Circa 1924: Finding The Balance
Written by Stella Nicholls
Photos supplied by Circa 1924
‘A satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all’. Michael LeBoeuf
James Waddington and Rob Weeks, owners of local restaurant Circa 1924, certainly seem to have found the balance. James with his ‘number-crunching’ prowess and Rob with his great attention to customer care, know how to create an extra special dining experience.
As I arrived at Circa 1924 – so named for the twenties ambience that the pair originally wanted to invoke– I was met by Kate (the restaurant manager) and her welcoming smile. Making a person feel at home is certainly a task that she excels at and in no time at all, I was sipping away at a latte. I found myself falling into easy conversation with Rob and James and could, quite happily, have sat there for hours! Knowing how busy a successful restaurant can be though, I had to get back to the task at hand, which was finding out more about the pair and their successful partnership at Circa.
Rob and James met through friends when they were 18 and were the two, amongst their group of friends, who would always prepare food for everyone, often hosting home-cooked feasts. They both come from families with strong entrepreneurial spirits who ran their own businesses, so at the age of 23, they decided to take the plunge and start their own business together. Working in the food sector, seemed the obvious choice and even though they had limited experience at the time, they decided to open a restaurant. In hindsight, they realise how unprepared they were but fortunately with youth, often comes the bravery to try anyway and they are both glad that they ‘went for it’ when they did. Rob says that starting young gave them the ‘opportunity to make mistakes’, they have learnt from them and are growing and developing as they go.
Wanting to work with organic, local and ethically sourced produce, Rob and James take ownership of everything that they serve. They aim for unpretentious, delicious food, that looks great on the plate and is not lost amongst ‘26’ other ingredients. They love to let six or seven exquisite ingredients shine– each playing its part in a perfectly balanced taste ‘symphony’.
James added that they believe in ‘doing everything simply to a really high standard’. They have learnt to make their own butter, cure their own fish, make their own pickles, ferment their own vegetables and infuse an extensive range of spirits in the bar! They also wanted to create an environment that is suitable for every generation. Rob says,
‘We’re young but our mums had a big part in us setting up as well, so we wanted it to be a place where people of all ages can come and feel comfortable’.
Everything is geared up for customers to have a relaxing dining experience, where they can unwind, share a picking board – ‘A selection of little bits from the kitchen to get your taste buds going’ – and on certain evenings, listen to live music. James and Rob want to keep things fresh and dynamic, they like to be creative in the kitchen to allow people to experience new flavours and try different ingredients. The joy of eating good food!
Having always wanted to include music at the restaurant, a year after opening the guys decided to undergo a refurb, which enabled them to create more space upstairs. This has allowed them to engage in one of their greatest passions – live music! They’ve created a ‘one-night venue’ where people can come to eat, have a drink and listen to live entertainment. Rob says that all in all, it’s a pretty chilled atmosphere.
They are fortunate enough to have attracted a diverse selection of bands to perform and recently booked theatrical street band Swervy World, after discovering them busking on Exeter High Street. They have performed at venues like the 100 Club in Oxford St, The London Hippodrome and The Albert Hall, to name a few. Circa’s house band plays Jazz and Blues, but on certain evenings they also enjoy a wide variety of bookings, from fairly chilled acoustic to Reggae and Ska.
On asking what some of the high points have been, Rob said that sitting back with a beer and enjoying their newly completed, highly stressful refurb was immensely satisfying, as they had a real hands-on approach, calling in an army of family and friends. They had a really good team of ‘chippies’ who still provide them with beer as they run a micro-brewery too. Rob says, that they have that ongoing relationship, which is so typical of Devon, ‘someone comes in and you end up knowing them for the next thirty years’. The refurb, from the seating to the doorframes, was completed in two weeks; no mean feat!
James joked that the best life advice he had received was, ‘don’t open a restaurant’ but really it has been to value their staff, never taking them for granted and they believe that happy staff are the key to any successful business which, in their environment, leads to great customer service and consistently good food.
Rob and James seem to have found the perfect balance in their business partnership. As we sat and chatted, the banter between them was evidence of the comfortable relationship that they enjoy, a relationship that takes the business seriously but not themselves too much. Rob teasingly joked that James, a player of the Spanish Guitar, serenades him, ‘on repeat’ as Rob put it, with renditions of ‘Harvest Moon’. With a twinkle in his eye, James mentioned that they had been given the sage advice of ‘not going into business with your friend’. Their friendship bond was clear as they spoke about their mutual love of food, history and Bernard Cornwell novels. I wondered how they managed to maintain their business partnership, without it affecting their friendship. They replied that they always put their friendship first over the business which, I think, is admirable.
James added that they’ve realised that the reason that they have disagreements is that they both come at the business from different angles, Rob from a customer experience perspective, whereas James sees it from a financial point of view – the books have to balance.
As an outsider looking in, it seems to me that they make a good team, as it’s not a ‘head or tails’ situation – both sides of the coin are valid, and so the scales are evenly balanced to provide for a great working relationship. Coming at the business from different directions, while working towards the same goal, enables them to create the perfect space for us all to eat, drink and ‘be merry’.
Through continually tweaking and improving the way things are done, they both ensure that the restaurant remains a fluid and adaptable environment. Offering their great space out for private parties, business meetings and corporate events, they are also keen to see that side of the business develop in the near future.
With Rob and James exhibiting such a well-balanced and dynamic partnership and with the combination of delicious food and local live music, they are certainly on track to achieving their goal of being known as one of the best; not only in Exeter, but in the UK.
If you would like to find out more about the restaurant and the live music schedule, pop onto their website.