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.

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.

Don’t miss out! Subscribe to the black business blog weekly newsletter and be the first to hear about new stories. Support the blog here.

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.

Subscribe to the black business blog weekly newsletter and support us here.

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.

Subscribe to the black business blog weekly newsletter and support Black Business Blog here.

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.

Subscribe to the black business blog weekly Newsletter and be the first to hear about new stories. Don’t forget to share the blog post with your tribe and anyone who may get inspired to do great stuff!

If you enjoyed this article, the check out our support page here!

Interview with Joanna Trotman

Taking Care of Big Hair

Do you or your kids have big hair? Are you frustrated and tired of chlorine filled pool water getting into your hair even after your best efforts e.g. using two swimming caps at a time?  Well look no further because JoRae has got you covered.

Founded by long term London based friends Joanna and Rachel, this swimming cap company caters to people with big hair.  

Subscribe to the Black Business Blog newsletter to be the first to know about new stories and much more!

Joanna shares more:

What inspired you to start this business and where are you in your business journey?

We started the business because we found a gap in the market primarily for our children who love swimming but there were no suitable swimming caps on the market for us. We wanted them to enjoy the sport whilst keeping their hair protected. This had us thinking of all the other mothers and families that are prevented from taking part in water activities. Therefore, myself and Rachel developed this product to solve this problem.

Our small family run business is still in its infancy. We endeavor to make water activities accessible to many more families alike.

JoRae swimming cap models

Did either of you have prior experience that made you feel suitable for this type of business?

Not at all. I work in IT and Rachel works in Youth services. We just saw a gap in the market for people like us with big hair.

So how do you split the workload between both of you?

I handle all the technology and online presence and Rachel deals with the administration side of things.

Tell us an interesting thing about you that not many people know about

I competed in the long jump for team GB and was a Wimbledon ball girl during the 1996-1997 championships

Where can people find your products?

All products are available on our website

Subscribe to my weekly Newsletter and be the first to hear about new stories. What did you think about this blog post?

Interview with Mark Simpson

Black History Studies

Black History Studies is a family run social enterprise that was set up to teach black history from an African perspective. Due to a lack of outlets that offered a range of learning opportunities, husband and wife team Mark and Charmaine Simpson (pictured above) decided to set the business up to educate people and fill the gaps on topics that are not taught at school.

Today Black History Studies offers a range of courses (beginner, advanced and short courses), they organise and deliver events such as, museum tours, their flagship event ‘The Black Market and Film Festival’ and other independent film screenings, which included the UK premiers of Tariq Nasheed’s Hidden colours series. Under sister company Black History Study Tours, Mark and Charmaine organise trips across Europe and Africa, where they highlight the black experience. The trips also give students the opportunity to see and immerse themselves in the environments where some of that history originates. For example, some of the trips have included Andalusia in Spain, Moorish Portugal, Black Netherlands, Black Paris and Egypt.

Click here to subscribe to black business blog newsletter.

Mark Simpson is multi-tasking when my zoom call gets through to him. He asks me to excuse him for a few minutes while he sets up another computer for his daughter to do her school work. This juggling act has become the norm for most parents, something that would have never been thought of until the global pandemic forced us all to spend more time at home. I say to him that his daughter can join us in the interview, to which he replies “No, because she’ll take over”.

Mark wears a red short-sleeved T-shirt with the ‘Black History Studies’ logo printed on the left pocket. He looks like a normal dad. Relaxed with a lock-sock on his head to cover his dreadlocks. There is a lot of African art and sculptures hanging on the wall behind him. It’s clear to me that this is a family that is really involved in the study and understanding of Black History and arts.

“I am ready to start when you are sista” says Mark, once all audio issues are fixed and daughter is happily getting on with her work in the background.

Thanks so much for taking the time to have this interview, especially during home schooling hours.

Mark Simpson: That’s fine sista. My daughter will be fine now that she is busy getting on with her own work.

When did you start Black History Studies and what was your motivation to start it?

We started BHS in 2006 because we felt there was a lack of readily available information on the subject matter. Therefore, we felt that rather than complain, we’d set something up ourselves and be the change that we wanted to see.

“We’d set something up ourselves and be the change that we wanted to see”

Subscribe to black business blog to be the first to know about new stories

I love that mentality and totally agree with it. Which is why I am doing this interview with you today. So, what were you doing before starting Black History Studies?

I was a civil servant for 20 years and worked in various government departments before being made redundant. When that happened, me and my wife deliberated whether to invest the redundancy pay in bricks and mortar or to pursue our passion of educating people. We chose the latter 😊

Interesting, so had you or your wife worked in education or done some work outside of your day job that prepared you for this business?

We actually used to organise small events, but had also attended a number of educational events. To be honest my wife and I just felt that people deserved better. The people needed a service that was professionally set up. For example, there were times when we’d attend an event but when we got to the venue, there was no one or the venue had not been set up yet or they’d be last minute venue changes.

We got frustrated by the disorganised manner in which these events were being delivered. We felt that a professional set up would encourage more people to attend these courses, which would help to instil confidence in the service they were getting.

Where can people find your courses, tours and books?

Everything can be found on our website. All of our courses are now online although I do miss running our face to face classes. We sell our products through our online shop.  

If people like what we do and what to support us, they can donate via the website as well.

I know people are not interested in travelling at this time, but we do organise tours and details for those can also be found on the website. All tours have been pushed back until 2021 given the situation surrounding Covid-19.

What are your thoughts about black history especially the type that you cover on your courses being included on the school curriculum?

Everything that we teach can be taught on the current school curriculum. It comes down to what the schools want to teach. For example, if schools taught about Egyptian history, they would likely only cover ‘New Kingdom (mid – 17th Century BC)’ and not ‘Old Kingdom (5717 – 4430 BC)’ and ‘Middle Kingdom (3440 – 1674)’.

It is our opinion that the reason for this is that the New Kingdom part of this history is a lot more cosmopolitan and teachers can point to themselves in history and take some of that legacy for themselves.

“The scope is there to teach all these things in the current school curriculum, its what the schools choose to teach”

Subscribe to black business blog news letter.

The way we look at it at BHS is that rather than petition or lobby and make noise about teaching these things in our schools, there is nothing stopping us from teaching it ourselves. It’s a better use of our time and efforts.

So how long did it take you to build the customer base to make it a viable business for both you and your wife?

To be honest we are still building as there is always room for improvement. It took us 2 years to get established. Luckily for us, we had support from Lorna Campbell and Sonia Scully from PCS – Public & Commercial Services Union. The Public & Commercial Services Union allowed us to use their office space as part of their contribution to Black History Studies. This helped us to establish ourselves because we had a place where people could find us.

Do you have a certain age group that you target for your courses or are they age agnostic?

We focus on adult education therefore our core customers, on average are adults aged 22 – 45. We do deliver programs for children as well but this is not as frequent. Interestingly, we have also found that our classes are usually made up of 80% women. This seems to be the trend in everything we do. 

“Our classes are usually made up of 80% women”

Tell us about some of the challenges you faced while running your business

Surprisingly, one of the challenges we found was generating interest for the classes from the Black community. I think this is potentially due to false stigmatization of Black businesses in the past.

Everyone is welcome to our events and we do not target a specific demographic because we believe that everyone should know this information. However, it was difficult at first to get support and trust from the Black community. For example, people would ask if our courses were approved and accredited by authorities before signing up.

What advice would you give to future entrepreneurs?

The only advice I would give anyone wanting to set up their own business is to:

  1. Make sure that you research the market
  2. Do it for the right reason
  3. Put 100% into what you are doing, otherwise it will fail

Thanks so much for your time Mark. If you have enjoyed this story, share it with everyone and subscribe to our weekly newsletter!

UK’s Patty King

Wade Lyn started Island Delight in the depths of the 1988 recession. Ever since then the company has been feeding the nation with its range of patties, frozen foods and ready meals. Patties are a Jamaican delicacy made from short crust flaky pastry with a variety of fillings such as chilli beef, jerk beef, chicken, jerk chicken, vegetable and salt fish.  These products have helped to bring the vibrant Caribbean tastes and flavours to the British market.

More than 30 years later, with over 24 business lines, Island Delight, which is operated by Cleone Foods Ltd, commands more than 50% market share of the UK’s patty industry. They produce 150,000 patties a week, supplying the UK’s supermarkets such as Sainsburys, ASDA, Morrisons, NISA, COOP as well as smaller distributors such as Heron foods and Farm foods.

Keen to understand the story behind one of the few remaining black family owned businesses, I caught up with Wade’s daughter Cleo. She’s looking after the business in the interim while her father recovers from an illness. We talked about Wade’s upbringing within an entrepreneurial household, starting a business during a recession and her future plans for Island Delight.

Click here to subscribe to the weekly newsletter and support Black Business Blog here!

Island Delight Patties

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me. I am impressed that the business has been going for 30 years, especially as it was started during a recession. What was the light bulb moment that led to your dad starting Island Delight?

Dad was born and raised in Jamaica and moved to the UK with my grandparents to attend University. My Grandmother had had a gas business back in Jamaica, so when the family moved to UK, they got a petrol station in Smethwick where dad worked as a pump attendant.

When he finished University, he worked for a food processing company that made a similar product but he felt he could do it better and manufacture a superior product. This was his main driver and it still is today.

Dad is a tireless innovator who is always looking for new and faster ways of doing things to improve processes and the core product. Originally, we were producing 30,000 patties a week and now we produce 150,000 patties a week. We are also the UK producer and distributor for Juici Patties. These are predominately sold in Morrison’s and Sainsbury across the UK.

Dad is a tireless innovator who is always looking for new and faster ways of doing things to improve processes and the core product

Did you ever ask your dad what it was like running a business in UK in 1980s as a black man?

In short, it was very tough for him. When he started Island Delight, he was the MD as well as the sales person. As a young child I remember him being away a lot because he was on the road visiting the head offices of various supermarkets. Eventually dad persevered with Somerfield and Safeway making the first order for Island Delight patties. As a matter of fact, he framed his first cheques from these supermarkets and never cashed them because it meant so much to him.

Starting a business is hard enough late alone doing it during a recession, a period usually marked by high unemployment and limited potential for bank borrowing. Recessions can also be synonymous with social instability, as was the case when Wade started Island Delight.

Wade’s first factory location came with ‘regeneration’ grant funding from the Government and Birmingham Council because it was in Birmingham’s deprived Newtown, which had been hit by riots.

Through his careful planning and understanding of the business environment he was about to enter into, Wade registered the business a year before he had any intention of trading. This meant that when he was finally ready to open, suppliers and potential funders would see a year-old company instead of a brand-new start-up. He leveraged his network to secure trade references, which showed a business with a track record. In my conversation with Cleo, I wondered what advice, if any Wade would give to entrepreneurs of today.

Enjoying this story? Click here to subscribe to the weekly newsletter and here to support our work!

What kind of advice would Wade give to today’s aspiring entrepreneurs?

Dad is super competitive and determined. He comes from a sporting background as he was middle-distance runner in high school and I guess this is where he gets it from. We are both similar in that sense, because I play field hockey and so we are both competitive. Therefore, if dad were here, he would say:

  1. Be persistent and determined to make sure your business is successful.
  2. You have to put in the time and energy in order to make it work and you have to realise that a lot of people are going to say no but you can’t stop at the first huddle.
  3. Make sure that you have a plan A, B and a plan C before you go ahead
  4. Always look ahead and try to be an innovator where possible

Be persistent and determined to make sure your business is successful

Do you have /run /engaged in any community outreach programs?

Yes, we are long standing partners with BITC (Business in the Community Foundation). It’s a national organisation created by HRH The Prince of Wales to champion responsible business. On a regional level, members in this organisation support communities in whatever they need.

For example, during lock down we helped 3 different communities. We worked with a school in Bristol where we donated 3000 patties to be delivered as part a school lunch scheme for kids. We provided boxes to an organisation in Birmingham which was delivering food packages to the vulnerable and donated 1500 patties to another organisation in Gloucester which was delivering school lunches to kids.

That’s just what we have done during lockdown but we have always been giving back to communities and to those that need it.

Island Delights Flaky Pastry range

I am always so happy when businesses are positively involved in communities. Going back to the business, I noticed that you mostly produce Patties, frozen foods and ready meals. Have you got any plans to develop other products? Maybe sauces?

Looking at the business with fresh eyes I realise that we have over 24 different business lines. That is a lot, especially when it comes to decision making because when your brain has too many decisions to make, you end up not making any. Therefore, I will be looking for ways to stream line what we currently have.

If we did consider a new line, it wouldn’t be until next year as we would want to see what the world looks like after COVID-19 and if there is a gap in the market for that product. The food industry is ever changing with different trends, so we would need to invest time into understanding and researching any opportunities that we see.

Ok, so what does the future look like for Island Delight?

As owners we are very focused on the future direction of the business. For example, we have started thinking about how people’s habits may change when things go back to ‘normal’. For example, will going out food shopping become a thing of the past?  Patties are associated with lunch time and if people have to continue working from home, will they prefer making their lunch meals? It’s important to understand what the future looks like for our sector.

Carnival is one of our busy periods as we distribute to different stalls however, with the pandemic, it’s unlikely that Notting Hill Carnival will take place this year. We have been thinking about different ways to navigate that. All I can say is watch this space!

Thank you so much Cleo for a great conversation and insight. I look forward to seeing what you guys decide to do for Notting Hill Carnival this year.

Don’t forget to subscribe to for the weekly newsletter, share this blog with your tribe and support Black Business Blog here!