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Former Dragons’ Den investor Sarah Willingham tells how her Stoke-on-Trent roots still shape her business decisions

Written by on 16/12/2021

Stoke-on-Trent-born businesswoman Sarah Willingham has told how she went from working on Stoke Market to owning the largest chain of Indian restaurants in the country and becoming one of the UK’s most successful female entrepreneurs and investors.

Sarah started her working life at the age of just 11 with a paper round, progressing to a job at a local hairdresser’s and later a market stall in Stoke when she was 13.

But the 47-year-old – who was born in the Potteries and raised in Newcastle-under-Lyme – admits that she quickly discovered her passion for the hospitality industry after taking a job at Gio’s bar on Newcastle High Street at 14.

Sarah said: “I’ve always really loved hospitality. I loved restaurants, loved the social aspect of it, and always found business really interesting.

“I was always quite interested in the commercial side of things, I didn’t really know necessarily that it was business that I was interested in, but I often wondered why we all wore the same brands and ate the same food and had the same stuff in our cupboards.”

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Determined to follow her passion, Sarah completed two degrees – in International Business and International Finance – in the UK and in France, all while juggling jobs at the Paris Stock Exchange and the Frog and Roast Beef pub.

She went on to pursue a corporate career at Planet Hollywood and Pizza Express and eventually took over the Bombay Bicycle Club in 2004.

Sarah said: “I wanted to create the largest chain of Indian restaurants in the UK, and one of the main reasons for doing that is I realised quite quickly in my late twenties that if I was going to continue living out of a suitcase it was very unlikely I was going to be able to have lots of children and spend a lot of time being a mum and have a more balanced life in my thirties.

“So I thought I’m going to have to make a significant change to be able to have the life that I want to have in my thirties, which was my main drive to do it myself.

“So that’s what I did, I ended up managing to raise the money, and did end up having the largest chain of Indian restaurants in the UK.”

Sarah Willingham

Sarah added: “I started to have children, and when I got to number two I just thought I actually can’t have 1,500 staff relying on me getting up in the morning and all my babies – I had four in four years.

“So that’s when I decided to sell the business (in 2007) and started to look at more active investments.”

But Sarah never completely stopped being ‘hands on’ when it came to business and went on to run a number of companies with her entrepreneur husband Michael Toxvaerd, including listed nutraceutical business NeutraHealth plc.

She also became a familiar face on television after being approached to take part in BBC 2’s The Restaurant and fellow BBC show, Dragons’ Den.

Sarah spent two series ‘in the den’ in 2015 and 2016 and invested in one of the most successful businesses to ever appear on the show – Craft Gin Club.

She said: “I absolutely loved my experience (on Dragons’ Den). I remember walking into the den for the first time, my heart was beating so quickly. I couldn’t quite believe that I was going to be sat in one of those chairs.

“I walked over to the lift, turned around and went and stood on the spot where the entrepreneurs stand and just looked at the chairs. I just thought, God, it’s impressive that they do this.

Sarah Willingham first appeared on Dragons' Den in 2015. She is pictured here (far left) with Touker Suleyman, Deborah Meaden, Nick Jenkins, Peter Jones
Sarah Willingham first appeared on Dragons’ Den in 2015. She is pictured here (far left) with Touker Suleyman, Deborah Meaden, Nick Jenkins, Peter Jones

“It’s not easy, and it’s scary – and that never left me actually, it meant that every single time somebody walked through the door I had a big smile waiting for them.

“And the first guy that walked through the door – Gold Disc Dave – was a Stokie,” Sarah continued.

“He is my first pitch ever on Dragons’ Den, and I just felt like the universe had sent him to me to make me feel at home.”

After vowing “never to run a business again” mother-of-four Sarah now runs a growing number of companies alongside Michael, including Nightcap plc, London Cocktail Club, Adventure Bar Group and Barrio Familia.

And before every acquisition, Sarah says she asks herself one question – “Can I put this in Stoke-on-Trent?”

“I ask myself that question every single time, because I know that once I can get it in Stoke-on-Trent, I’ve got a huge national rollout opportunity, not just in big cities but some of the smaller cities too.”

The Stoke-on-Trent BusinessLive Awards in association with The Sentinel and StokeonTrentLive is open for entries

The Stoke-on-Trent BusinessLive Awards in association with The Sentinel and Stoke-on-Trent Live 2022 are back and open for entries.

Businesses and individuals from across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire are being encouraged to enter across 14 categories including the coveted Business of the Year award.

You can find more information about all of the categories here.

The deadline for entries is Monday, January 10 and the ceremony will take place on Thursday, April 28.

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And despite the pandemic and various restrictions, Sarah believes that the hospitality sector will continue to bounce back over the next 12 months.

She said: “The demands that we have seen over the last six months since we were allowed to open has proven to us that hospitality will, given a chance, thrive again.

“As long as we remain unrestricted, I think we will see a year of recallibration and a year where hospitality and retail kind of rebalance again after having the worst 18 months we could have ever possibly imagined.

“I think we will go into a period where demand is high, and as long as we are able to supply that demand, then the hospitality industry will boom.”

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