The Invitation

Photograph by Paul Raftery. The Architectural Review.

Part 1 of 3:

“Under no circumstances are we going for this.”

“Absolutely not, we’re just going to go and have a nosey and see why they’ve invited us.”


“Sure. Deal.”


“We’d never get it anyway.”

When we received the Invitation to Tender from The Hepworth Wakefield in February it came completely out of the blue. Shanshan and I couldn’t really work out why we’d been invited? Why us and not one of the many of the other great indie food businesses? Were we just tender fodder? Invited to meet certain legal business/charity requirements. How many other independents in Leeds have been invited? Who are we up against?

So we thought the least we could do was meet up with Rachel in THW and understand what it was that they were after. But under no circumstances were we going for it. Absolutely not. I guess we were just going over there to see what we had been invited to run. If anything it was simply an ego stroking exercise.

But then The Hepworth Wakefield charmed us. The monolith of concrete opened up to us and opened us up in the process. Suddenly we were there. Specialist coffee and loose leaf teas in an art museum. House of Koko running their cafe. The beauty of an Old Boy set amongst some of Barbara Hepworth’s finest work. Plus it was massive. Four times the size of Koko with a kitchen you can swing a cat in. We could see it in lights “Koko unleashed”. We can finally do poached eggs on our Homemade Baked Beans. Suddenly it all made sense.

But we’re not going for it. Of course not. Hey, let’s reply to the Invitation To Tender anyway. It would be impolite not to. What harm can it do?

I think it was the day after we submitted our ITT that we ran a Spring pop-up in House of Koko with Chris Hale. Just casually as we were cleaning down and enjoying a glass of red at the end of the night did we happen onto the subject of The Hepworth Wakefield. Turns out he was invited to tender too, local Wakefield legend and chef, but he’d turned it down as he didn’t know how to run a cafe. Guess what, we’re not too confident on the events side of things. Let’s team up.

When we got the email inviting us back to pitch to The Hepworth Wakefield it was a shock to say the least. We’ve been shortlisted. It was the trigger that switched us from “Ooh that could be nice” to “Let’s do this!” It was at this point that we put skin in the game. Our time and effort.

The day of the pitch was one of the more memorable days in House of Koko’s brief history. Our good friend and trailblazer Natasha Sayce-Zelem was running Empowering Women in Technology over in Leeds Dock. We had a stand to set up for coffee and brunch. Outdoors. In a perfect metaphor for how crazy our lives were shortly about to get, the wind was swirling unpredictably and viciously around the courtyard. Keeping hold of the spinach was hard enough, so when the gazebo decided to launch 10 metres in the air and go for a little 15 metre jaunt narrowly avoiding hitting anyone, we took very little persuading by security to set up in the foyer instead. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen any staff happier than that moment when we were ordered inside.

Depleted of a crucial chunk of my days allowance of adrenaline, we hit the pitch later that day. 3 hours passed in a flash. It went well. Dare to say it I think we aquitted ourselves admirably even. Didn’t try to paint anything other than an honest picture of who we were and what we could do. I mean what can you do when you know you’re up against catering giants who currently run museum cafes successfully, or handle catering for most of the race courses in the north. We figured that our indie credentials were our silver bullet. We’re small but that means that we’re agile and can react fast. To use AGILE terminology we can “fail fast”, iterate and test again until we get it right. We can pivot the business on a sixpence if we needed to.

Our team sounded good on paper too. Shanshan, with her fine eye for detail, a gifted project manager who can run a coffee shop with her eyes closed. Plus she has a real passion and natural talent for interior design. Chris Hale, Masterchef quarter-finalist, who has been running events, weddings and pop-up cafes all over Yorkshire. Flexible, creative, driven and very talented. Chris’s wife, Sophie (who joined the team later), PR & marketing specialist, with contacts throughout the press and blogging scene. And myself, graphics, web and branding expert with 18 years professional experience designing for and handling clients across all industries. All of us who are can-do people.

We left feeling that we had managed to get across everything we wanted to. I think a key part of us winning was our ability to see and be equally frustrated by the problems they were currently facing. That and the fact that we had team of directors who would be devoted and focused on making this work. We weren’t just a faceless corporation. Our brands and names are at stake here.

I remember all the emotions and discussions in between the pitch and finding out the result. I probably shouldn’t tell you about the inner workings of my head but my confidence and self belief would swing wildly from arrogantly confident to crippling self doubt. We’re easily the best option and they’d be idiots not to pick us. We haven’t got a chance in hell of sealing this deal. Why on earth would they pick us over these established corporations? Who are we to even think that we can take this on?

When Rachel called me to tell us that they would be delighted to hand us the reigns I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even react. I was so convinced that we wouldn’t get it that I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t even process the message. So sorry for not shouting “Wahey!” down the phone at you Rachel.

They’d chosen the little guys over the behemoths. We couldn’t believe it. It’s truly amazing that their board and decision makers were so forward thinking as to choose an independent over a corporation. Hats off to them. They understood the risks. But they also understood and felt our passion and belief. They knew that we all shared a vision for amazing food, beautifully presented alongside speciality coffee in a stunning, iconic Sir David Chipperfield building. The delectable combination was too tempting to pass up.

Now the real work starts.

“Under no circumstances are we going to mess this up.”

A week later Shanshan found out that she was pregnant.

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