Harley Young talks with Natalie Haywood, Co-owner of LEAF, about its long-standing reign in Merseyside

A decade and a half of experience and not a doily in sight. One of Merseyside’s most-loved tearooms and independent cafe brands, LEAF, is preparing to celebrate its 15th anniversary in November.

What started as a simple idea to bring quality tea to the people of Liverpool a decade and a half ago, has evolved into a small collection of high quality, family-owned tearooms, restaurants and event spaces. Siblings Natalie and Graham Haywood have grown LEAF’s offerings and audience whilst still maintaining a community-focused mentality. 

Adding to their existing locations (Bold Street, Smithdown Road and West Kirby) LEAF is celebrating 15 years in style by launching a new venue, Little LEAF, on Monday 6 November. You’ll find Little LEAF inside ONE FINE DAY on Old Hall Street. 

Co-owner Natalie Haywood spills the tea (pun intended) on how the past 15 years has gone, which menu items are still customer favourites all those years on,  and how they plan to prepare for a decade and a half more of tea, treats and entertainment.

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Natalie Haywood, Co-owner of LEAF Image: LEAF

Natalie, how did you and your brother start LEAF? Tell us the history behind it.

I’d stopped drinking coffee at the time and was really annoyed at the kind of tea on offer at the high street coffee chains. You know the ones, sloppy tea bags in a lukewarm cup of water. I couldn't understand how tea, being the nation's favourite drink, wasn't done properly. 

Loose leaf tea is really amazing in terms of varieties, quality and where it's grown. It's like wine, really. I kind of wanted to reinvent the idea of a tea shop so it’s not a fuddy-duddy place that your grandma goes to, but instead bring it into the 21st century. 

I also wanted it to be a really imaginative, interesting space in which you can just hang out. That hustle and bustle of events, art, and everything in it to look a bit more cosmopolitan and European in style. So that's how it started. Since then it’s evolved into something much bigger than that, but that was the initial idea really - to try and reinvent the tea shop.

What do you think has been the key to 15 years of success?

I think it's a combination of a few things. We've never really followed fashions or trends or jumped on the latest thing. We’ve always remained true to our values of really great home-cooked food, value for money, and I think the customers have been brilliant. 

[The cafes are] a nice place to come with lovely people and the events programming has given people a reason to come back all the time because there's always something different going on; something relevant, something cultural, or a great gig. 

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LEAF, back when it resided on Parliament Street during the early days Image: LEAF

Do you have any customers that have stuck with you from the very beginning?

Yeah, we've got loads of people that were with us and championed us at the beginning that are still our regulars. We've also got loads of promoters and people that host events for us such as Ignite and various other promoters who have been with us since we opened our Bold Street site. As well as the same architects, the same designers, we try to keep the continuity as much as we can. 

Business is founded on relationships and community and we’ve always just felt like there’s a great community of people around us at every venue that we open. We try to put ourselves at the heart of the community. That side of the business is really important to us.

If you had to pick one stand-out menu item that you’d consider your best over the past 15 years, what would it be?

I think our most impressive tea, one we had on at the beginning and is still on now, is a tea called ‘Silver Needle’. It’s a white tea that’s only grown for one or two weeks a year on one mountain in China, so it’s really rare. It’s also got more antioxidants than any fruit or vegetable.  

It’s all hand-picked and the leaves are really delicate. It's really great to blend with other teas, so you can take a bit of single needle and blend it with peppermint or you could blend it with rosebuds and so on, it's really versatile. We’ve got a lot of teas that have won awards too, like the Butter Truffle which is our best-selling tea.

As for food, we do a crispy chilli squid with wild rice that’s been on the menu since we started and it still remains a firm favourite. 

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LEAF in West Kirby Image: LEAF

What’s a dish of yours that you’d recommend to first-time customers? 

I think a really good entry-level tea to get into would be the Butter Truffle which I mentioned before. It’s a really nice black tea base with a creamy, buttery taste so it’s quite sweet. It would appeal to lots of different palates and it's got little tiny amaretti biscuits in it.  

And then I suppose the other thing that we’re quite popular for is brunch. We do amazing cinnamon toast which we’re quite famous for, so, I think a bit of cinnamon toast with a butter truffle tea would be a perfect combination.

You’ve got a pretty huge birthday celebration coming up. 15-days worth of celebrations in fact, including four special Pudding Clubs. Who’s idea was that and how did you go about making it happen? 

So when we started 15 years ago, Claire Lara was our chef at the time. Claire, who was the first female MasterChef winner in 2010, started putting on the pudding clubs. She used to do five courses with five teas and participants used to come in and make a cake with her. We don’t do the cake making part anymore, but still run the club. 

Claire is now back working for us as our head of pastry so we thought, to celebrate our 15th birthday, it would be a lovely idea to bring that back so one person from each club gets to make a cake with her. It felt like a nice nod to where it all started, that kind of full circle moment.

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Claire Lara, MasterChef winner and Head of Pastry at LEAF Image: LEAF

You’re opening Little Leaf at ONE FINE DAY. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

Little LEAF is more of a daytime offer. The idea is that it's the essence of all of the bigger venues distilled down whilst still having some of those favourite food and drink items on the menu. We’ll mainly be serving breakfast, lunch and brunch and we’ve got a couple of new dishes going on there including our own Scouse which I think might become a best-seller.  

It’s going to be housed within ONE FINE DAY, which has a beautiful grade two listed event space at the back which we’re hoping to deliver more premium events with. 

What advice would you give to other hospitality businesses hoping to have such a successful, long-standing reign in Liverpool? 

I think you have to kind of play the long game. Stick to your values and what you believe in, try to make every decision based on those values and try to be as creative as possible. We get so excited by the creativity and the amount of things that we do within the venues. 

Don’t change too much either. You can be creative, we’re creative with our events programming and things like that, but the nuts and bolts of LEAF have more or less stayed the same. You come in, it’s got the same feel and vibe that it did back when we started, it’s consistent for the customer.

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LEAF on Bold Street Image: LEAF

To celebrate LEAF’s momentous milestone, they’re celebrating for 15 days (Friday 3 to Saturday 18 November) with a series of events including four Pudding Clubs hosted by Masterchef winner Claire Lara at a special price of £15 per person, live music, BODA, craft markets, networking and more.  

Info and tickets for all events can be found at www.thisisleaf.co.uk

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