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Female Leaders: Laura Harper-Hinton

Originally from New Zealand, Laura studied Law, Politics and Philosophy before embarking on her career in hospitality. Following a move to London, Laura became the Managing Director of a high-profile events company, producing events for luxury fashion, art, music and private clients.

Laura then opened the first Caravan in 2010, with partner Chris Ammermann and friend Miles Kirby. Caravan was a pioneer in all day dining in London, offering fresh healthy bold flavours from around the globe, as well as great in house roasted craft coffee.

Laura is passionate about supporting the next generation of hospitality entrepreneurs, having recently joined Plan B – a UK Hospitality Mentor Initiative, with a focus on helping more women into senior positions. She recently appeared on the BBC’s My Million Pound Menu as an investor and is keen to invest in exciting, up and coming concepts as well as provide mentorship for those with a distinct community or sustainability focus.

Where did you pick up your love for food?

Growing up in New Zealand, my upbringing had a really strong connection with the land and the sea. We have a beach house at the top of the South Island in the Marlborough Sands that our family visited since I was a baby. This is where learned to dive for lobster and scallops, deep sea fish, scour the sand for cockles and then fillet and smoke our bounty on the barbecue.

My grandparents also had a large farm on the Canterbury plains outside of Christchurch and we’d spend many a joyful holiday there. We would help feed the lambs during lambing season, hang out with deer and other farm animals and over the Christmas break, pod the peas and beans by a beautiful creek that ran through the farm for Christmas supper.

Both sides of my family are very social, and I grew up around huge family feasts and fondly remember robust dinner conversations and great food. I was also the oldest of four girls and Mum had her own business, so I often helped with preparing the family meal – something I loved doing.

Were the rest of your family foodies too?

Yes, my whole family love food. Dad makes a mean roast and mum loves plant-based dishes. My cousin is Margot Henderson (Rochelle Canteen / Arnold & Henderson events) so food definitely runs in our family.

What was the inspiration behind Caravan’s ‘well-travelled’ food ethos?

I think it comes from our love of food from everywhere. Growing up in New Zealand you are exposed to lots of different cuisines and we have a rich culture of Asian, Pacific Rim, and international food. Also, we all love to travel, and that has hugely influenced our menus. The first menu at Caravan was very much a reflection of some our favourite dishes from our travels, and we continue to approach our menu changes in this way. We are magpies – constantly seeking inspiration from everywhere and innovating all the time.

Do you feel a lot of pressure to be at the forefront of such a great food scene in London?

Yes, but it’s good pressure! I’m a firm believer in applying a bit of pressure, constantly, but in a constructive way to involve everything in our business, including food, creative innovation and development. I confess to waking up every morning thinking to myself – “what can we do better today?” – which is not something I can switch off. It is amazing to be part of such a diverse, thriving and creative dining scene in London. It wasn’t like that when we first arrived 18 years ago, and I think we all push each other forward to create and innovate better every day.

Has imposter syndrome ever been a challenge for you?

Honestly no. I am really lucky with that as I know it’s a super common challenge for women especially. I am blessed to be confident and unphased by the fact that (in our sector) I am often the ‘only woman in the room’. Of course there have been many times when I’ve felt the pressure and felt outside of my comfort zone – but I like a challenge in life. What I am passionate about is doing whatever I can to support women to start their own businesses and get into senior positions in our sector. There is much work to be done here, but we are making some positive moves.

The restaurant trade is notoriously risky – where did you find your self-belief and confidence to pursue your passion?

A little bit of stupidity, combined with a lot of luck, good timing and a healthy amount of self-belief that we had a concept that was original enough, and that there was enough of a gap in the market for it to work.

We put literally every penny we had into Caravan Exmouth Market, so there was also a lot of fear of it not working. We used that in a positive way, working harder than ever to make it work.

You’ve often said Caravan is catering to the women of the city – could you explain this a bit more?

Yes, I said this about our Caravan City location specifically. Historically, the City of London dining has been all about white table cloths and meat-heavy offers. So, I was really excited to open in the new Bloomberg HQ Arcade as I knew we would be offering something new, particularly for women in the City to hang out. A place where they could enjoy great coffee, in a relaxed space with lots of plant-based, healthy and bold-flavoured dishes. We have a great ratio of women who dine with us and I think it’s a lot to do with our sharing philosophy and the nature of the food. It’s something I’m super proud of as the female founder in our team.

Your career has so much variety - you run a business, create new recipes, run events, open up new venues, manage 350 employees. What’s your favourite part of working in food?

It sounds like a cliché, but honestly, it’s the people. I love our crew and who I get to hang out with every day. We have such a fun, creative, passionate team of people who work at Caravan and they make it such a joy. I also totally love our customers and the fact that we have such a huge variety of people who visit our spaces. When I do ever allow myself a moment to reflect, I love looking around to see our team enjoying themselves and our customers enjoying themselves too. It really brings a smile to my face and makes the harder times worth it. I think you can also get a real sense of a restaurant by how many people are smiling – both the staff and customers included, and I’m pleased to say we are winning on that front a lot of the time. You might have guessed that smiling and positivity is basically like a religion to me!

If your teenage self could see your life now, what do you think she would be most surprised by?

She might be surprised that my career is not in music or law. I studied law, and music has been a lifelong passion of mine - so I did often think that’s where I’d end up. That said, hospitality, people, food and the joy of sharing food and drink together grabbed me from a very early age. So maybe my teenage self would concur that this was a great route for me.

What advice would you give to girls and young women as they consider their future?

If you can, try to forge a career in something that you are truly passionate about. Not something that someone else tells you to do, or that you ‘think’ you should do. Being truly passionate about something makes the hard times much easier and the good times an utter joy.

If you’ve found something you love, do your homework and do some work experience or put in some hours so you have real insight into what you are getting into. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people that are already working in your field and that you admire. Most people will be generous with their time and happy to help – but you’ve got to put yourself out there and ask.

Mainly though, make every day count and try to smile as much as you can.

What’s the future for Caravan?

We are really excited about the future. It’s tough out there in this sector, but we are determined to stay positive. We have some more projects in the pipeline but want to grow the business in a really mindful, careful way that ensures we keep our people and our creativity at the heart of what we do.

Finally, what dish would you most recommend to a newcomer visiting Caravan for the first time?

The cornbread is always so popular. It’s been on our menu since the day one, when we opened at Exmouth Market, and will never leave. It reflects our well-travelled ethos nicely too as it’s inspired by southern soul food, with our twist of a jalapeño kick, coriander and lime to bring a bit of South America and Asian into the mix too.

Follow Laura and Caravan on Twitter! Caravan is also on Instagram!

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