Scarborough's historic Bonnet's Cafe goes on sale for first time in over 60 years

One of Scarborough's oldest cafes is for sale after being owned by the same family since 1959

Monday, 24th February 2020, 12:50 pm
Updated Monday, 24th February 2020, 1:02 pm

It's the cafe with a chocolate factory that could have been part of an empire to rival Bettys.

See more: Bonnet's Cafe in picturesAnd now Bonnet's - the Scarborough tearoom that's been serving up treats in the town since 1880 - is for sale.

Owner John Fairbank has run the cafe in the Huntriss Row precinct since 1975, and it's been in his family for longer - his parents took it over in 1959. He's now selling up as he prepares to retire.

Bonnet's on Huntriss Row in Scarborough is for sale. Picture: JPI Media/ Jonathan Gawthorpe

The cafe has a fascinating history - it was established by Swiss confectioner Louis Bonnet as a chocolate shop and restaurant, originally in premises on St Nicholas Street.

His son took over the running of the business, but died suddenly at the age of just 35 in 1928 and the Bonnet involvement ended not long after.

The Fairbanks bought the cafe in 1959 and moved it to the current site a year later.

In the early 1900s, Louis Bonnet's empire expanded to include cafes in Bradford, Sheffield and Middlesbrough - his fellow Swiss immigrant Frederick Belmont took a job in the Bradford branch in the early 20th century to learn the ropes of the English trade when he first arrived in the country.

Owner John Fairbank in front of the cafe. Picture: JPI Media/ Jonathan Gawthorpe

The young baker later founded Bettys, Yorkshire's most famous tearoom - and even bought the old Bradford shop from his former employer to open under Bettys branding.

The warren of corridors behind the cafe and restaurant leads to the chocolate factory, which has been described as Scarborough's best-kept secret.

Change and continuity

John, now 72, believes that for a few twists of fate, Bonnet's could have become a global name to rival Bettys.

Head baker and chocolatier Liz Ward making Easter eggs. Picture: JPI Media/ Jonathan Gawthorpe

He was 12 when his artistic parents moved the family to Scarborough and took over the business. It was a complete lifestyle change for them - his father had been an engineer. As young men, John and his brother both went to art school in London.

John returned to Scarborough after studying at the Royal Academy, planning to teach photography at the local art college while keeping an eye on Bonnet's.

But he soon found himself working as head chef and has been at the helm ever since.

"Both Bonnet's and Scarborough have changed a lot in the past 45 years," muses John, who lives in a flat above his shop.

John Fairbank with an original mould. Picture: JPI Media/ Jonathan Gawthorpe

"There used to be three people employed just behind the counter in the chocolate shop during the summer - but that ended when the supermarkets started stocking chocolates.

"The catering side has always been the biggest for us. We still make the chocolates ourselves, and in our bakery we make pies from scratch. We use local produce in all our dishes.

"We have a good local following, and we get all ages in - this week it's been half-term so it's been full of young families."

John believes the new owners could explore the potential to expand the chocolate sales online, and Bonnet's also holds a contract with English Heritage to supply cakes for the tearoom at Scarborough Castle.

"The town centre has deteriorated, which has been detrimental, but our trade has always been steady. The seafront is busier now and has improved a lot, but the town centre is a bigger problem. There are big renovation plans for this street, though - the Premier Inn is expanding.

"It's a fantastic business in so many ways, and it could expand into things like online sales and evening opening, which we've never done.

"There's a lot more competition in Scarborough now, with lots of new cafes opening - but we're quite happy with the reputation we've maintained."

A wealth of possibilities

Bonnet's had had many celebrity customers over the years - actor Michael Caine popped in every night for a meal while filming the musical Little Voice in the town in 1998.

"He was a really nice bloke, and would always ask for a table hidden round the corner."

Cricketing legends Geoffrey Boycott and Dickie Bird have also visited, as have members of the Emmerdale cast.

John likes to maintain tradition at Bonnet's - he still has some of the original Edwardian chocolate moulds used by Louis in his possession, and past menus are displayed on the walls.

Although specialities like oxtail soup are no longer served, the menu has not changed in 15 years and old favourites remain popular.

"As a chef, I'm interested in food trends, but you have to be careful in Scarborough. Yorkshire folk know what they like - they like their pies and their fish and chips."

He believes the business could suit an ambitious young chocolatier, or a couple prepared to split kitchen and front-of-house duties between them. John will be heavily involved in the sale process and wants to hand over to owners who appreciate the history of the Bonnet's brand.

"I am not looking for someone who just wants a cash cow - they need to understand the history. It's important to me that it isn't spoiled. The value is in the name - Bonnet's is well-known. There's no reason why they couldn't expand to places to York and Beverley and do well - like how Bettys did.

"The other Bonnet's restaurants were run by nephews and nieces of Louis, but they were all gradually sold off. The Bradford one was so big that it had its own orchestra and Bettys ended up buying it. The last one was in Great Yarmouth and that only closed about four years ago."

John is now looking to retire to a 'nice cottage with a garden studio in the Vale of Pickering' to indulge his passions of painting and photography. His two sons both run businesses of their own and so Bonnet's will not pass to the next generation.

"It's a very unusual sale and there are so many possibilities."

Bonnet's is for sale with a guide price of £480,000 through Scarborough estate agents Colin Ellis.

All fixtures, fittings and equipment are included in the lot.

The property comprises a ground floor cafe, upstairs restaurant, chocolate factory/bakery, two kitchens and living accommodation.