A Cut Above, Friends of Ham
Combining a love of charcuterie and cheese with a passion for artisan beers has seen Anthony Kitching and his wife Claire establish the lauded Friends of Ham in the centre of Leeds. Sheila McWattie reports
How we got here:
Development of our business plan began in 2009, when my wife Claire and I worked London. I had a job in construction and Claire worked in recruitment, but we shared a passion for developing our own business. Our initial inspiration for Friends of Ham came from discovering the thriving microbrewery scene during our subsequent US road trip, while our love of the dining culture of Bruges and Paris has influenced the restaurant side, encouraging us to specialise in charcuterie and cheese.
How we turned the business around
We knew a vacant unit would help our craft-beer bar and charcuterie, offering a full yet informal table service, to make its mark in Leeds – and this former independent noodle bar with its quirky layout, private landlord and free-of-tie lease appealed to us instantly. Footfall was low when we took it over in July 2012, despite having a railway station a few minutes’ walk away, but more recent city-centre developments have helped to boost trade. While our refurb budget hasn’t been vast, we’ve made necessary changes wherever we could, including redesigning the bar are to allow more food preparation space and installing air conditioning to make the dining experience as pleasurable as possible.
How we grew the business
Our timing was very opportune as interest in craft beer was on the rise and UK demand was strong. There was a distinct gap in the market in Leeds for this independent type of operation, and we quickly became known for our distinctive offering, initially growing our business via word of mouth and social media. Introducing table service in early December 2013 enabled us to increase turnover by 30% in our second year. Early in 2014 we began discussing expanding into the next-door unit, owned by the same landlord; in August 2014 we took it on and closed for two weeks for the refurb. The expansion cost around £150,000 and has given us 60% more space in both back and front-of-house areas, significantly increasing revenue.
- Expanding into the next-door unit has put us even more firmly on the Leeds culinary and drinking-destination map
- Increasing quality product lines keeps the dining experience we offer current and relevant.
- Building closer relationships with key suppliers is bringing opportunities to host numerous food and drink-pairing events, each involving up to 14 guests, and including information provided by suppliers. Our highly successful ham-carving class was attended by 12 people paying £50 each and tutored by Mario Regalado, who was the master carver at Brindisa Spanish Foods’ ham-carving school at the time, a speciality business in London’s Borough Market.
- In partnership with breweries we have also held events for up to 40 guests, making the most of the surge of interest in craft ales.
- Introducing organic and biodynamic wines
How we stand out from the crowd
We prepare all our dishes front-of-house, as we don’t have a kitchen. Offering a simple, high quality food and drink experience, focusing on combining excellent craft ales with speciality meat and cheese, enables us to appeal to customers from a variety of backgrounds who appreciate our relaxed, efficient service and sourcing of sometimes very unusual products. Lardo di Colonnata, creamy, herb-cured back fat, is cured in marble coffins. Our array of unpasteurised blue cheeses is quite unusual, including Stichelton, Beenleigh Blue and Roquefort. Being able to advise customers about food and beverage pairings helps us stand out from the crowd. Recommendations such as our blue-cheese board paired with Doozy Porter, 6.3% from Mad Hatter is an unusual but perfect combination.
Best piece of business advice we’ve received
Don’t try to please everybody. Be your own person, decide what you want to do and do it well.
Our biggest mistake, and what we learned
We’ve learned that it’s impossible to do everything ourselves. Delegation is key.
Our staff and training
One of the key aspects of Friends of Ham that ensures our high standard of customer service and makes our table service and guests’ dining experiences special is our team’s product knowledge. We prioritise product training, particularly focusing on our more unusual products to ensure all staff are able to handle any queries. We organise frequent brewery visits where we are able to create our own beer to sell at Friends of Ham, and also to our meat and cheese suppliers to optimise our team’s knowledge. Regularly hosting social outings for staff such as bowling and dinners helps to boost morale and maintain motivation.
We have four cask lines and 10 kegs and constantly change the line-up (three keg lines are permanent) with local, national and international microbrewery beers. The most popular breweries are local: Summer Wine (which produces our house pale ale), Magic Rock, Kirkstall & Ilkley sell well, alongside the Kernel from London. Our house lager is Veltins and our fruit beer is Delirium Red.
We use four different wine suppliers, stock a great range of wines, nearly all available by the glass, and recently introduced some organic and biodynamic wines.
Our social media activity and strong following assist us in retaining existing and gain new custom, through publicising events, products and other items of interest. Replying promptly to any comments posted keeps us in tune with our customers and helps to let them know that we take them seriously. Our monthly newsletter is a powerful form of direct marketing, keeping our loyal customers on our database informed about our activities and products.
Our events, such as our ham-carving workshop, mirror our up-to-date products and help us reach more customers from further afield and build loyalty. Our constant stream of innovative food and drink means there is always something new to talk about!
Couldn’t live without
Definitely our meat-slicer!
One idea that didn’t work
We did try a lunchtime menu, which was simpler than our more complex dinner menu, focusing on small dishes rather than platters or cheese boards. But customers didn’t really seem to need the other menu, preferring the original menu they knew and loved. So we incorporated some small dishes into our main menu and reverted to our single menu.
Aims for the next year
We aim to fully establish Friends of Ham in its expanded form and continue to evolve our food and beverage offerings. We’d like to become more involved with bespoke events and are considering participating in a range of interesting local projects.
Simple food, big flavours. Our team makes a concerted effort to source and use suppliers of high-quality products who share our passion and ethos and we always taste our products to ensure consistently high standards. Claire and I visit all our suppliers and their premises, often working there briefly to promote mutual understanding of our businesses.
Small dish: Raclette (£6.50)
Sharing board: Spanish board (£16.50)
Dessert: Salted caramel brownie (£3.95)
Best new menu item
Friends of Ham’s Fave Cheeseboard – a selection of the best cheeses currently available (£12.50)Back to Reviews