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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 July, 2004, 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK
Making waves with a green approach
by Jemima Laing
BBC News Online, Plymouth

Michael Smith, Venus Company
Michael Smith spent the early '90s in Hawaii
It began as a year-long experiment to run a Devon beach cafe for pin money.

But a decade later the growth of Michael Smith's Venus Company has eclipsed those initial, modest aims.

As well as enjoying financial success the company is also winning high-level recognition for its commitment to the environment.

And 10 years after opening that first cafe at Blackpool Sands, Venus is celebrating the opening of cafe number four, its first in Cornwall.

We really wanted to get away from the pasty and chips feel
Michael Smith, Venus Company
Following a varied career which started with the diplomatic service and took in management stints in north America, Smith, 49, spent the early '90s in Hawaii running a training and development company.

Returning to his home town of Dartmouth and looking for his next challenge, he took a lease on the old Venus Tea Rooms at Blackpool Sands, beloved of beach visitors since the 1940s.

The beach itself had been in his wife's family for more than four centuries and when the cafe's lease came up 1994 they decided to devote a year to making it work.

The old cafe gave the fledgling business its name and the Venus Company was born.

From the outset, the couple decided to draw on their combined experience to create a concept which encompassed their interest in environmental issues - as well as their desire to use as much organic and local produce as possible.

What they knew early on was that recreating the bog-standard beach cafe was not for them.

Smith's wife, Louisa Newman, had been involved in creating menus for the Cranks chain of restaurants and his concern for the environment had been sparked by his years in Hawaii.

Venus Cafe, Blackpool Sands
Blackpool Sands was Venus' first cafe
He said: "We really wanted to get away from the pasty and chips feel. We decided to move away from the traditional and apply the professionalism of the high street to the beach.

"The accountant said we would probably make 'x' and when we made 'twice x' in the first year we thought this might be something worth pursuing."

Two years after opening the Blackpool Sands site, the opportunity arose to open a cafe at East Portlemouth.

Cafe number three in the burgeoning Venus portfolio is at Bigbury-on-Sea, acquired in 1999 and the first cafe built to Smith's specifications with environmental efficiency taken into account.

"It was then we started looking seriously at the environmental impact of the business," Smith said.

And he credits a South Hams District Council publication, about running a greener business, for making them take a long, hard look at the company's environmental credentials

"We realised then what we were doing was nothing in comparison to what we could be doing and recycling waste was the tip of the iceberg."

Unexpected bonus

Rising to the challenge meant looking at all aspects of the operation, from packaging to produce.

Smith said: "We have never used polystyrene cups, but we started to look at trying to use chlorine and phosphate-free based products where available.

"We return cooking oil for recycling, use energy efficient equipment and monitor our CO2 emissions."

"And if our suppliers didn't supply organic produce we asked them, where possible, to supply it."

The latest innovation is a completely degradable sandwich box, with the fully bio-degradable plastic lid next on his green wish-list.

Smith said: "People are working on that now, bio-degradable polymers are being developed and once they are available Venus will be using them."

Environmental commitment has garnered the business a clutch of awards, most recently a major commendation in the prestigious Business Commitment to the Environment Awards, presented by Energy Minister Stephen Timms.

The business now employs a core group of 15 full-time employees, supplemented by a 40-strong pool of seasonal staff, mostly students.

With three cafes in Devon, the natural next step was to branch out into neighbouring Cornwall.

Venus Company packaging
The company has never used polystyrene cups

"By the end of last year we had real confidence in our concept and felt we had the whole package right," Smith said.

That was evidenced by the fact the business served close to 250,000 customers last year with a turnover near the £1m mark.

They settled on Tolcarne, near Newquay, which was also meant to be at the heart of Rick Stein's project to transform the Rocklands Hotel.

The failure of Stein's project to come to fruition proved an unexpected bonus for Smith's business.

His withdrawal from the project left the old beach café without an occupant and so, as well as opening the planned cafe and beach shop, the Tolcarne Bistro opened its doors.

But Smith is uncertain whether it will spawn a rash of other Venus bistros.

He said: "It is very much a suck-it-and-see project.

"Obviously, every time you expand it is a risk, but so far so good."

With further expansion and the possibility of franchising both options for the future, Smith is determined growth will not dilute the Venus brand.

He said: "We don't try to be cheap but we try to give value.

"Our aim, now and for the future, is to be the greenest cafe and shop operator around."

From computer chips to chillies
27 May 04  |  Devon
Stein halts Newquay hotel scheme
30 Apr 04  |  Cornwall

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