Phil Smith had served initially with the Parachute Regiment and then moved on to serve with 22 SAS Regiment. Irene’s background was in the theatre and, after touring as a singer to many military bases including the Falklands, Northern Ireland and Germany, she went on to set up her own entertainment agency in Germany, engaging UK artistes to tour the military bases.
After leaving the Army, Phil met Irene in 2012 and the couple quickly realised they were kindred entrepreneurs. Being keen foodies, they decided the logical step for a joint venture lay in the food industry and, with the help of Irene’s daughters, Pothead and Panface was born. The trendy little bistro serves a range of food from freshly cooked breakfast (including their famous homemade hash browns) to bratwurst, schnitzels, burgers and a great range of milkshake and waffles, not forgetting quality coffee. Irene suggests that Pothead and Panface offers the community a sociable and fun place to get together in the military town of Tidworth. She said:
“As a family, we have always had a passion for food and cooking so we started out in a gazebo as a street food company before progressing on to our first restaurant.
“We felt a sense of freedom and the excitement of being masters of our own destiny together. We were not scared to take on a challenge, thankfully, and we threw ourselves into making it a success.”
Having no prior knowledge of running a bistro, the couple found the early months a challenge. After identifying their ideal premises, it became clear that it would require extensive renovation to change an ‘A1’ classified shop into a restaurant.
With the added improvements they wanted to make in order to extend the seating capacity to the outside, Irene and Phil were thankful to be able to access a Start Up Loan for £18,000 via X-Forces Enterprise (XFE) to help with the huge investment required. Irene found the process to be a positive one, remarking:
“We can’t thank X-Forces enough. Their speed and professionalism in helping us to build and fine tune our business plan through to arranging our loan is beyond words. It felt like a personal relationship rather than a business one. They are always available on the end of the phone and kept us updated constantly during the loan application process.
“During the first quarter of being open, our turnover increased consistently each month and we have now developed quite a following in the town, with many families that visit regularly. We have extended our reach to offer event catering for weddings and parties and are considering opening a second bistro with the possibility of franchising the brand.”
When asked what advice she would give to others thinking about becoming an entrepreneur, Irene said she’d recommend learning as much as you can about the sector you are entering:
“Practice your industry first. For example, if you want to buy a franchise in tailoring, get a job working in a tailor shop first. It is a practice run to be sure you understand your customers and how the industry works; knowledge is key.
“We have also learned a lot about shop fitting, so I’d offer the advice to add at least 40% on to the final figure you are given, as, in our experience, it always goes over budget.”
Having built a strong family business in a demanding restaurant industry and, with the experience and knowledge accrued on this challenging journey, Irene was invited to become XFE’s Military in Business® Ambassador for the West region. XFE Chairman, Martin Wing, said:
“In a sector where customer expectations are continuously changing, providing a consistent brand experience is growing more difficult, and restaurants can struggle to see a return on what is typically a high-risk investment. To see Pothead and Panface thriving in this space is a joy, and testament to their hard work and vision to create something a little different. We are delighted to continue to help as they grow.
“The family took on a challenge together with great success and that is why Irene was an obvious choice as an Ambassador; someone who can bring military entrepreneurs together to share experiences and knowledge and support one another.”
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X-Forces Enterprise (XFE) is an award-winning Community Interest Company that nurtures entrepreneurial ambition in the UK military community, official delivery partner to the government’s Start Up Loans Company and MoD’s Career Transition Partnership. XFE supports Service leavers, veterans, spouses, cadets and Armed Forces family members to start their own businesses with a full package of training, finance, networking and mentoring. Start your journey by registering today here.