Aussie law graduate opens London cafe
Shelagh Ryan studied law in Australia. Rather than following the crowd into qualifying, she thought hard about whether being a lawyer was for her and decided against it. Instead she took a policy job with the federal government and stayed in that line of work for ten years. In 2007 she moved to London to open an Aussie-style café and she now runs Lantana (which we have tried and it's great), just off Charlotte Street.
mtl: Hi Shelagh, please can you tell us about your brush with the law.
Shelagh: I did a law degree because I thought it would be a useful grounding for whatever career I ended up doing, rather than because I was sure I wanted to be a lawyer. I also thought it would hold more weight than doing a straight arts degree.
Although I really enjoyed studying law, I wasn’t sure about working in a commercial firm after university. I couldn’t see an area that would particularly satisfy me. I considered doing criminal law but knew it would be tough emotionally. All my friends were arranging their articles, but instead I applied for public service work in legal policy areas. I felt that I could still use my legal skills in a policy job without having to qualify.
I took a job in the Department of Communications, IT and the Arts in Canberra. It was similar to the Fast Stream programme here and I stayed there for two years. I enjoyed being a policy adviser and found that I used similar skills to those that I’d learnt on my law degree i.e. writing, analytical thinking and problem solving. I was lucky with the areas I worked in and the people I worked with but I didn’t like Canberra, so I moved to a State job in Melbourne. I stayed there for the next eight years.
mtl: Why and how did you make the move from legal policy adviser in Australia to café owner in London?
Shelagh: I come from a foodie family and have always been obsessed with food. I had often talked about what it would be like to run a place and my sister had moved to London and realised how good the cafes in Australia are in comparison and how hard it was to get good, casual food in London. So I began to think about the idea in the context of London rather than in Australia. At the same time I had gone as far as I wanted to in public service in Australia and could see the next twenty years mapped out ahead of me. It was time for a change.
Graduated from University of Queensland, Brisbane – combined arts and law
1998 – 2000
Policy adviser, Canberra
2000 - 2007
Policy adviser, Melbourne
Moved to London to open Lantana
I applied for a highly skilled migrant visa, did a business plan and lots of research for the café for over a year before arriving in London in May 2007. I had lived in London for a while earlier in my life and was convinced it would be easier than it has been! When I arrived I reacquainted myself with the demography of the different areas and then started to look at sites and research the various licensing laws and suppliers. I spoke to real estate agents and trawled the internet. In the meantime I managed a deli in Notting Hill, which gave me some more experience in the hospitality industry.
It was a long process to find a suitable property as I was an independent with no track record and it was therefore difficult to be taken seriously by landlords. I originally looked in South Kensington but was gazumped several times and was ready to throw in the towel when I found a great site on Charlotte Place, which is a pedestrian side street near Tottenham Court Road. There is an interesting mix of residents and workers in the area and I decided to go for it. In March 2008 I began negotiating and in July 2008 I signed the lease and began the building works. Lantana opened in 2008.
mtl: Tell us about the café and how it is going so far?
Shelagh: Lantana is pitched at people who care about the quality of their coffee and food. It’s an alternative to the grab and go culture here e.g. Starbucks and Prêt, which are consistent but have no personality. We really care about everything that we are presenting and our suppliers are well-researched. We use seasonal UK produce as much as possible and sell classics with a gourmet twist. It isn’t Gordon Ramsay but it isn’t a greasy spoon either – it’s just simple, well-executed food. As a concept, it is typical in Australia and wouldn’t stand out there as unique like it does here.
My sister, her husband and another friend invested in the business too. My sister does the PR and advertising and my brother-in-law is a management consultant and keeps an eye on the finances. We have a great chef, who we only found at the eleventh hour.
It’s going well so far – we have exceeded our expectations and have had some good reviews in e.g. Time Out. I run the café from day to day and have got to the point where I can enjoy it after the hectic running around of the first few months. It’s beginning to get a life of its own now and I was happy to come back to work after Christmas. I work full-time at the moment, six days a week, which is to be expected and I wear many hats. The café is open 8am – 6pm during the week and 9am – 5pm on Saturdays, though I normally do 12 hour days.
mtl: What tips do you have for would-be entrepreneurs?
Shelagh: The hardest thing is surviving the knock-backs – to start a small business you need persistence and drive and the ability to stay positive. Sometimes I miss sitting at a desk knowing that I can leave at a certain time. I have to be an expert in so many areas e.g. air conditioning and laundry. I underestimated that aspect – the role is not confined to designing nice menus!
Make sure that that you have someone involved who is good at handling the financial projections. In fact you should appreciate the range of skills you will need and consider whether you have them all – if you don’t then you should get the right people to help you. It’s tempting to say that a particular skill is not important but you will come unstuck without a full range.
Also be very aware that the job is not “done” just by opening the business because you then need to promote it and if you have no experience then you need help with that. Be persistent and try to stay positive even when you are exhausted. And keep perspective on why you are doing it in the first place i.e. you wanted to follow your passion and throw yourself into something new and challenging. There will always be parts of any job that are tiring, boring and frustrating, so remind yourself of that and stay focused on the end result. Everything takes time and you might not feel ecstatic the whole time but you are doing something for yourself, which is great.
Be prepared to work long hours. However, when it is your choice to be there, you are working for yourself and you feel passionately about what you are doing, the hours don’t seem too bad. Running a small business is not an easy option but when you do something you love it doesn’t feel like work and I think that is the biggest difference I’ve noticed from other jobs I’ve had.
Finally, if you really want to run your own business (or change career) don’t put it off. Don’t just say “one day”. I was prepared to fail and thought that the worst thing that could happen was that it didn’t work - but then I would know that I had given it a go and would never think “what if”.
I’ve found that having a law degree has given me confidence to deal with legal issues and I am not bamboozled by red tape or fazed by e.g. licencing issues. It’s a very good foundation to have in life as it leaves you less intimidated by a lot of the obstacles that you will come up against.
I sometimes miss being in an intellectually stimulating environment and am conscious of wanting to make the café more than just a place that serves food by looking at the provenance of the food and hopefully arranging some speakers in the future.
mtl: Finally, what does the name Lantana mean?
Shelagh: We wanted a name that suggested an Australian influence without being too obvious or literal. Lantana is a beautiful flowering plant that was introduced into Australia from South America and has taken hold and thrived because it is hardy. It is actually referred to as ‘a weed of national significance’. We hope that Lantana the café will also thrive on foreign soil.
mtl: Thanks for your time and we hope Lantana continues to do well.
You can find Shelagh’s café at 13 Charlotte Place, W1T 1SN
You can read Time Out’s review of the Lantana here.
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.
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