How Tim Ferriss Helped HOME’s Liz Cottam Build A Million-Dollar Restaurant Business
After winning a coveted semifinal place on BBC’s MasterChef, corporate career woman Liz Cottam decided to ditch her six-figure salary and try her hand at becoming a Michelin-starred chef.
Albeit with zero restaurant experience and zero culinary training.
Both of which make the last five years—in which she’s opened three Michelin Guide-listed restaurants and hit a group turnover of £2.3 million ($2.8 million)—an extraordinary accomplishment.
Not that her success has come easy.
“Six years ago I was turning 40 and asking myself questions about how I wanted to spend the second half of my life,” Cottam tells me. “Work-wise I was flying high, but I simply wasn’t happy.”
Though she’d studied art at university, her career path was anything but creative, so she started taking photographs, drawing, and applying for any passion-led pursuits that crossed her path—including MasterChef.
“Then the most devastating thing happened: my mother died suddenly,” she says, “and the very next day I got asked on MasterChef. The timing seemed important, significant, and I suppose it really was.”
Still, she had no intentions of becoming a chef. She simply loved to cook. “You’re asked a lot during filming about what you want to do after the show, and it was literally the last thing I wanted to do.
“Who wants to be a chef or even crazier, a restauranteur? It’s the highest risk start-up category there is.”
But the fear of long hours, low pay, and an impossibly competitive landscape—even for those who’ve dedicated decades to their craft—wasn’t as strong as her love of the experience. “They put me in a professional kitchen for the first time and something clicked.”
Wanting to prove to herself that people not only wanted to eat her food but that she had what it took to run a restaurant, Cottam spent the next year doing stages (free work experience in kitchens) in a number of restaurants—including one with a Michelin star—and organizing a handful of pop-up events.
With growing confidence, she eventually submitted a strong commercial proposition to a director at a multi-billion pound hotel company—leaning on her corporate learnings—asking if she could run a four-month residency in one of their restaurants in Leeds city centre. And they said yes.
“But it was incredibly hard. Full of harsh and intensive lessons,” she admits. “I worked every single day for four months. For the most part, it was an endurance test, I had cobbled together a small part-time team and started working out how to deliver a restaurant experience between us.”
Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong did go wrong over those four months, resulting in a steep but valuable learning curve.
“Thankfully, guests loved what I was doing and I was getting better each week. In spite of the hardship of it all, I wanted more, which was the proof I needed. If I could enjoy it despite all the obstacles, this must be what I wanted to do.”
Her first business plan was created in January 2017, bank funding was secured by March, the lease was signed in June, renovations started immediately, and the doors to HOME were opened in August. To rave reviews.
As a craft kitchen reimagining British favorites into gastronomic tasting menus, all of which championed locally-sourced ingredients, there was simply nothing like it in Leeds.
Which felt like more than enough, to start, until Cottam realized she’d have to do much more than cook brilliant food to keep a restaurant afloat. And her teams were sinking.
“My team knew I had big dreams, high standards, and bought into the hard work needed to achieve the success I wanted. However, whenever my focus moved from one part of the business to another, something or someone become undone. It was exhausting, incredibly frustrating, and actually terrifying.”
As she reflected on the situation, she started to wonder whether her management style was to fault. “I recognised that I hadn't been doing anything at all, no exaggeration, other than being at the restaurant for nearly a year. I needed to think and I needed to feed my business brain to work this out,”
Without much time to spend away from her team, or business, she began researching tools for success and stumbled across ‘4 Hour’ entrepreneur Tim Ferriss’ podcast series. Which turned out to be exactly what she needed.
“His interviews deconstruct world-class performers to extract the tactics, tools, and routines they use to be supersonically successful,” she says, “and the first one happened to be with Nick Kokonas—who is one half of the team behind one of my favourite restaurants in the world Alinea.”
Hooked, she began binging episodes while she showered, drove, and prepped food for service, internalizing all the insights and perspectives she felt might benefit HOME.
“One thing they all had in common was the way they were doing it,” says Cottam. “They all had somehow become zen-like leaders that were happy, unfathomably calmly in control, and were managing multiple multi-million, some billion-pound business empires.”
By the time she reached Ferriss’ interview with life coach Tony Robbins, her next move was clear. She would invest £30,000 ($36,800) in an 18-month programme to better herself as a leader.
“This was a huge investment of time and money for me and most definitely a massive leap of faith,” she says. “I was headstrong and what I thought was a capable businesswomen who had managed 200 people in the past, so getting any kind of help was uncomfortable to me, but I knew I was really struggling, so the desire to sort it out came before my ego.”
After four sessions she realized she’d been running her restaurant to exhaustion; holding a microscope up to the hundreds of elements in every process, in every service, front and back of house, every day.
“Just describing this sounds so intense,” she says. “It was dramatically stressful for us all and this was at the root cause of the problems.”
Instead, she began celebrating the monumental achievement of opening her first restaurant—“and it being so bloody good!”—with the staff.
“Once I stopped leading the team with that fearful mindset, and started believing in them, empowering them to make decisions, taking the pressure off and instilling confidence, supporting them no matter what went wrong, everything changed.”
And not just for HOME, but The Owl and CORA—the two restaurants she’s not only managed to launch but make profitable in the last four years, despite a global pandemic.
“Looking back, it feels like a monumental feat to survive opening one restaurant, let alone three. It’s so hard to do. The effort it takes to get them built, staffed, marketed, full. Each one feels like a long pregnancy and a hard birth.”
Yet, with group turnover now projected at £3.2 million ($3.9 million) for the year ahead, her ‘children’ are helping all of her dreams come true.
“The secret to the my success has been leading in the right way, on top of twenty years of business experience, and a few big mistakes learned early on,” she says.
“It’s a special way to live and earn a living. It’s the most tired I have ever been, my feet constantly hurt and it’s the poorest I’ve been for a long, long time, but it’s the happiest I have ever been.”
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