Occupying a prominent position on Totnes high street, Tangerine Tree is a comfortably informal café, favoured as much by mothers with young children as it is by authors and artists. With its handmade wooden tables, mismatched chairs, and fantastic menu of locally-sourced ingredients, it is the sort of place that people love to linger (myself included).
For owners, Ness and Martin Turner, opening the café on 1 April 2008 was the realisation of a dream to quit the fast-paced corporate world and build a new life for themselves and their young family in South Devon.
Corporate high fliers
Together since 1995 Ness and Martin worked hard to climb the corporate career ladder. Ness was an Event and Production Manager for London Fashion Week and, later, Ministry of Sound. “I loved it,” says Ness, “each event was different and it was a complete creative circle, from coming up with the concept and finding the venue through to staging the event and then breaking everything down afterwards.” Ness’ responsibilities included arranging a charity event attended by Princess Diana, a fashion show under the arches at Brick Lane before the area was redeveloped and the first ever New Year’s Eve party at The Dome in London for which the event won a Dance Star Award.
Martin, too, was a career success. He left his native Birmingham at the age of 21 to work in outside catering in London. Among the organisations he catered for were Buckingham Palace, St James’ Palace and the Victoria and Albert Museum. He also catered for the Beckham’s World Cup party.
At the age of 30, Martin was appointed to the position of General Manager of Catering at the Institute of Directors. Responsible for a team of 70 staff and a £4.5 million budget, he helped to double the Institute’s profits within four years as a result of better management, improved staffing, increased sales and reduced costs.
Time for a change
However, by 2001, the couple was starting to tire of their hectic London lifestyle. Five years earlier they had rented out their flat and travelled for nearly a year after a failed attempt to buy a house. “We were away for 11 months, visiting India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and New York,” says Martin. “There was such an amazing sense of freedom. We were answerable only to each other and the only thing we had to decide each day was where we wanted to visit, where we would sleep and what we would eat. When we got back to the UK in July 1998, it had been really hard to settle back into the corporate life. By the early 2000s, we were starting to feel unsettled again.”
Ness became increasingly disenchanted with her job at Ministry of Sound and quit in March 2001. In October of that year, the couple’s son Ned was born. “We were living in a house in Catford at the time,” says Martin.
“As soon as Ned came along, we knew that the London lifestyle was no longer for us. Up until then, we had worked hard and played hard. But, when he came along we found we were spending our weekends sitting in traffic jams trying to get out of the city. It was time for a change.”
The lure of Totnes
Ness and Martin began looking around for somewhere to move to. “To start with we were looking all over the UK,” explains Ness. “I come from Torquay in Devon but, initially, we had no plans to return there. However, we quickly realised that we wanted family around us and so Devon became our first choice.”
“We had spent 12 years in London,” adds Martin, “so when we moved we felt that we needed to be somewhere cosmopolitan, lively and independent where people are open-minded. We also wanted a safe and supportive community. Ness had spent much of her teenage years in Totnes and as soon as we decided on Devon we knew we couldn’t live anywhere else but there.”
Martin heard, via the Institute of Directors, that the Met Office was planning to relocate from Bracknell to Exeter. The organisation’s catering was to be managed by Compass, which also managed the catering at the Institute. Martin applied for the job of General Manager of catering and got it. Six months later, the family packed their bags and headed off down the M5 to Devon.
A dramatic drop in income
Ness and Martin had always been astute when it came to money. Every spare penny had gone into paying off their mortgage when they were in London and they had managed to hang onto their original [Bermondsey SE1) flat even after they bought their Catford home. So, once Martin heard he had got the Met Office job, they set about selling their two properties and buying a Victorian villa in Totnes. “We were able to buy the property more or less outright, however our income dropped dramatically,” says Martin.
“When Ness quit Ministry of Sound, we lost just under half our income overnight. I took a 25% pay cut when I accepted the Met Office job. Despite this, we knew this was what we wanted. We had always intended to start our own business so I had preferred to stick at General Manager level rather than striving for promotion to Area Manager. If you earn too high a salary, it becomes very difficult to give it up and do something else.”
Starting from scratch
The family moved to Totnes on 11 August 2003. “It was great but we were, effectively, starting again from scratch,” says Ness. “We missed our friends and the cultural life of London. It helped having Ned, though, as we formed new social ties and made new friends.”
Martin found it hard to move from the high end fine dining he had been accustomed to at the Institute of Directors to a contract catering role. However, the skills this taught him were to come in useful later, as he explains: “It taught me to be tight, which has been really useful since we started our own business. We couldn’t charge the same sort of prices at the Met Office that we charged at the Institute so I learned about efficient cost and waste management.”
A better quality of life
By 2004, the couple were ready to begin looking for their own business in Totnes. “The whole rationale for our move to Devon was to create a better quality of life that suited us as a family. The business needed to fit in with this, too” says Ness. “So, for example, it needed to be within walking distance of home and at the heart of the local community.”
Ness and Martin spent three years searching for the ideal business opportunity. In the meantime, in 2005, their second son, Billy, was born. By 2008, they were ready to give up on their dream after a number of disappointments. Then, a property on the high street that they had previously discounted because it was outside their price range suddenly reduced in price. It was a large late 18th Century townhouse, which had previously been used as a cafe, with living accommodation upstairs. Ness and Martin completed on the property on 26 January 2008.
Chic and understated
“Martin was still working at the Met Office at this time, so managing the conversion of the property fell to me,” explains Ness. Although it was already being run as a café, the décor was outdated and shabby and the upstairs was not being used as part of the business. Ness oversaw the creation of a chic and understated café interior, with stripped wooden floors and a simple wooden counter.
Martin left his job at the Met Office on 14 March 2008. Tangerine Tree café opened two weeks later on 1 April.
Adapting the plans
The couple has always shared the responsibilities of work and childcare equally so, when they opened Tangerine Tree, it seemed a natural step to take it in turns to work in the café, one week on one week off. However, it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t working. The dual-manager role was leading to a lack of continuity, frustration for both Ness and Martin and confusion for staff. So, after a few months, the couple agreed to split the responsibilities of running the business between them – Martin taking on the day to day management of the café and staffing, and Ness handling the baking and book keeping.
In 2012, they opened a separate business called Totnes Bakehouse, which supplies Ness’ delicious hand-baked cakes to the café and other local businesses. “We are planning ahead again,” explains Ness. “We won’t always want to run the café but we are building up the Bakehouse so it continue to provide an income for us in the future. We are also working on some other ideas, too, like creating a cookbook that will be unlike any other cookbook you’ve ever seen!”
Tangerine Tree’s business ethos is to use local suppliers, pay its bills on time and minimise its environmental impact. Ninety percent of the ingredients used in the café come from less than a 10-mile radius outside Totnes.
A fantastic life
So, is the family living the dream?
“Our life is fantastic. Not everything has worked out exactly as we expected it to but we are both prepared to adapt… if it’s not working, we try it another way. The important thing is that we can live our lives in the way we want to and do the things that are important for us – for example, we can share taking the boys to school, which is what we wanted, and I have become a school governor so I can get actively involved in their education.”
After trying unsuccessfully to move to a house with a bigger garden in 2012, the couple has recently acquired a 3.9 acre plot of woodland and stream. “We wanted somewhere we could go together and relax,” says Ness. “We can camp out on the site and have barbecues. Martin and the boys have plans to build a treehouse. It is perfect.”
When it comes to quitting the rat race and following your heart, the couple’s advice is simple: “Don’t give up if it’s something you want, but you need to be prepared to be flexible too. Be honest with each other, even if it leads to a screaming row. You have to work together at this.”
© Uplifting Stories