Theresa Roberts: From working in a bookshop to owning a successful restaurant business

Based in the heart of the entertainment and retail district in Covent Garden, Jamaica Patty Co. is the brainchild of black business woman Theresa Roberts. Born in Jamaica, Theresa moved to the UK in the 1960s to join her parents who had made the same journey earlier as part of the wind rush generation. 

The Windrush generation refers to people who, between 1948 to 1971, were invited by successive governments to relocate to Britain from their homes in Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean to address labour shortages following World War 2. The name ‘Windrush’ comes from the HMT Empire Windrush – the ship that completed 8000 miles crossing from the Caribbean and finally docking at Tilbury in Essex. This was commonly how most people from the Caribbean came to the UK, including Theresa.

The patties at JPC are freshly baked to a recipe developed by Theresa and Collin Brown, a high-profile Jamaican chef in the UK. The restaurant caters to the ‘grab and go market’ and showcases high-quality Jamaican produce. For example, as well as serving delicious patties, JPC’s menu also includes Tortuga rum cake which you can enjoy with blue mountain coffee, both are well known imports from Jamaica.

Theresa shares more on growing up in Jamaica and how she went from working in a book shop to owning a property business, building a villa in Jamaica and becoming a successful restaurant business owner.

Don’t know what a patty is? Checkout my earlier blog on UK’s Patty King for the definition.

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What was it like to grow up in Jamaica?

Growing up in Jamaica was a great foundation for me. My mum left me and my sister in the care of our grandparents when I was 6 months old. She (my mother) was part of the wind rush generation who came to England in the 50s. I respect the sacrifices that she made and endeavour to make her proud in everything I do. This is a key principle for me and is the reason why I do a lot for Jamaica, Britain and my charities.

My grandparents were absolutely wonderful and loving and the only reason we moved to London was because my grandmother got ill, so she couldn’t look after us as well as she wanted to. We moved to London in the 60s and though it was difficult, it was the best thing that happened to us because we came to meet an already made family waiting for us.

How did you find the transition from living in Jamaica when you moved to London?

It was very difficult for me and it was the first time that my parents ever lied to me.

I got so homesick that I cried all the time and kept asking my parents “when can I go back home to Jamaica?”. My parents kept telling me they’ll send me back next month but next month never came! Theresa laughs out loud as she remembers this childhood memory.

The truth was that they couldn’t send me back anyway. My grandmother was too sick to look after me. She died shortly after we moved to London.

Did you get a chance to go back to Jamaica to put her to rest?

No. We were a family of 10 and travelling to Jamaica in those days was so difficult plus my parents couldn’t afford it. Mum worked was a cleaner on British railway trains and dad had suffered a back injury while working in a factory, which meant he was at home without a job.

Theresa Roberts enjoying a patty and blue mountain coffee in her restaurant
Theresa Roberts enjoying a patty and blue mountain coffee in her restaurant

What were you doing when you decided to start Jamaica Patty Company?

In between managing my property portfolio, I took a trip to Jamaica with my granddaughter. She was so amazed by the beauty of Jamaica that she insisted I do something there. So, I thought to myself ‘you know what, I am going to build a house in Jamaica’. I went to Jamaica on holiday and ended up buying 4 acres of land. When I came back from holiday, I spoke to my husband and family and we all agreed to build this house in Jamaica. I don’t know why I took that on but I did.

The idea of Jamaica Patty Co. was born while I was building, Hanover Grange in Jamaica. Everything I do I do with all my heart so I wanted to be on site all the time and as such ended up living on Jamaican patties. I never grew sick of them, in fact when I returned to London, I found myself pining for decent patties, freshly baked with Jamaican ingredients. I couldn’t stop thinking about them and as the weeks grew my cravings grew into a delightful culinary scheme that is now Jamaica Patty Company.

When I finished building Hanover Grange in 2007 during the financial crisis, I got such a boost, especially when everyone called me crazy for doing it at the time. Getting a stamp of approval from the Jamaican government also gave me so much pride and motivation to go ahead with starting Jamaica Patty Co.

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How did you get from working in a book shop to owning a property portfolio?

Working in the book shop was my first job but I did a lot of odd jobs after that and managed to save £5000. I used these savings to buy my first house at the age of 19 but that wasn’t my initial plan for the money.

Like most teenagers with a bit of money, I was planning to spend my savings on a sports car and mentioned it to a friend while at a social gathering. Another friend overheard the conversation and suggested that I use the money to buy a house. I thought it was a crazy suggestion because I only had £5000 and I couldn’t get a mortgage.

It turned out that my friend’s brother was dieing of cancer and had lots of houses he wanted to sell. The house that he sold to me had two self-contained flats with an elderly sitting tenant in one the flats. I couldn’t see myself ever having this opportunity again, so I bought the house for £5000 (equivalent to £15,000 in 2020) and moved into the empty flat.

A sitting tenant is a tenant already in occupation of premises, especially when there is a change of ownership. This type of tenancy dates back to 1970s, a time when housing regulations gave the tenant more protection, which came in the form of capped private rents and protecting tenants from eviction. Furthermore, it allowed for ‘succession’ of protected tenancies after the death of a sitting tenant. This was later superseded by the Assured Shorthold Tenancy that we know today

When the sit in tenant passed away, I got the whole house back but curiosity got the best of me. I decided to get the house valued and when the agent told me that it was worth £20,000 (roughly equivalent to £60,000) it was a no brainer for me. I sold the house and moved on to invest in more properties.

Fast forward to today. Setting up a restaurant is capital intensive, especially in a central location like Convent Garden. How did you find the location and was it difficult to source funding?

I was ready to start business in 2013 but didn’t open the shop until 2014. I knew I wanted to be in Convent Garden because I wanted to sell parties to an international audience but securing premises was a straggle.

Until then I hadn’t taken the time to notice that there aren’t many independent family owned businesses around Convent Garden and there is a reason for that. The landlords prefer to lease their spaces to well-known brands. As a new small black owned business, selling a product they weren’t familiar with, it was very difficult to persuade them to lease to us. This made me more determined not to give up until eventually our current landlord Shaftsberry took a chance on us. They actually like our business because it is different from all others in the area and is a good fit for their property on 26 New Row. We’ve been here for 6 years now.

From a funding perspective I had a good financial track record given my property business, so financing was relatively easy to obtain. It was a mixture of bank loans and personal savings.

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I understand that when you launched the restaurant in Convent Garden, this was part of a roll-out plan with a target to open 50 stores across the UK. How is that going?

We’ve only been operating for 6 years and it takes 10 years to build a brand. We did contemplate opening another shop last year but didn’t. To be honest I glad we didn’t, given current business environment with Covid 19.

How are you or have you adapted your business as a result of Covid 19 and lock down?

It’s been difficult for us. We started providing a delivery service during lockdown and this has helped somewhat. However, at the moment me and my grandson are running the shop because it is not financially viable to have staff. It’s not easy but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s my baby.

I have had so much good will from the diaspora since lock down ended. They travel from all over to come and support us, so that’s been great to see. On the other hand, many of the neighboring shops have had to close down and it’s been horrible see that. We depend on tourists, theater goers but there aren’t any of those at the moment

What has been your biggest challenge in your business journey?

Staff. My vision was always to sell patties to an international market and employed staff that reflected this vision. They were very hardworking and good for the business but I got feedback from customers which suggested that they should not be working in the shop because they are not of Caribbean heritage.

For example, there were scenarios where if me or my son were not in the restaurant people would walk in and walk out saying its not a black owned business. I think this was customer misconception about the quality and taste of food served, which was based on the people serving it.

I took this feedback on board and tried to recruit people who would represent the business, however, I couldn’t find people who I could rely on so we’ve kept it as a family run restaurant.

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Thank you so much for that insightful story Theresa. For me this story is about surrounding yourself with the right people, seeing opportunities and taking them when they arise. When was the last time you took a leap of faith to seize an opportunity? – Share your story by leaving a comment in the comment box located at the end of article below or at top of the page.

If you don’t have a story to share, then why not use this week to seize an opportunity, which you can then share with us. It doesn’t can be anything from business related to simply using some free time to get a patty from Jamaica Patty Company at their restaurant on 26 New Row, Covent Garden.

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