Offering gourmet burgers, coffees, cocktails and a chic environment to enjoy it all in, Jean’s is the perfect fit for its customers. Eileen Leahy meets its owner, Garry Jefferey, to find out all about his recipe for success
STEPPING inside the newly opened Jean’s Kitchen and Bar on St John’s Road, it feels like the busy street I’ve just left behind, the long snaking traffic queues and groups of schoolchildren waiting for their bus, are suddenly a world away.
The area’s newest food and drink offering is surprisingly spacious and incredibly stylish, with a décor that boasts tongue and groove walls painted in on-trend inky tones, low-level funky lighting and luxurious leather Chesterfield sofas. It certainly didn’t look anything like this in its previous guise as Bean milkshake bar.
As I sit down with Jean’s owner, Garry Jefferey, for a coffee and a chat, he tells me that the whole premises, which he also owns, was in a sorry state after Bean vacated, so they had a lot of repair work to do on it before they even thought about colour schemes and couches.
“It took months to get it into shape, and we didn’t have a day off for something like eight months,” says Garry, who reveals he has never done anything like this before.
He is, you see, the Director of Henry Paul Funerals, a local company that has been running for the past seven years, and also had his own printing business. So would Garry consider himself to be a bit of an entrepreneur, then?
“Well yes, I suppose so,” he responds. “I’ve lived in Tunbridge Wells all my life and I just knew there was a market for a place like this.”
His ‘place’, which launched in mid-January and is named after his beloved mother, who died a year ago, is open from 9am daily, serving coffees, cakes, cocktails and burgers – 16 different varieties, in fact.
His 21-year-old son, Connor, is his right-hand man.
When I ask how people with no previous experience in the hospitality trade go about recruiting a chef, Garry wryly replies they got him from ‘next door’. He is referring, of course, to Saint John’s Yard, but is quick to point out that there’s no competition between the two.
“They’ve been good and I’ve become friends with the guy who runs Saint John’s Yard. And although they were initially worried about the impact of another bar being so close to them, we essentially serve a totally different clientele.”
Garry gives the examples of Jean’s not televising big sporting events and employing a smart-casual dress code and over-25s policy at night-time.
“I decided to do that as I believe there’s a market for it. I know a lot of people in their mid-30s and upwards, and they’ve said how much they wanted a place they could come to and enjoy a drink and relax with some nice music, so I just thought ‘well, why not give that a go?’
“People have said: ‘Wow! You’ve got something good here’ and we haven’t even finished it yet.”
Indeed, as we talk there’s plenty of banging and drilling going on, mainly in the external space at the rear, which is in the process of being transformed from a uninspiring concreted yard into an alfresco wonderland which will be filled with outdoor BBQs, seating areas, a pop-up bar and mezzanines for live DJ sets and bands.
There is also an additional building which can be hired out for everything from personal training sessions to private parties.
“But I’ve got to take into account that there are plenty of residents here,” Garry adds. “So we’ll be aware of noise levels. I don’t want people thinking I don’t care about that.”
So far, he says, lots of locals have been supportive.
“Customers say to me: ‘This doesn’t feel like it’s in Tunbridge Wells, more like London.’ One woman even cried when she came in! And to have the luxury of space is also quite rare in this town.”
I can easily see why people would be impressed, as Jean’s oozes style and a convivial ambience. Unlike most places, this hasn’t been achieved courtesy of a clever interior designer – it’s Garry who has cherry picked the characterful artefacts, which include retro American road signs, vintage ice skates and alpine skis.
“I wanted people to think ‘a lot of thought has clearly gone into this’, and that’s exactly the reaction I am getting,” he says.
He’s a man of many talents, as it was also his vision to stud the kayak that hangs in the entrance with twinkling LED lights, and to furnish the place with desirable seating.
“What’s the point of having hard chairs in a bar?” he asks, rightly pointing out that “No one will want to stay all night if they’re not comfortable.”
Upstairs is Jean’s pièce de résistance: A cool cocktail bar complete with cosy snugs where you can chill out and listen to ambient vibes from 5pm every Thursday to Saturday until late. Again, plenty of aesthetic attention to detail has been paid up here, with elm wooden flooring and Venetian plastering setting the scene. There’s even a huge fish tank, which customers find ‘relaxing and therapeutic’ to sit by. Hanging in pride of place, though, is a framed picture of Garry’s late mother, Jean.
“I’ve put an awful lot into this place, and so have my kids – Millie, Connor and Benjy – as my mum left them money which they’ve invested here.
“I want people to come in and see that, ultimately, this is a family business, like what we do, and then hopefully spread the word.”