My Biggest Mistake: Prue Leith

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The Independent Online
The catering and restaurant group that bears her name was started in a bedsit 30 years ago. Named 1990's Businesswoman of the Year, she is a prolific author and columnist. A new book, Leith's Step-by-Step Cookery, is issued this week.

MY BIG mistake was in not listening. I didn't listen when Lord Forte, who had 20 years of experience with the catering contract for Hyde Park, told me to forget parks. 'You need a visitor attraction,' he said. 'If it rains, people don't cancel the day out that they have planned - but everyone cancels a trip to the park.'

He's right. At Hampton Court, where there is the palace as well as the park, a spot of rain drives them not home but into our restaurants.

My husband, who is our financial director, told me when we were considering the Hyde Park venture that the figures didn't stack up. 'Don't be so negative,' I said.

'Don't touch it,' said friends in the mobile catering business. 'The ice-cream mafia will trade in the park, and the police won't be able to do a thing about it. They'll sell soft ice cream and slimy burgers and everyone will think they are yours. And you'll get kneecapped.' Well, they never kneecapped us, but the police never tipped them out of the park either.

I read a survey of the eating-out habits of the British. It showed a clear preference for cheap burgers and chips, but I didn't listen. We were going to sell home-made soup, salmon and a decent Chablis, and people would flock to our door. Well, they did - on sunny days. But on days that were windy, cold or rainy, customers were outnumbered 20-1 by staff.

I didn't listen when told that life under the Department of the Environment would be hell. That the minister would change every six months, and no one would give a toss if you lived or died as long as you paid your commission. Department officials who cannot get a loo fixed, or a path mended, or a street lamp turned on without three site visits to discuss the matter, do not make good business partners. Things improved miraculously once they rubbed out the tier of bureaucrats we dealt with and semi-privatised the parks, but that was too late for me.

I was warned not to believe what the department said about the future either. The plan was to demolish and rebuild the old Serpentine restaurant on the road while my temporary replacement did service for three years.

'Don't believe it,' said a contact. 'As soon as the old restaurant is down, they will have second thoughts.' Rubbish, I thought. Of course, they will rebuild it. They said they will, and they are the Government. By then we'll be sitting pretty to get the more profitable long-term contract.

I should have listened. We lost pounds 750,000 in three years, the department got pounds 500,000 in commissions and my confidence took a beating.

In the past there were times I had 'not listened' - when told in 1969 that Kensington Park Road was such a slum no one would come to a restaurant there. Again when advised we were too small to take on the catering at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. And when warned against starting Leith's School of Food and Wine with a 23-year-old principal (Caroline Waldegrave).

But all those ventures, and a lot of safer ones, are still going strong. And park or no park, we had our two best years in mid-recession.

I guess I had begun to think that whatever we did would turn to gold. I now know that wanting something badly is not enough to make it profitable.

(Photograph omitted)