Frontin': Box-E’s Tessa Lidstone
12 June 2017
"Bristol feels like this small community that’s gone, ‘Hooray, good for you!’”
In this series, Joanna Clifford visits couple-owned restaurants to talk to the front-of-house half of the pair about what goes on this side of the pass. Here, she chats to Tessa Lidstone about her food backgroud, family life, and the many different roles she has a business owner...
For Tessa, co-owner of shipping container restaurant Box-E , the seed of working in the restaurant industry was planted at a young age by her brother, who is now a chef.
“I was always a sidekick to him,” she tells us. “When I was six or seven, he put on this restaurant for my parents and dressed me up as a waitress. He did a three-course meal and I served it all.”
That said, Tessa never actually intended to carve a career in the restaurant sector. She moved to London and built a successful career in political journalism, first as a UK correspondent for a Japanese news agency and then as a press officer for an MP. It was only when she met Elliott that the idea of owning a restaurant took root.
“Whenever we ate at places we liked, especially smaller places, we would talk about what elements we’d use in our own place. A year after we got together, we opened a joint savings account and we joked that we would use it to buy a stove when we had our own restaurant.”
Eventually, opening their own place started to become a legitimate possibility: the MP who Tessa worked for stepped down at the 2015 General Election, so (pregnant with their second daughter at the time), she was able to take a natural break from work, whilst Elliott was ready to move on after four years at The Empress . Returning to Tessa’s home city of Bristol, the pair spotted a restaurant for sale on North Street in Bedminster – and Elliott couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“Something in his head changed and he realised, actually, 'I can do this, I want to do this, let’s do this!' So we did.”
There just happened to be one unit left at the new Cargo development at Wapping Wharf when the pair began seriously looking for the right premises, and the ethos of the developer’s MD sealed the deal.
“[Umberslade] is a family company and his background is in small business. He was actually bothered about who went in [to the units]. He stuck by and waited until he got independents. We were just instantly captured.”
Tessa and Elliott had just three weeks between getting the keys and opening their doors. Luckily, Tessa says, the food was sorted: “I joked that the food was something we didn’t ever talk about. Elliott would ask if I wanted to hear his opening menu, and I’d rather talk about which receipt printer to buy, because I was confident about the food.”
Whilst Elliott is in charge of the kitchen, Tessa manages the business side of the restaurant, works front of house, and oversees their seasonal wine list. So, that cool, relaxed atmosphere at Box-E is largely of her making – and is exactly what she intended.
“We get people coming in for special meals and they’re really dressed up, but on the table next to them is someone who lives locally and just popped in because they couldn’t be bothered to cook. That’s what we really wanted – that you could make the restaurant whatever you wanted it to be”.
Tessa and Elliot have two girls, who are two and four, and despite their young age, they’re very involved with the restaurant.
“Lois will go straight to the kitchen,” says Tessa. “She’s got a little step-stool and she puts it against the counter and starts chopping butter or peeling an onion. She's a part of it.”
A key reason for opening their own place was to create a better family life. Despite the pressure and the long hours, they have been able to create their own routine. That said, Tessa doesn’t shy away from showing her children how hard she works. She references a recent Guardian article about chefs who are mothers: “I think that was brilliant, to see strong women in a hard industry who are saying, ‘yeah it’s hard, but you can still be a good mum’. Whatever career you do, it’s a balancing act, and not just being a mum – you’re always juggling life in some way and going to feel like you could do more or do better. That’s a tough thing to be thinking, but it’s really important that you show your children it’s alright to work hard if you’re passionate.”
Their move to Bristol has also meant Tessa and Elliott see more of eachother. She suggests that they’ve made working together a success because they each have their own distinct roles. “Even though our restaurant is tiny and there is no divide between the front and the kitchen, we each have our areas. We’re so busy that you can’t really irritate each other! It’s not personal time, it’s work time, but it is nice that we have more contact. We walk home together and sometimes we’re so knackered that we don’t speak, but it’s good to have company.”
And so Tessa has gone from London, where she says you can feel pretty anonymous, to being surrounded by her family and a supportive wider community. “I got so used to being on my own and now I have Elliott a lot more, I have my family and a whole support network. Bristol feels like this small community that’s gone, ‘Hooray, good for you!’”
“It’s lovely having people who have eaten with us say, ‘We saw the [ Guardian ] review and we knew you deserved something’. It’s great to have a ‘normal’ customer experience it and enjoy it.”
She has found that the food industry is particularly supportive. “In political journalism Twitter was a negative thing, but when chefs started using Twitter and Instagram, it was amazing to see social media used in such a positive way. They properly love each other!”
It comes as no surprise, then, that other restauranteurs in Bristol have backed Box-E from the outset – Peter Sanchez of Casamia and Jimmy Wilkins and Christine Vayssade of WiIks all visited in the early days. “It has totally blown me away how supportive Bristol has been. It actually makes me a bit emotional to think about it.”
There are some things that Tessa misses about Hackney though, not least the food. “One thing that is missing from the Bristol food scene is Turkish food,” she says. “I love Turkish food. Just over the road from us was a little corner kebab place – lovely shish kebabs – and the mum would be in there making fresh dough.
Tessa also speaks proudly of her own contribution to the food community in East London. “I used to run an organisation that provided homemade birthday cakes for kids that otherwise wouldn’t get them. I always got Lois involved in that, so she knows how to crack an egg. She may have a fancy chef dad, but some of the basic skills, I’m like ‘I taught you that!'”
So what food brings her the most joy? “If I had a dying wish food, it would be my Dad’s fish pie. When I had morning sickness, I had a yearning for mash potato and plain, solid British food. Our staff food at the restaurant is often pesto pasta or jacket potatoes. Sometimes when we’re eating people come in to make reservations and they’ll say ‘ooh, I love jacket potatoes’ – and I’m really sorry it’s not on the menu! I always think you’d make a killing if you opened a jacket potato restaurant…”