SME Growth Challenge serves up nuggets of gold to experienced restaurateurs


“Before we joined the SME Growth Challenge,” says Oliver Thain, Director and co-founder of Cambscuisine, “I’d barely heard of Cambridge Judge Business School. And I certainly didn’t see it as a resource for a restaurant and catering business like Cambscuisine. But there’s a lot of wisdom knocking around there and it’s been incredibly useful.”


Cambscuisine is the company behind some of Cambridgeshire’s most popular and well-regarded gastro pubs, The Cock, The Tickell Arms and The Crown & Punchbowl. The Cambridge Chop House opened in 2007, offering diners no-nonsense, high quality British food paired with a stunning view of King’s College Chapel across the road. The St John’s Chop House followed in 2009, extending the Chop House brand in the city.

Specialist event planner and caterer The Cambridge Dining Company is also part of the Cambscuisine family, while the latest venture, Smokeworks, is another new departure, offering eat-in and take-away BBQ food under the rubric “Slow food. Fast.”

The SME Growth Challenge is aimed at leaders of SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) with annual sales of between £1m and £50m and a demonstrable track record of high growth and sustainable underlying profitability.

Cambscuisine directors Oliver Thain, Simon Day and Max Freeman signed up late in 2015 at a time when the three strands of the Cambscuisine business – the destination-dining village pubs and city centre restaurants, the corporate and event catering business and eat-on-the-go Smokeworks – were all enjoying real growth. But, explains Oliver, “our three brands are all in different development lanes on the motorway. We needed time to think about how to ensure growth doesn’t just happen, but is aligned with the sort of business we want to operate.”

With three young sons he wants to spend time with, work-life balance is also very important to Oliver. “I don’t want work to be sitting on the A14, driving between pubs, so we’ve made what I think is the quite brave decision not to go for lots of new restaurants.”

The SME Growth Challenge programme is designed to help companies in a range of ways from developing and implementing a growth plan for their business; defining and articulating the business value proposition, to designing a sustainable business model. Oliver is clear about what his business needs: “We want to find alternative ways of growing that aren’t about doing more of the same or simply extending our geographical reach.”

Increasing the operational load would also compromise relationships with employees, and Oliver is certain that staying close to staff is critical to the success of any future model for growth. “In fact, being on the SME Growth Challenge has prompted us to act on an idea we’d been thinking about for ages – employing someone to help with people development. The programme is a useful kick up the arse in that way!”

As they’ve progressed through their year on the programme, Oliver, Simon and Max increasingly realised that their determination to seek growth while staying local and keeping close to employees was pointing them to an innovative business model for the Smokeworks brand. Oliver is confident of the brand’s potential, but is determined to resist a trend he identifies as prevalent in their sector: “We’re not interested in selling out after a couple of years for a multiple of EBITDA.”

He is emphatic that Cambscuisine is hatching a different model: “We know that Smokeworks is a very developable little brand. The SME Growth Challenge has been really useful reflection time with like-minded individuals who’re helping us stand back and explore different business models to grow that business in the right way.”

As part of that process, Oliver is particularly pleased with the relationships he’s been able to build with Professor Christoph Loch, Dean of Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS), Professor Stelios Kavadias, Director of the School’s Entrepreneurship Centre and Margaret Thatcher Professor of Enterprise Studies in Innovation and Growth; and CJBS Senior Faculty in Management Practice, Simon Stockley.

"In every conversation with them, we pick up little nuggets of gold. We’ve been introduced to simple but helpful processes we’re implementing right now. Stelios has pointed us towards companies who’re running brilliantly innovative loyalty schemes, while Simon’s helped me form a potential new partnership."

To date, Cambscuisine have mainly funded growth by debt in the form of traditional business bank loans. Now their involvement with SME Growth Challenge is plugging Cambscuisine into Cambridge’s sophisticated investment ecosystem. As they crystallise plans for growing Smokeworks, Oliver and his partners know that financing their ambitious business goals for the brand will take them into unfamiliar territory that will stretch their professional and personal skills.

Oliver is undaunted, appreciating that that access to the expertise at the Cambridge Judge Business School Entrepreneurship Centre will do much more than introduce Cambscuisine to potential investors. It will help them build leadership and board capacity to ensure Cambscuisine fuels its growth not only in new ways, but also very much on the company’s own terms. “We expect the best is yet to come,” says Oliver. “Our involvement in the SME Growth Challenge will bring its greatest benefits as we move into the next phase, refining our business model and building relationships with the right investors.”

“It has been a privilege to work with Oliver, Max and Simon and help shape a strategy that works for them,” says Simon Stockley, CJBS Senior Faculty in Management Practice. “They have really got to grips with business model innovation and have some very exciting plans for the future. Given their achievements to date this certainly a business to watch.”

Learn more about the SME Growth Challenge >

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The Entrepreneurship Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School aims to inspire, enable and research entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship Centre, Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge