I was introduced to Eaton and Michael from 'Edith's House' by Steph, from Don't Buy Her Flowers, a previous interviewee of @mastersofmany. Both former actors, they founded and now run two branches of Edith's House - a tribute to Nana’s everywhere in the form of brilliantly eclectic local cafes that bring a Nana’s home to life (and were dedicated to Edith, Eaton's Nana). The pair are brilliantly charismatic, and obviously have a great formula on their hands for the business and are working through their options for expanding the concept. I caught up with them to find out more about their story, and their plans going forward.
Tell us about what you’re doing now and your journey to date...
Eaton: Five years ago we were both working as actors. We were fed up of going on tour and being away from each other for long periods. We wanted control. We came up with the idea of opening a cafe. We wanted somewhere cosy, familiar, relaxed and safe and decided to replicate a generic Nana’s house. My Nana is called Edith. We went to Rye on holiday and looked at potential venues there, as we were scared of doing it in London.
Michael: One place we visited in Rye was a good deal, with a short tenancy, but we had to make a decision within a couple of weeks. We had to move down there, get suppliers and then a few days before, when we'd come up with the menu we realised we had to make it all! A few months before, we had picked cake recipes to try and see what we were good at, but then it happened quicker than we had thought, so we didn't have a chance. We had to do a short course a week before - it was a scary time!
We found we both had a natural flair for baking and as actors have an ability to pretend we were good at something we weren't and people were convinced by it. Two and a half years later we opened in London.
Eaton: We've learnt as we've gone and got more confident with it. In our business plan, we wrote that we were fed up of going to the coffee bars in London where it's bare brick with steel. We decided to open and be 'anti-cool' by being grotty.
Michael: The cafe is set out like a house. There is a TV room, a posh room, a kitchen, a pantry, a dining room, a bathroom so you can eat off the sink, a hallway, and a dressing table. That's what makes us different. A lot of places you go to, you get the essence of a house, but we wanted to make it feel like it's a real set, like someone's actual home. When I hear us describing it, I think it sounds bad, but we went so far in being brave and real about it that it kind of works!
Eaton: It was weird going shopping and thinking "that looks horrible, lets get it!"
Michael: One of the things we had to fight against, especially in London, was just being a themed, novelty place. We had to make sure the food was good, source really good tea and coffee, and have brilliant service. It all had to be bang on, they are the things that really bring people back.
When we rent to Rye, we thought we'd still be able to do a TV commercial or gig because they are quite short, but it completely overtakes your life, it's all consuming.
Eaton: We still want to do acting. We haven't forgotten those roots, we miss it and when the new business in London is settled, we'd like to do bits and bobs. We want financial stability so we can choose jobs for creative reasons, rather than having to do them for the pennies.
What ultimately made you take the leap to do things differently?
Eaton: We knew we wanted to do something else. We did try to run an online vintage clothes shop, but it petered out and didn't ultimately work.
Michael: We'd both been waiters and in hospitality so it felt natural to do the cafe; and it's kind of like performing.
Eaton: The catalyst was the short period in which we had to decide on saying yes to the rental. We had to make a decision in a couple of weeks.
Michael: If that hadn't been the case, we might have talked about it and set plans but never done it. I remember crying a lot! When I get stressed, it's my way of dealing with it. I remember that we came to the decision that we should do it and fail at it, and think at least that we'd tried to realise the dream. We completely underestimated moving somewhere else to do it though. We knew no-one down there, it was a village versus a bustling city; and we were changing from being actors, which can be exciting, to being responsible business owners.
Eaton: It sounds mad doesn't it! If someone told me I should do it, I'd say no, but we just winged it!
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in the new business, and were there any particular indicators?
Eaton: I suppose when you realise that people are coming back and it's getting busier. After about 6 months we started to feel secure about what we had created. Feedback starts coming in via Trip Advisor and Facebook and two months in you think we're getting away with it, but six months in, you start feeling like you're on to something.
Michael: Because it was rooted in family, with family photos on the wall and all based on Eaton's Nan, it was something that everyone relates to. They remember the kitchen, the wallpaper, and the ornaments. They have a connection to it. It's like retail theatre, going to buy something, but you get something else. You're transported to a particular time or it reminds you of a person, and seeing that happen is quite special. We've done something that we feel is different.
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
Eaton: I think it's been more about our relationship! That was hard. We'd never worked together and the dynamic changes dramatically. There are power shifts, and you're in control of different areas. There is an alpha male friction and it took us a couple of years to work through that and find our niche.
Michael: When we'd spent a lot of money in Rye to start the business, but were making a regular loss at the start, it was scary. There were times where I thought we'd have to go back to London, having spent a lot of money and not having anything to show for it. There's the realisation that it's not a given that something will succeed, even if it's a great idea. You have to work hard and constantly invest time and money.
What do you find difficult about your managing multiple roles within the business?
Eaton: We're quite lucky because both of us enjoy the roles we've taken on. I'm creative and like the design aspect, things like the menu and the logo. Michael is good with numbers and loves a spread sheet. We've covered the bases because that's who we are.
Michael: In London we are still at the stage where we're working on the floor a lot, and making sure it's running how we want it to run. Sometimes it's exhausting giving all of that every day and then managing all of the other work for the business.
Eaton: You have to stay on top of the ordering of napkins, the staff, managing people.. it's constant and tough. It's also giving to the public, as coming in is social for some people, they come in for cafe therapy.
Do you get the fear, and what do you do to spur yourself on when you do?
Michael: We've become a lot better at thinking of it as the reality, rather than as a negative thing. In London, it's more investment and the stakes are higher. It can still be really scary, but we've learnt to know that's the reality and focus on the things we can do to make that better.
Someone gave us some good advice. You choose the goal you want to get to, however unrealistic - e.g. Edith's House having 100 shops across the world - and you find 5 small steps to get towards that. You then constantly find 5 steps to carry on that path and stay on that path. It gives you more control and direction and makes it easier to tackle the goal in smaller chunks.
Eaton: It's nice to never rest on your laurels. We're always challenging ourselves and trying to be creative and generate income in new ways. We have a weekly meeting where we brainstorm and look at the numbers.
We're planning to open in the evenings with a cheese fondue menu. It's exciting. When you see people in the cafe enjoying themselves, it really gives me a buzz, even now.
What or who do you find intimidating?
Michael: The taxman! He scares me! We're not natural businessmen. We're good hosts, entertainers, and good creatively
Eaton: We're not entrepreneurial naturally. We have to push ourselves. When I see new businesses open, I think they're going to do it better than us, that we're getting away with it a little bit. It's maybe an insecurity hangover from acting.
Michael: I think a lot of people don't knowing what they're doing a lot of time, even if other people think they do. It's intimidating to look at others and assume they know more than us.
What makes you feel good / powerful?
Eaton: When our family come and visit and they see what we've achieved and peoples reaction when they walk in.
Michael: When there are things like nice blogs and reviews. It's like getting applause after a performance.
What’s the best compliment you’ve been given about the business?
Michael: We did a wedding reception recently and someone said the canapés were the best they'd ever had. A few people have said recently that we should in NY and it's amazing thinking that it's good enough to run it somewhere like that.
How do you define success?
Eaton: I think before we started this, I would probably have said it was money, but now I think it's popularity. If people enjoy what you do you're making a success of your business. Having more time together is still our goal, being happy and having a nice life.
Michael: Day to day the business is really successful in terms of getting people to have a good time and come back. But there's another layer to do with the money side that means that we can enjoy life together.
Where would you like the business to get to?
Eaton: We would love to franchise the concept. It's hard work to start from scratch, so it would be nice to hand over a blue print to someone else and be able to make money from the business, still with an element of control.
Michael: We're trying to get some articles written on the business and do some proper marketing and reach people further out.
Have you thought about getting investment for the business?
Eaton: Michael is doing a course next year with Goldman Sachs on franchising. There are other avenues we're starting to explore but that's our focus for next year.
Michael: It would be nice to retain that independent fee, but we've realised that to make enough money out of these things you have to have a few of them. If you don't have enough money then having an investor or franchising are your options.
Eaton: It would be stupid to enter this kind of industry aiming to create a franchise. You have to create something that works and get a high standard product that people like. We're just getting to the end of that stage.
How do you start your day?
Michael: We have a list we share together that builds and builds. For the first few months we were just scrambling to do everything in the nick of time. A few months ago we realised that's really unhealthy for that to be your work day.
Eaton: We've had to learn to separate our relationship and the business relationship. We try not to talk about work stuff at home. It's sometimes impossible, but we try very hard.
What's the biggest thing that your new way of working has changed about your life?
Michael: Just being responsible and being that person who has to sort something out. You can't go to someone else. If the fridge is broken, you have to fix it. You have to take care of everything. We've gone from a job where you dress up, wear wigs, and have fun to having lots of things that have to be done.
Ethan: Our acting ethos has bled into Edith's house. We start rehearsals and do lots of bonding exercises. We're creating a work team, a cast of people, like a little family. We try and make it as fun as possible.
Michael: A lot of people in London are struggling with stresses and if they can come to our shop and forget about that and feel good when they leave, that's a really nice feeling.
What's the single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
Michael: Mine is from my parents. I don't know if it's literal words as such, but I was brought up in an environment where it was ok to be who you are and try to aim high and succeed in something. With my sexuality, I always felt I would be supported, so the advice is just to live and try.
Eaton: In my life I've tried to distil everything to a mantra: you always have a choice. In every situation you have an option, you don't have to do something, you can always choose another way.
To find out more about Edith's house, or to visit in either Rye or London, click here
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