We first met Emma Odell, the brilliant co-owner of Acanteen in Chelmsford, when we were researching venues for our Mother Hub events. She is one of those truly impressive people, who oozes creativity, passion and drive. With her unique vision and commitment, she has taken Acanteen from a takeaway lunch venue to one of Chelmsford's most popular eateries, with the brilliant Abakeshop and Astore running alongside it. If you haven't visited yet, it's a must! Emma kindly took some time to tell us more about how she made the journey from fine art to building a business empire!
Tell us a bit about your background. Where did you start your career?
I studied fine art at university but after graduating I got into marketing. I was part of the whole .com boom when the internet started out and it was an exciting time to be in that industry. Seems like a million years ago though!
Could you tell us the story behind setting up Acanteen?
Well I used to regularly meet mum, who is my partner in the business, for lunch as Chelmsford was a good meeting place between where I was living in Dalston and Braintree where my mum was living. This is going back 14 years now and there was just nowhere decent to eat so we saw a gap in the market and ran with the idea. We found an empty shop which was to become the first Acanteen on New London Rd and the rest is history!
We absolutely love that when you walk into Acanteen you immediately feel like you're stepping into much more than a restaurant. Could you describe your original vision for the business and how it evolved over time?
We actually started out as a take away (just like our abakeshop)! We served soup and sandwiches to go as well as some freshly made juices and a few hot specials. It’s always been about good honest wholesome food done well. Then mum had the idea of creating a brunch menu to eat in, then lunch, and it grew from there. We only used to open during the day but when we moved to our new premises round the corner we wanted to open in the evenings offering dinner and a bar. I’ve always loved visiting shops like Collette in Paris, Merci, Paperboy and Pizza East in London and bring a bit of that experience to acanteen. We are a local visit for great coffee, healthy juices, a quick take out, Sunday roast, romantic meal or a relaxed hang out for an interesting beer in the bar. We want to be all things to all lovely people. We’re very proud that we often see four generations of a family happily dining with us and to be able to cater to those different tastes. Over the years its been so lovely to watch customers families grow and because Mum and I are very hands on in the business and one of us is almost always there we have developed lovely friendships with many customers.
What has been the highlight of running your own business?
Working with great people to form a strong team and being able to make changes in an instant. I work in a fast and creative way when it comes to business and decision making. I’m lucky to travel a lot with my husband who is a DJ and travels internationally most weekends so we make a point of looking up and trying out some great places when I have time to join him. When I’m inspired I want to be able to act quickly to introduce new things or make changes and this is possible with there being only one Acanteen.
What has been the biggest challenge ?
Juggling being a mother, wife and socialite! I read that Nigella Lawson said it’s impossible to be all three and I have to agree with her and accept that there will always be compromises. Something has to go. Unfortunately, my social life is not what it used to be but I’m working on it!
As a mother of two, how do you juggle motherhood alongside running and growing a thriving business?
My husband & mother-in-law are amazingly supportive. Jamie is at home during the week so he collects the boys from school and gets them fed. I always take the boys to school in the mornings on my way to work and I don’t have to work late that often. It’s not easy switching off from Acanteen though as there’s always something to be done or think about. Some weeks are easier than others but even on my days off I’m usually getting regular calls from the team about this, that and the other.
What's the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Never pat a burning dog.
What is your favourite quote?
‘Home is where the record player is.’ We are a music-loving family in our house and I find the act of selecting and then putting a record on to dance to or just have on in the background is very cathartic and helps me unwind.
What were you doing this time last week?
I was in London researching apocotherapy brands as I am relaunching our astore range next year. Watch this space!
What top tips would you give to someone who is considering taking the big step into setting up their own business?
Obviously you need to be prepared for a lot of hard work. Know your strengths and try to spot a gap in the market then follow your dreams and believe in yourself. Don’t listen to negative or pessimistic people but do try and gain as much advice and experience from those you trust. It helps if you have a thick skin and you have to develop the ability to not take things too personally. Go for it!
What's next for Acanteen..where do you see the business in five years time? There’s a question! Being a vegetarian I would like to develop this side of the business and maybe even open a vegetarian restaurant, albeit on a much smaller scale than Acanteen!
Can you share a favourite photo with us and tell us why you chose it?
Find out more about Acanteen, Abakeshop and Astore here.