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
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
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

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Selby Jennings: Quantitative Research | Equity | New York

Not specified: Selby Jennings: Quantitative Research | Global Equity | New Yor...

Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation

Not specified: Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation This top tiered investment...

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015