stock of where we needed to improve and explore different avenues that might always have stayed on the to-do list if we hadn’t had to.
“Lots of our customers leave reviews on our Google Business Profile, which is amazing. During lockdown people would say how they’d normally come into the café and now they’re ordering stuff online.
“They’d write things like: ‘The girls are amazing and they bring stuff to the door and we have lovely doorstep chats.’ We got more custom from people seeing these reviews because people are quite expressive online and that’s really nice. Honestly, getting the café online saved us during that time and now we rely so much more on being digital for moving forward.”
“We’re busier than we’ve ever been, so we are just trying to refine as much as we can and live in the moment and enjoy life, after having to be closed for so long over the pandemic.
“I’ll definitely be growing the online side of things, but I’d love another premises or two at some point in the future and would like to spread out a little in terms of location. But after all we’ve been through, we’re just happy to be back and really want to focus on doing what we do best, and being around people again.
“My team support me every day and I’ve no doubt that they’ll continue to, we always navigate our way through, and they step up so that I can step back if I need to focus on things other than service to improve the business or keep it running smoothly.
“The main thing for me is that we are laughing all the time, even when it’s tough, and that makes everything so much better.”
“My advice to women who’d like to pursue their own business would be: believe in yourself.
“It’s not easy. I’m only just starting to. Imposter syndrome is real and you shouldn’t listen to it. Surround yourself with people who want to see you win. They’ll let you know you’re amazing even if you don’t feel it. And eventually you will.
“You really have to work for it, but it’s so rewarding. If you want to do it, you’ll find a way. You just have to stop yourself from getting in your own way and find the right tools to do that.
“We’re great at knowing what our limitations are and that comes all too easily, but get to know your strengths and build things around that. Life can be whatever you make it.”
In the past 18 months, an average of 5,000 British businesses a week sold online for the first time. Google provides companies like Lauren’s with tools to support growth. Whatever your mission, Google can help you make it a reality with free tools and training. Check out Nibble’s favourite tools below…
Susan Devaney is a digital journalist for Stylist.co.uk, writing about fashion, beauty, travel, feminism, and everything else in-between.