The roots of our box tree romance

The roots of our box tree romance

For Rena Gueller and husband Simon, the idea of owning somewhere as prestigious as Yorkshire’s most famous restaurant was merely a pipe dream. However, as she tells Andrew Mernin, fate had other ideas

The Box Tree Restaurant in Ilkley is one of Yorkshire’s most prestigious eateries, with a coveted Michelin Star to its name.

But if not for the current custodians of the 52-year-old institution which, as one national newspaper once said, oozes restaurant magic, it might have closed its doors many moons ago. Just as the famous old confluence for celebrities and politicians has faced knocks along the way, the couple behind it have endured their own highs and lows in business. But with 10 years of unblemished success under their belts, a perfect recipe appears to have been found between the restaurant and owners Rena and Simon Gueller.

Rena, the passionate restaurateur whose Michelin starred husband handles the kitchen side of the business, prefers to think of it as a romance – with her partner and in the serendipitous way The Box Tree entered their lives. “I’m a great believer in destiny and for me there is a romantic side of our story,” she says having just sat down after a fevered few minutes of phone calls, disappearances down corridors and commandeering of staff.

We’re in an upstairs lounge at The Box Tree and, if not for the hub of the Friday afternoon traffic outside, we could be in some luxuriant haunt of 1930s aristocrats.

It’s quickly apparent that hands on boss Rena has her stamp all over the business, but contradictorily she also feels that she’s merely looking after it for future generations.

“The Box Tree was just a rose tinted place that we just knew of and it was something that we aspired to,” she says of earlier days in her career when running other restaurants in
the area.

“In fact we never even had an aspiration to run it because we knew that it would have just been a pipe dream.” But fate had other plans...

Originally a Yorkshire stone farmhouse dating from 1720, the building was home to a generation of farmers before being bought by businessman Septimus Wray, the owner of Bridge House Gardens, who developed it for business and was the first to plant box trees in the garden. It became a restaurant in 1962 under the care of Malcolm Reid and Colin Long and went on to become a permanent fixture in most good food guides, welcoming the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Bassey through its doors. Originally growing up in London, Rena was exposed to the hospitality sector at a young age, with her parents running a hotel in Kensington until she was in her late teens. Rena met Simon the chef at the age of 18 on holiday in Rhodes and they’ve pretty much been in business together ever since.

Rena says: “We’ve been together for 29 years, which speaks for itself. He was working in Harrogate and I was in London, so he moved to London to be with me for a couple of years. We were very young and very entrepreneurial. It was a very Thatcherite period really; with
the message being ‘go borrow money and do stuff’, which we did as well as getting a bit of financial support from my mum.”The pair knitted their careers into one business by opening up their first restaurant, Miller’s, in Harrogate in the late eighties.

Simon had worked alongside his friend Marco Pierre White during the early stages of his career and had accrued a national reputation as a rising culinary star. And the pair got off to a great start to trading.

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“It was an interesting seven years but also quite challenging,” Rena says. The early nineties saw the start of the Gulf War and the onset of recession and it was quite hard to learn as a young couple how to take the business forward.”

But after riding out that economic storm, the couple then set up a larger restaurant, Rascasse, in Leeds. Industry plaudits soon followed, with the restaurant receiving a Michelin Star and, unusually, a Bib Gourmand, which is Michelin’s award for reasonably priced gastronomic champions. In fact, Rascasse was the largest Michelin starred restaurant outside London – an impressive achievement given the relative inexperience of its young owners.
“This was an awesome time in our careers” says Rena. “Rascasse was ahead of its time, incredibly vibrant and somewhere which is still talked about today in culinary circles.”

But after several years at Rascasse, the couple decided it was time to return to running a smaller, fine dining restaurant which would give them greater creativity, as Rena explains: “Rascasse was a bit like operating a conveyor belt service. The style of the food had to be simplified to be able to produce those types of quantities on a consistent basis.”

They eventually decided to scale back the business and move into a smaller restaurant in the city called Guellers. This, says Rena, allowed them to reintroduce creativity back into their dishes. With three restaurant tenures on their CVs, Rena and Simon were steadily making a name for themselves on the national restaurant scene. In the backdrop the outbreak of foot and mouth disease and widespread flooding were having a major impact on the restaurant game and staying in the black was tough for traders. But, despite such conditions, the Guellers once again hit Michelin Star standards and created a thriving, popular venue.

However, a rocky patch was to eventually follow. A seemingly innocuous yet expensive dispute over the location of extractor fans and the building’s suitability for use as a restaurant delivered an ultimately crushing blow. And their hand was forced into pressing the liquidation button.

Rena says: “It wasn’t to do with the restaurant business it was to do with the finances in the end; they were drained by litigation and we were forced to make a decision. We couldn’t run the business and something had to give.”

At the same time, Simon had undergone serious back surgery and the couple were
about ready to throw in the tea towel. A compromise, they decided, was to practice their entrepreneurship in outside catering. And suddenly Rena, the glamorous host of the finest of fine dining, found herself in the market for a white van.

“Because Simon was recovering we thought we could just do outside event catering.

I got going by getting a unit and we got a van. Being so hand to mouth, I knew I had to go out and get business by myself. I knew we needed to turnover a decent amount on a month to month basis just to pay our mortgage and feed our two kids. It was a learning curve and was a very emotional time for me, Simon and the kids. On top of everything else, our names were all over the papers with stories written about the fact that Simon, ‘one of the highest profile chefs in Yorkshire’, had gone into liquidation. It was a humbling experience.”

This level of determination paid off, with the opportunity to run The Box Tree restaurant arising to help Rena and Simon make a glorious return to the restaurant business.

The couple had known former owner, the late Madam Avis, and had already discussed taking over The Box Tree previously.

Greek born Madam Avis, as she preferred to be addressed, was one of the most prominent people in Ilkley, having turned around the fortunes of the restaurant when she acquired
it from receivers in 1992.

Rena says: “We knew Madam Avis quite well, however we realised how run down and dilapidated the place was becoming. After her husband died, she began talking about exiting the business and eventually she approached us about potentially taking it over.

“The restaurant had temporarily closed by this point and I think she felt it was time to move on and retire. She didn’t want to just put The Box Tree on the open market and really wanted the right people to look after it.”
The decision wasn’t taken lightly by the Guellers given their previous experiences. But The Box Tree had taken on an almost mythic quality in their joint consciousness and in the end it was a “no brainer”.

In their early days in business in Harrogate they befriended Messrs Long and Reid, the couple who founded the Box Tree in 1962.

“They had sold up and opened a picture gallery, and we went there one day to buy some pictures for our restaurant in Harrogate.

“We were quite blown away because being young and being in the industry and knowing who they were, they were like demi-gods to us. To a young chef it was like meeting Maradona. They came down to our open day to hang photos for us and bring flowers.

“They started coming for dinner and would always tell us the stories about their life and talk about the business. The whole romance and the glitz of those stories was amazing. People like Rod Steiger and Shirley Bassey as well as Thatcher and Hesseltine would all go there and leave their Rolls-Royces outside.”

So, when the eventual opportunity to take control of the business faced Simon and Rena, it was virtually impossible to pass by.

“In some respects it had to be Madame Avis’s idea. I didn’t want to get emotionally involved with something that may never happen, but then we thought ‘game on’. I tried to take negotiations as far as I could but I didn’t necessarily believe that it would happen. I can’t tell you how emotional it was getting the keys and coming in and sitting down for the first time, with all those vivid stories in my mind.”

In all, they invested around £500,000 into the building. Rena says: “The place was in a bit of a state when we bought it. We began by stripping it bare and thought we’d wrecked the place. I was waking up at five in the morning with anxiety, I lost a stone. Not only did we have our necks on the block but we were also coming back from Guellers.

“We also felt the weight of expectation from the local community which was - and still is – so attached to the restaurant. However, I knew we were right for the place.”
Her instincts served her well with the restaurant going on to flourish. So, what other plans might Rena and Simon have?

“Well I think this would make a really good Indian restaurant,” Rena says with a smile. “No, for me it goes back to the same old adage, it’s the romance of being part of a restaurant with a 50 year heritage. I want it to be here for the next 50 years and I want to ensure its legacy lives on. Eventually I want one of the team to take it over as I would hate to be the person that says ‘that’s it, I’m done, and I’m putting it on the market.’ I think we have too much invested both financially and emotionally to do that.” To give the business added stability, its outside catering arm Box Tree Events is currently undergoing expansion.
In terms of staff, the restaurant has about 50 people on its books, including 15 full timers.

Rena says: “Young people might be with us from 15 into their 20s and 30s. They go off to university and are always bouncing back. The Box Tree has been life changing for them. It
has given them people and presentation skills and taught them not to cut corners.”
Overall then, The Box Tree looks to be in pretty rude health with the Guellers at the helm.

“It has been a very positive few years,” Rena says. “We have been adding an extra 20% to 30% to the bottom line each year. However, for me, it’s about enjoying what we’re doing.
I have a team that is passionate, which is great as I don’t have to be like Mr Motivator.

“Living around here, looking around the Dales, it’s such a beautiful place,” Rena adds. “I just love driving to work and seeing the cow herds beyond the building. I just think I am
very lucky.”

Lucky? Perhaps. Deserving? Most definitely.