Star Interview: From ice cream and Little Chef to life in the Bahamas with Sheffield's Lawrence Wosskow
The Albany development on New Providence in the Bahamas was tailor-made to be the quintessential multi-millionaires' playground.
Backed by investors Tiger Woods and Justin Timberlake, it is a luxury oceanside resort covering 600 acres with a colossal marina, multiple swimming pools, golf course and restaurants, where properties start from $5 million.
And living comfortably in this exotic enclave is Lawrence Wosskow, the Sheffield-born entrepreneur who made his fortune owning fast food outlets, surf brand Free Spirit and the ice cream firms Bradwell’s and Loseley, later leading a heroic £52 million attempt to rescue the struggling roadside café chain Little Chef.
Lawrence, aged 54, is throwing himself back into the world of business – commercial and residential property rather than catering – after taking things at a slower pace for several years.
His efforts to turn round Little Chef were thwarted when he suffered a near-fatal heart attack, and after emigrating he lost £3 million to fraudster James Burdall, an old schoolfriend jailed for helping himself to company funds while entrusted to look after the Wosskow empire.
These dramas, and the motivations that drove him to pursue ‘thrillingly impossible’ deals are recounted in his memoir, which has the darkly punning title ‘Little Chef: The Heart of the Deal’.
He is speaking on the phone from his Bahamian home – the territory’s rock-bottom tax rates were a big attraction, Lawrence gladly admits. There is a five-hour time difference with the UK, and while he has just finished elevenses in temperatures of 26C, it’s already going dark on a drizzly late afternoon in Sheffield.
Lawrence and his wife of 35 years, Julie, were back here in summer, it turns out, and ‘loved it, as usual’, putting themselves up at the Cavendish Hotel in Baslow.
“We had a great time. My best friends Nidge, Tim and Nick were all born in the Jessop hospital in the same year as me in 1963 in Sheffield. We still speak to each other every day. I’ve still got my roots firmly in Sheffield.”
Since 2009 he has helped to regenerate Harrogate town centre, bringing in new bars and restaurants, and confesses to daydreaming about what he could achieve in Sheffield, if the opportunity ever arose.
“A lot of what I would have liked to have done is now getting done. I just think the city is progressing substantially and it’s great.”
Lawrence and Julie spend part of the year in the Bahamas, and the rest in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and Newport Beach, California, which is closer to their two grown-up children Hannah and Toby, who live in LA.
“We’ve just been astonished each time we’ve come back about how much Sheffield has progressed and how much better it’s getting in terms of the things to do – we’ve always had the Peak District which is beautiful but now you’ve got much better restaurants, bars and nicer places to go.”
Lawrence completed the book after he was caught up in a bad mountain bike accident last year. He declined sleeping tablets and painkillers because of the amount of heart medication he still needs to take. His surgeon warned him that, without drugs, he would be awake for ‘probably 14 days and nights’ – time Lawrence dedicated to writing.
Early memories are sketchy – he claims not to remember anything before the age of 11, the result of a difficult childhood.
Lawrence grew up in Fulwood. His father ran a law firm, while the book describes his mother as a ‘loving woman’ weighed down with mental health problems.
His parents split when Lawrence was eight and his sister, Karen, was nine. Twice, aged 10 and 11, he had to call an ambulance when he found his mother collapsed on the sofa, overdosed on prescribed tranquillisers.
“I’m the sort of guy who has tried to probably, mistakenly, cover everything up,” says Lawrence, who’s prone to anxiety – inherited, he thinks, from his mum.
He was disruptive at school, had brushes with the police, and fell in with the hooligan element of Sheffield United, the club he still supports.
Lawrence is not ashamed of the hooliganism. In fact, it sounds like he rather enjoyed it.
“I absolutely loved it. When things are not good at home and then you can suddenly become part of a group, it was amazing. It was more about having a drink and singing songs, then if something did happen you were there for it. I think it was just a phase in my life I was going through.”
He was already a driven young man, working a gruelling, self-imposed schedule that involved meeting an annual list of goals.
“That drove me to work 100 hours a week for many years. I still do it to a degree today. I want to do the best I can whether it be sport, charity, work or whatever.”
At 24 he became Marks & Spencer’s youngest-ever buyer in London, and with money from his first deal - the sale of a plot of land in Belize – invested in Pelican Group, which owned Café Rouge.
Lawrence bought Bradwell’s ice cream from its founding family in 1992, and built up the brand by putting carts in Meadowhall and the MetroCentre in Gateshead. He’s still a major shareholder today, and his nephew Emillio has got involved to revive the company.
“It’s been a sleeping giant. Bradwell’s is about to explode, it’s just on the verge of getting some major contracts and going back into shopping centres in a major way, with bigger distributors. A lot is going to be happening over the next two years.”
Visitors to Meadowhall cannot buy Bradwell’s ice cream at present. The carts had to leave because Burdall let the rent fall into arrears while dipping into the company’s accounts.
“We are in discussions with Meadowhall, and I am working everything I can to get them to put us back in there. We sold about 600,000 ice creams a year in Meadowhall, and it was the third best-selling product after McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.”
Burdall was jailed for four years but his crimes led to the collapse of Lawrence’s Out of Town Leisure Group, which ran eight food outlets at Meadowhall and dozens in Newcastle, Manchester, Somerset and Kent. Hundreds of jobs were lost.
The fraud was a ‘personal disaster’, Lawrence says, but he adds: “I’ve only got myself to blame. I was the one who got conned, I put him charge and gave him power of attorney and made him trustee on the will.”
He handed over the reins to Burdall following his heart attack in 2006, which struck while he was trying to revive Little Chef. He had taken ownership of 233 roadside eateries, but the chain was sold on again in 2007. Lawrence says the deal for the cafés was prompted by sentimentality.
“I am quite a nostalgic and emotional person. I don’t think I’ve done much where there hasn’t been some reason for it – to change the face of Harrogate town centre, to build a brand name in Bradwell’s, something I ate as a child, or take over Little Chef, where I had happy times with my grandparents.”
Today Lawrence has a more balanced life. “I used to love talking to people in any walk of life who’d say ‘I love my job’. And I never got that, I didn’t like a lot of what I did for a long time. The pressure of having 5,000 employees at Little Chef is significant. I much prefer being the landlord and developing property.”
Lawrence has given around £25 million to charities so far. A portion of the book’s proceeds will go to Dreamflight, which takes seriously ill and disabled children on holidays, with another third going to the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Elton’s a friend, one of a number of famous pals who are endorsing the memoir, such as retired tennis champion Andre Agassi and golfer Ian Poulter.
“I want to sell more than Andre or Ian’s books,” Lawrence jokes. “That’s the challenge right now.”
His return to business is already under way – he is building 70 homes in southern California.
“The doctors always said to me if I could get through 10 years then I’d have a good chance of living a further 20 to 25 years, so now I’m going back to work properly. I feel good.”
Hannah works in commercial real estate, Toby is an aspiring filmmaker and Julie remains ‘irreplaceable’.
“Lots of people like me end up with two or three wives, I’m just not interested. It’s been the one stable part of my life, and from the moment I met her until today I don’t want to be with anybody else.”
Little Chef: The Heart of the Deal is published on November 28, priced £13.85 in paperback from Amazon or Waterstones.
‘Nothing can save Little Chef’
Lawrence Wosskow believes Little Chef is stuck in an irreversible decline 10 years after he pulled out of owning the roadside café chain.
“Most things have now been tried and most have failed,” he says.
“There was an opportunity 10 years ago when I was involved for somebody to shave the company down to 100 sites, add in a British brand of coffee rather than an American brand, and make it more healthy and sensibly-priced. Those days have now gone.
“With so many other offers available from Subway to Starbucks and all the fuel stations that are more ‘on the go’ and quick, which everybody wants these days, I don’t think the brand could work any more.”
In 2008 the chef Heston Blumenthal, famed for his culinary experiments, was brought in to launch a radical new menu, swapping the bumper ‘Olympic’ breakfasts for more elaborate fare including braised ox cheeks and coq au vin. Heston’s dishes, and his ideas about overhauling the restaurants’ decor, were never fully rolled out.
“I don’t think the Heston menu was a good idea. There are still people out there who want what Little Chef was, there’s just not enough of them. If you ever mention Little Chef to anyone over the age of 40, a big smile appears on their face. It’s not because of what they had there last week, it’s because of what they had when they were a child.”
As of September there were 42 Little Chef sites, down from 439 at the company’s peak.