THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: Karen Jones: Premium price for the cafes that painted the town rouge

The managing director of Pelican Group talks to Tom Stevenson
  • @TomStevenson_
Had she not been a mere slip of a girl 20 years ago, Karen Jones would have made a passable model for Shirley Conran's Superwoman. She had the good grace to look a tad weary when we met on Friday, and was on the way to hospital to have her back checked, but these were the only hints Pelican Group's managing director gave of being bothered by human frailty.

It had been a week to fell lesser mortals. Tuesday was her birthday, Wednesday she sold her business to Whitbread for pounds 133m, netting pounds 3m herself. Thursday she was on the road again, visiting Pelican's fast growing empire. Little wonder she could only fit me in for 45 minutes at 8 o'clock on Friday morning. Whatever was happening to those poor bairns, three of them and all under the age of five?

"This week I've hardly seen them and I really, really mind that. But I make sure it doesn't happen a lot. I work round the kids. Work when they're in bed." With a "brilliant dad" and a "brilliant nanny" and pounds 3m it's all just about manageable, but plainly this is one driven woman. Thursday night she checked out four, yes four, Pelican restaurants.

Her performance last week chimes with a story friends tell about a weekend in Devon when every member of her party of 12 got food poisoning at their guest house. While everyone else was reaching for the Tums and feeling sorry for themselves, Ms Jones was clattering round the kitchen, checking the contents of the fridge and calling in the health inspector.

Yes, they would pay the bar bill, she told the hapless owner, but not their rooms or meals. Thank you. Goodbye. Peter Jarvis has negotiated a few deals for Whitbread in recent years but he must feel relieved to have got away with paying a premium to Pelican's assets of just pounds 100m. Human dynamos don't come cheap.

Karen Jones seems to have had a lifetime of getting what she wanted. She wanted Malcolm Bradbury for a tutor and got a first to prove the wisdom of her choice. She wanted a potentially high-flying job in advertising and got it with Boase Massimi Pollitt, but deep down what she wanted was to pick up the waitress's notepad and drinks tray again so she packed it all in to manage a restaurant.

If anyone thought she was mad at the time, subsequent events have proved them wrong. Chances are that career in advertising would have come off the rails in the last recession that savaged that industry. Restaurants, however, have made Ms Jones a woman of means, even if her windfall is unlikely to cure her workaholism.

"I'm a bloody good waitress actually. But I love the business side too. Love the organisation. There's no buzz like walking into one of your own restaurants."

The sale of Pelican to Whitbread last week was the culmination of six frenetic years during which the Cafe Rouge to Dome chain grew from a hunch to one of Britain's fastest growing restaurant concepts. And what a success it has been. Whitbread certainly thought so - it has just paid pounds 133m for pounds 33m of assets.

That was quite a vote of confidence in Jones and Roger Myers, the partner with whom she set up her first Cafe Rouge in Richmond, Surrey, with the proceeds of selling on their previous venture. Theme Holdings, a restaurant and leisure group, traded briefly on the Third Market in the mid-1980s before being snapped up for a top-of-the-market pounds 17m in 1987.

"Rouge was really a distillation of everything we had seen work at Theme. We went to Paris and photographed everything. But it was also a reflection of everything we liked. Sure, it's not the most innovative concept, not ground-breaking, but that is its strength. It was always meant to be a classic."

And despite what a bunch of snooty Michelin star chefs said about the food last week, Pelican appears to have found a formula that works, and not just in London. That is why Whitbread swooped when it did. But is it the end of what charm can be left in a chain of 100 restaurants? Will the dead hand of a brewing giant snuff out the creative spark as it throws money at the chain to take it to maybe 300 sites in the next five years?

"The whole point of this acquisition is that, in the words of Whitbread, they ring-fence Pelican. They've bought not just what Roger and I have created in the past but what we will create in the future. The idea is they put money in and let us get on with it."

But surely they won't be able to resist interfering? "I can't give any guarantees. Obviously, it hasn't happened yet. All I can do is talk to them and convey the passion I have for Pelican and then go with it and see what happens. I also don't think they'd be so daft. I don't think they'd pay a fairly full price for something and then break it up. Why buy it in the first place?"

Myers and Jones were cheerfully expressing their commitment to Pelican and Whitbread last week and plainly Peter Jarvis has not expected them to swap an equity stake for a salaried job without adding some bells and whistles to their new contracts that will keep them interested for a while. But how long can either be expected to stay with a business they no longer really control?

Careful answer this time: "I really don't know. Roger and I have never really looked more than a year or two ahead." The temptation to try and do it one more time must be enormous.