Member Spotlight: Utter Waffle

Utter Waffle

Utter Waffle do things differently. The smell of coffee, brand new tennis balls and the scent that hits you when you get off the plane in a hot country, are not the usual topics of conversation when talking about new hires, but “tell me your three favourite smells” is exactly what James Timmins asks of all potential candidates.

Utter Waffle is his passion and his hunt to find unique individuals that colour outside the box are what keep the fires burning and the success story flourishing.

We caught up with James a couple of days after he picked up the keys for his second bricks and mortar site in Balham. He was on his way to Wimbledon to chat trading contracts for the summer season, to which he already has Ascott, Hampton Court, London Coffee Show and Cambridge Mabels lined up. 2024 will be Utter Waffle’s “biggest year yet,” he says, which is quite the statement given that he and business partner Jules flew a 20 strong team over to Rome last year to trade at the Ryder Cup – a job in which he describes as “symbolic of the huge amount of growth” that the company has undertaken in the past two years.

“I didn’t want anyone to miss out. Logistically it was a beast to arrange but what an achievement. It’s absolutely essential when making new hires that we promote a good working environment. A ceiling at a company is a huge red flag for me which is why I try and manage people in a way that inspires them to grow. I’m passionate about what I do and when someone believes in that then it’s contagious amongst the staff.

“We hire based on personality; we want them to feel like a member of the family, whereby they treat work as a chance to unleash their creativity amongst mates. We have an open kitchen with no door and I strongly believe that the chemistry we have amongst the team contributes to the rapport we’ve built with our customers. That journey between the team and customer is super important and I’ve always maintained that we should treat customers as old pals from uni who we haven’t caught up with in 10 years – warm welcome, enquire about how they are, have some good banter – I believe that contributes massively to people returning.”

It could be said that the honesty and inclusiveness amongst the Utter Waffle team has contributed heavily to their rising success. James and Jules’ constant presence on site allows them to operate a literal open door policy when it comes to new ideas. A typical working week for James consists of around three admin days from the restaurant with a kitchen shift or two thrown in, a day or two of looking after business strategy and the seventh day is spent sitting with the Head Chef and events team to ensure they have everything they need for the week ahead in order to do their job well. The regular communication between the team allows for more creativity and in turn, more profit as the business ventures into new areas.

“One of my favourite things about the independent hospitality sector is that there’s a short distance between idea and execution. If a staff member comes to me with a good idea then we get the wheels rolling right away. I’d really struggle to work in a company where you didn’t feel like you were making a difference and that’s a big reason behind launching our Supper Clubs.

“There’s no question that cheffing is hard work, it takes a lot of stamina to keep delivering the same high quality dishes day after day and in many instances, the creativity is lost. I wanted to retain good chefs and to do that I wanted to make sure they had other areas in which to express their creativity. Our Supper Club is the waffle equivalent of Glastonbury in that tickets sell out in a matter of minutes. It’s not a deal breaker when taking on new hires if they aren’t interested in dish creation on this level; some chefs find fine dining really overwhelming and monotonous, but the fact they have that opportunity to come up with a dish and serve it to a full restaurant of people is a definite selling point.”

James is clearly getting something right when it comes to standing out in the hospitality sector, as he and Jules have featured on James Martin’s Saturday Kitchen, Sunday Brunch, been a guest judge on Junior MasterChef and achieved coverage on most major news channels in the UK. Although he’s no stranger to the small screen, the fact that he mentions the growth amongst his staff as one of his career highlights is testament to his success in retaining both loyal staff and customers.

“How you treat your staff can wholly determine whether they carry on in the hospitality sector or leave to do something else entirely. Working in a kitchen isn’t always a nice experience; I have one staff member who joined my team from a very toxic work environment who was a shell of the person she was. It’s been incredible to watch her grow in confidence and she’s one of my favourite and most talented people I’ve ever worked with. That fact that the industry nearly lost someone like that is a real reflection on how wrong some businesses are getting it when it comes to creating a safe and inclusive work environment.”

The transition from street food to bricks and mortar was a sign of relief for James when it came to hiring new starters. “There’s only so much passion someone can have for a business that they’re working at temporarily during summer. Opening up our first restaurant gave me the opportunity to finally take on some full timers and encourage them to grow.

“When it’s your own concept, it’s so important to you, it’s your baby and it’s hard to let go of some aspects of that. The branding is just one way in which the switch between street food and bricks and mortar was difficult to navigate. When we were designing the restaurant setup, it was a real challenge to maintain that original street food element and brand voice while offering a different level of service and of course charging a little bit more.

“I currently do all of our social media myself which can be overwhelming at times, so we’re looking at taking on a Content Manager this year. One business I have a soft spot for is Bababoom in Clapham. They do posh kebabs that the chefs cook in front of you and I absolutely love their branding (and food obviously) so I look to them for inspiration. Another favourite establishment to visit on the rare chance I have a free evening is Zapoi in Peckham. The owner is really talented and has designed what I can only describe as a bar that combines a garden centre with grandma’s front room. Their vintage drinks are insane and it’s such a vibe, I absolutely love it!”

It’s that ‘vibe’ that James continues to bring to his own business by creating a family of like-minded people who want to deliver delicious food in an inclusive setting. The fact that James and Jules can claim four British Street Food Award wins is testament to how utterly divine their waffles are, but his passion for creating a business with a loyal legion of followers and a happy workforce is just as much of a success. For him and his team, there really is no better industry to be working in than independent hospitality.

Find out more about Utter Waffle and follow their journey here.

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Note: The NCASS office will be close from 2PM on Friday 14th June for staff training.