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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Report Writer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Technical Report Writer is re...

MBDA UK Ltd: Indirect Procurement Category Manager

Competitive salary & benefits!: MBDA UK Ltd: MBDA UK LTD Indirect Procurement...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£16500 - £16640 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing Finance compa...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness