Deborah Meaden on eating out, going vegan and cooking

Dragon’s Den businesswoman Deborah Meaden might have earned millions in the hospitality business but, like the rest of the nation, she has tightened her belt by cutting out expensive restaurants during the cost-of-living crisis. The 63-year-old star, who has a net worth of £50m after making most of her fortune from the Meaden family holiday park business, is determined not to pay rocketing restaurant prices.

In her typical no-nonsense style, she says: “Eating out will become a luxury. If you can eat the same quality of food at home, it makes no sense to pay a premium to dine out.

“But our food and drinking habits have changed dramatically. There is no need to travel into town and dine at a restaurant because more people work from home.

“Obviously I love food and eating in lovely restaurants. My husband Paul, however, is such a skilled cook that we rarely eat out.”

With Brexit-driven staff shortages, the pandemic, and now the cost-of-living crisis, hospitality has endured a torrid few years.

While this has had a serious impact on the nation’s spending habits, the rail strikes have also cost bars, pubs, restaurants and hotels in the UK at least £1.5bn.

Of course, Deborah herself is never going to starve. When she was just 32 years old, she was already managing director of the family’s business Weststar Holidays, which she sold for £33m in 2005. This was after growing the one-site project into a five-site empire with 150,000 visitors every year.

She held onto a 23 per cent stake, which she sold in 2007 when Weststar Holidays was liquidated, before collecting a further £19 million.

However, she recalls how profiting from the restaurant side of the business was always her biggest challenge.

Her latest BBC TV project, B&B by the Sea, sees her staying at a tranquil B&B on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast, where she meets Michelin-star chef Alex Greene. The two end up discussing the pitfalls of setting up a restaurant.

“I asked Alex if he would like to set up his own business and he acknowledged that now would not be a good time,” she recalls.

“I said it would be very unlikely if I ever bought or invested in a restaurant because it is in the most challenging industry in the world. I don’t cook and I don’t have natural empathy for the industry.”

Deborah is equally sceptical about the introduction of a four-day working week. Earlier this year, more than 60 British companies – from marketing and finance to education and even fish and chip shops – embarked on a trial. 92 per cent of employers said they would continue with a shorter work week, with 30 per cent making the change permanent.

Some employers insist a four-day week boosts staff productivity and well-being, while others find it challenging. Deborah says it’s not an automatic solution for all.

“Many businesses need to operate five days per week, which means it’s difficult to reduce staff days,” she explains. “Or they need to hire extra workers to fill the gaps. It is horses for courses. I believe it will work in some industries but not in others. I think it’s down to the individual employer.

“It is imperative to create a positive working environment, but the most important thing is the flexibility you can offer your employees. That is easier in some industries. But if you are in hospitality, it is very difficult to say, ‘Everybody can have the weekend off’, as that’s when they are most needed.”

Deborah herself has always been a hard grafter. At just 19 years old, she moved to Italy to launch her first business, exporting ceramics and glass to UK retailers, including Harvey Nichols. Unfortunately, the company flopped and she folded it after 18 months.

On returning to the UK, she launched a franchise of Italian clothing brand Stefanel, selling it to her partner for £10,000 two years later.

That was when she joined the family business, Weststar Holidays, set up by her mother and stepfather. It was something she had originally vowed never to do, and she started right at the bottom, at first overseeing the slot machines in the arcade.

However, her flair for business propelled her into the managing director role at 32. She was in her forties when she joined Dragons Den in 2006 and has been a permanent fixture right up until the latest series which started airing in January this year. At one point she was the only female entrepreneur.

“It isn’t a question that the BBC ever ask me: ‘Are you coming back?’,” she says of her commitment to the role. “It’s more like, ‘Here are the dates and how do they look?’. I have been there for 18 series now and I think the day I sit down in that chair and say ‘Urgh’, I will stop doing it.

“But I still sit down in that chair and get excited. There has certainly never been a discussion about whether I would or wouldn’t carry it on.”

Deborah credits some of her success – both on the show and as a businesswoman in general – to her husband of 28 years, Paul Farmer. The couple live together in their Somerset farmhouse, along with “two cats, three dogs, six horses, three pigs, four sheep, numerous birds and three very angry geese”. The Somerset town of Taunton is where Deborah was born in 1959.

Paul supports her behind the scenes and always cooks for the couple. In comparison, on her new TV show, she admits she is totally “incompetent as a chef”.

“When Alex asked me if I could chop some vegetables, I told him I didn’t know how to cook or even bake a potato,” she adds. “I do not feel comfortable in the kitchen. But he was very kind and, with his help, I did cook my first meal.”

It’s a far cry from what happens in the kitchen at home, where Paul is very much in charge.

“Our entire kitchen is built around Paul,” Deborah says.

It turns out there’s quite a height difference between Deborah and her husband. He stands tall at 6ft 5ins while she is at a rather more diminutive 5ft 2ins.

“So luckily, I can’t reach many things in the kitchen, and that is okay,” she adds.

“The work surfaces and cupboards are slightly taller, so the whole thing is aligned for him – and quite rightly so. It is his domain, his kitchen.”

On occasions when Paul isn’t around to cook, Deborah rather flounders. “I will never forget when he wasn’t at home and I got two pieces of white bread and put a slab of chocolate between them,” she reveals. Not exactly a traditional sandwich filling.

Nowadays, though, she has switched to a plant-based diet. “Some of my guilty pleasures have changed and I can no longer eat milk chocolate.”

She points out the advantages of her vegan lifestyle. “The main thing is that I feel healthier, happier and fitter, and my sinuses have improved since taking dairy out of my diet. I am less congested and I think I sound better.”

After 18 years on Dragon’s Den, and some very canny investments, Deborah’s face and voice are well known to the public. But with her newly decongested sinuses, she says it’s her voice that people recognise more easily.

“I could walk past someone in the street and they don’t twig who it is,” she says. “But as soon as they hear me speak, they instantly know it’s me.”

That’s the price of being a Dragon.

  • B&B by the Sea continues Monday-Friday, 6.30pm on BBC Two and BBC iplayer.

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