Mums quit financial sector jobs to open play cafe for tots

Pamela Norcliffe, left, with son Joseph and Amanda Gavin with daughter Abi at Toots Play Cafe. Picture: Lesley Martin

Pamela Norcliffe, left, with son Joseph and Amanda Gavin with daughter Abi at Toots Play Cafe. Picture: Lesley Martin

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The scones were baked, the sandwiches were made, the tea and coffee was brewed and the toys were all laid out.

With everything all ready and moments to go before opening time, there was just one thing missing from Toots Play Cafe – the parents and kids needed to make the new venture a ­success.

What had started out as an idle discussion over a lunch break had turned into something far from idle and far more tangible, with two friends ditching their highly-paid careers in financial services to follow their dream of opening a “play cafe” catering specifically to the under-fives.

But now that the moment of truth had arrived, and the doors were about to open for the first day’s play, would the gamble have paid off?

One week, and 259 children later, the answer would seem to be a resounding yes, leaving friends and now business partners Pamela Norcliffe and Amanda Gavin in no doubt that they have hit upon a major boom industry.

Amanda, 37, who lives in Newcraighall with husband Philip, 41, who works in investments, and son Joseph, three, says: “The numbers in the first week completely surpassed our expectations, but we must have handled it well. We’ve had tons of positive feedback, including the best kind of immediate review – kids that point blank refuse to leave.”

The two friends, who spent ten years working together before going in to business as a team, are far from the only ones who have decided to tap into the Capital’s fastest growing market. Recently-released figures from the 2011 census revealed that in the past decade the number of under-fives in the Capital has rocketed by 18 per cent, three times the national average. It’s no surprise then that soft-play areas and mother-toddler groups have been opening more and more frequently around the city.

More traditional businesses are also getting in on the act. Loopy Lorna’s Tea Room’s policy of child-friendliness was one of the main innovative factors that helped it reach the finals in the Edinburgh heat of the Local Business Accelerator Awards, while Tom Kitchin and Dominic Jack’s new Stockbridge bar and restaurant, The Scran and Scallie, has Scallie’s Corner, a glass-fronted play area where the kids can have fun while the parents enjoy some fine dining. And whilst comedy shows were once strictly adults only, more and more shows specifically aimed at children have been appearing in the Edinburgh Festival programme every year.

Imogen Douglas, who owns Maddie and Marks Play Centre at Ocean Terminal, said she was encouraged by a sea change in attitudes towards catering to the under-fives.

She says: “We’re very lucky in Edinburgh that there is so much for young children to do and also that so many green spaces are accessible. However, even as recently as ten or 15 years ago, many places seemed to be a lot less welcoming towards families with very young children. I feel we’re becoming a lot more European now in terms of accommodating kids.”

Maddie and Marks, which opened in September, has also been a success. However, Imogen, who took over the unit left vacant by Molly’s Play Centre, which closed due to financial difficulties last March after seven years, had a few words of caution.

She says: “I’m sure there will be a lot of people, perhaps for example, those who the recession has pushed into redundancy, who will see the boom in under-fives as a sign that they should start their own child-centred business. While there are bound to be opportunities out there, people should be realistic about how much dedication and commitment it takes to set up a venture like this. There are many, many different practicalities to consider – finding a venue, getting the right toys and equipment, getting the right staff, health and safety regulations, getting the proper types of insurance, doing the appropriate market research – and that’s before you’ve even opened the doors.”

Imogen adds that the hard work doesn’t end there.

She says: “Once you’re open for business you must keep your venue, toys and equipment spotless and well-maintained, keep your food up to a high standard, stay on top of your marketing and hire the best staff you can. There’s no scrimping or cutting corners. It’s a 24 hours a day, seven days a week commitment. Don’t ever think this is something you can do part-time. The day you do, that’s the day you should give up.”

Pamela and Amanda are no strangers to hard work and high pressure, having worked together for ten years as a senior team manager and a contact centre manager for an investments firm. But changes in the industry, plus the change in perspective caused by having kids of their own, caused them to rethink what they really wanted from life.

Pamela, 31, mother to Abi, four, and wife to Stevie, 38, who works in investment management, explained: “This all came out of what began as casual chats over lunch about our long-term plans and goals. Once we realised how similar they were – we both wanted to launch our own business and we both wanted it to be something to do with children – it seemed to make sense to go into business together – plus it’s a far less daunting prospect when there’s two of you.

“We did a lot of research and went through a few different ideas before we came to the conclusion that what we wanted was somewhere that fell in between soft play and a mother-toddler group – somewhere with lovely toys, but a smaller play structure where parents can keep an eye on the kids as they play, but can also relax themselves.

“We didn’t really feel that anything like that existed in the Capital but we found a cafe in Dublin that worked on similar lines and we went over to visit them last July. The owner was extremely helpful and we returned from Ireland on a real high.”

Less than a year later, Toots Play Cafe, in Inch Park Community Sports Club, is up and running, offering “a stimulating environment for babies and younger children as well as a relaxing and cosy one for adults”.

Amanda says: “Because we are specifically aimed at pre-school children we began looking at establishments that were already set up, but that may have available space on weekdays. This had the advantage of finding a site that was likely to be more affordable. We also got a lot of help from Business Gateway, who were absolutely brilliant. They helped us put together our business plan and also with all the different requirements such as food hygiene, the different types of insurance needed and setting up business bank accounts.”

Though the two mums have been planning their new venture for some time, they did not leave their previous jobs until a few weeks ago. Their average day has changed since then.

Amanda says: “I was a contact centre manager, in charge of about 50 people, and dealing with daily running and recruitment, so lots of taking meetings and putting together reports. Pamela was a senior team manager with a staff of 15. Even though we only recently left it really feels like a lifetime ago now.

“For example, yesterday we had about 30 kids in with their parents and our day included serving teas and coffees, tidying toys, clearing tables, making soups and scones, stock taking, updating our social media page – and also helping some children build a miniature train set. So quite different from the old days.”

20% rise in pupils is forecast

by 2020

ACCORDING to the 2011 census the Capital’s population has increased from 448,600 to 476,600 between 2001 and 2011 – a rise of 6.2 per cent, while the average for the whole of Scotland sits at 4.6 per cent.

The spike in the number of children being born has been put down to “changes in fertility and changes in the number of women of childbearing age” by the census report.

The number of under-fives in Edinburgh has risen by three times the national average for the decade, coming in at a whopping 18 per cent.

City leaders have said that the council is predicting a 20 per cent rise in the number of school children by 2020, with extensions planned at Wardie, Trinity, Granton and Victoria primary schools to keep up with the demand for places.

Edinburgh also saw a slight drop in the number of over-65s, which fell from 69,100 to 68,500. However, across Scotland the average number of over-65s rose by 10.6 per cent between 2001 and 2011.

More and more choice of venues for playtime

YOU don’t have to go far to find a toddler play centre in Edinburgh as they have sprung up across the city.

Time Twisters is a soft play centre which also teaches kids about Egyptian history. The centre, which is based on Bankhead Drive in Sighthill and has been awarded four stars by the Scottish Tourist Board, caters for all ages up to 12 and also has a separate sports area for games such as football and basketball. For further info visit www.timetwisters.co.uk.

Tumble Tots has different classes available around the city, and kids from the age of six months to seven years are catered for. Tumble Tots offers activity classes to develop physical skills of agility, balance, co-ordination and climbing. For more information visit www.tumbletots.com.

Gambado is a Fountain Park-based centre which opened in October 2011. It caters for children up to the age of 12, offering activities including treasure hunts and discos. There is also a play session once a month designed for children with autism and their families. It costs £4 per child with free entry for adults and carers. www.gambado.com.

Clown Around has Edinburgh’s only “mega bounce trampoline”. This centre on Restalrig Road is bound to keep spirits high. There’s also a nail bar where kids can have their very first manicure. Visit www.clownaround.me.uk for more details.

Kiss the Fish Studios is a Stockbridge gift shop and arts and crafts studio which welcomes kids over three for birthday parties, where they can use acrylic paints, decopatch tissue papers, glitter and jewels to decorate their own choice of animal, mask or even treasure chest. Items are then left at the studio overnight to be varnished, and are ready to pick up the next day.

Gorgie City Farm is a venue where kids of all ages can enjoy a day on the farm, meeting animals such as guinea pigs, rabbits, ducks, and chickens. Children’s parties are also available for kids aged three to seven. www.gorgiecityfarm.org.uk.

Plus more and more cinemas, including the Cameo and the Filmhouse, offer screenings suitable for parents and toddlers.