New horizons – why I left a profitable corporate job to become a café owner

Nick Lukaris is owner of Terra Nova, a lakeside café in Roath to the north of Cardiff.

Despite its city location, Roath Park is a tranquil mix of wooded walks, rose gardens and an exotic conservatory.

‘I wanted to create a space that benefits the community,’ Lukaris says when I meet him on a misty autumn morning. ‘We have local artists exhibiting on the walls, children’s playgroups and regular group visits from care homes and disabled support groups.’

When Lukaris took over the café’s management it was small and relatively cramped. In co-operation with Cardiff City Council, Lukaris invested substantial amounts of his own capital into creating a dynamic steel and glass extension to the original building that has quadrupled capacity and made the venue a buzzing hub for tourists and locals alike.

Formerly, Lukaris was Production and Sales Director for the Assembly group of companies, a manufacturer employing a core staff of 120 and making office furniture, TV cabinets and gambling machines for office and retail units; selling to firms such as Toshiba and Argos. So what made him leave a highly successful and profitable corporate life and make such a distinctive lifestyle change?

‘I didn’t get to see my older kids growing up,’ he says simply. ‘And when my younger children were born, I thought – I want to do things differently this time.’ Creating his vision for Terra Nova was not without its challenges, however. ‘It took four years to get planning permission for the extension, and to begin with, my takings were so low that I wondered what on earth I was doing,’ he smiles. ‘But if you’re going to do something like this you have to have faith in it, you need to put your heart and soul in and you also have to make sure you enjoy it.’ The result of Lukaris’s engaging and energetic approach is that Terra Nova is now a thriving business, with turnover reaching the point that the café now has a sustainable business plan for the future.

Taking on the big guns

How does a small, independent cafe compete against the large coffee chains like Costa and Caffé Nero? ‘Be socially interactive with the customer. I get to know people as individuals, and find out what their particular needs are. I make it baby-friendly; I create an environment that encourages families but also suits people on their own or who want to work in the background.’

There’s also an art group for people with learning disabilities who attend each week. ‘To begin with, they came because the café has good access; it’s all on one level and has large doors. However, over the years we have sat down together and developed it –  the group has evolved for people who need stimulation and something to do within the confines of the café.’

Atmosphere is all. Lukaris places an emphasis on using independent suppliers – the food and soft drinks on offer are not the brands familiar from elsewhere. ‘People like the quirkiness and individuality, and it’s refreshing to see something different on offer. I also believe strongly that the quality has got to be good. My tea is loose-leaf and the coffee is very high quality.’ These details are clearly important to Lukaris, who is passionate about offering something different to the norm. ‘Franchises do what they do very well. But it’s the same in London as it is in Birmingham as it is in Madrid.’

Lukaris could be forgiven for taking easier options; the view from Terra Nova is one of the finest in the city, with panoramic views of the lake and iconic lighthouse named after Captain Scott’s ship – the Terra Nova sailed from Cardiff in 1910. ‘But that would be lazy; it’s not enough to keep people back. What works is the combination of the creating the right atmosphere, and the USP which is undeniably the location.’

Future generations

A legacy from his corporate days is that Lukaris has a strong interest in developing the careers of his staff. ‘We take people on at 17 or 18, train them up and help them get their food and hygiene certificates, or if they show interest in certain areas of the business, help facilitate that.’ He pays above the basic rate. ‘We pay over minimum wage to encourage people to go forward. We’ll have students working with us for three or four years while they’re doing their [qualifications]; when they go, we’re sad to see them leave. But of course, we’re excited too because we know they’re going on to a good career.’ Lukaris has had staff members who’ve become doctors, teachers, midwives and lecturers. This encouragement of his employees is all part of Lukaris’s mission to make the café a community benefit; ‘the main motivation is not making money. It’s about creating something special.’

For the future, Lukaris is hoping to develop and extend opening hours, and increase capacity and serve the local community further by offering food later in the day. ‘Again, this is not about making money; rather, it is to offer people a benefit. The menu won’t be extensive, but neither will it be costly. I want people to be able to come here, enjoy the lakeside view late in the day, enjoy a pizza from the new wood-burning oven we’re going to install – and not feel that their wallet is taking too much of a beating.’

Any advice for others considering similar career moves? ‘You have to believe in yourself 100%. When you’re working in a large company, there are resources at your disposal to fix things when they need attention – in this set-up, you have to solve things yourself. And if you back the venture yourself, as I have, it’s exciting and scary in equal measure.’

Perhaps ironically, considering Lukaris’s desire to address his work-life balance, the demands of the café mean that at the moment, he’s working as hard as ever. ‘You can’t be conscious of your hours of work. I’m working seven days a week and I don’t take many holidays. It can become all-consuming – especially with the new projects we have planned. But,’ he concludes with a twinkle in his eye, ‘I will relax – eventually. The key is to find a happy balance; and working here makes me very happy.’

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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