Going to school isn’t for everyone, and Sara Edwards was no exception.
After growing up in Billinge, near St Helens, Sara left high school as soon as she turned 16 and applied for a job in retail management with the Chelsea Girl group.
She worked in retail for the next few years, and was even involved in the opening of River Island’s first North West branch.
But it was during a travelling stint around the world when she was 18 during a particularly poignant point in history that would ultimately pave the way for her eventual career.
“For me, travelling was not only an incredible experience but was the best education I could have imagined,” Sara says.
“I saw and learnt so much about life, particularly how to deal with different situations and people.
“Visiting Cape Town was I think the biggest influence on my life; as it was just at the end of apartheid, it was a very difficult period for the country, but to be in South Africa at this time had a profound effect on me as a person.
“Despite the tense political climate, the people were fantastic, and this was where I really got hooked on every aspect of the hospitality industry.
“While working in a five-star hotel, I became truly inspired about what makes a customer experience extra special.
“I learnt a huge amount about excellent food quality and outstanding service standards and tried all different types of food and styles of service whilst out there.”
She added: “Once I returned home a year later I knew I wanted to work in the restaurant industry.”
Sara waitressed and worked her way up into management, getting headhunted head-hunted by Oliver Peyton OBE to open and manage Mash & Air in Manchester.
Later she got an exciting opportunity to help roll out La Tasca throughout the UK.
“I joined La Tasca when there were just two restaurants and continued until it was sold with 16 restaurants,” recalls Sara.
“The date of the sale was September 11 2001, a day we all will remember.
“We should have been celebrating but it was a truly devastating day for everyone. We sat watching events unfold on the TV in total shock.”
In the following years, Sara and her partner Neil, also in the business, decided to come up with a new idea.
“Like most people I love Italian food but I always find if I order a bowl of pasta or large pizza I get bored of it after a while.
“We came up with the idea of Pesto so that people could enjoy lots of Italian dishes during one meal from our ‘piattini’ menu, preventing them from getting bored,” she says.
In 2006, they opened their first Pesto restaurant and now have 315 employees and eight restaurants across the UK, including Pesto at Cabbage Hall in Tarporley, where Sara lives.
“I believe Pesto is so popular amongst our customers because we serve great quality food that is excellent value for money,” she explains.
“As a privately-owned business both Neil and myself are very hands on and visit the majority of our restaurants on a weekly basis.
“I believe a lot of our achievements are down to the fact that we know it takes constant care and attention to detail to succeed, and that all our teams know to keep pushing for perfection.
“After over 20 years in the restaurant industry there is still nothing better than going to any one of our restaurants and speaking to customers who have had a lovely time.
“This inspires me every day and it makes me feel like all the hard work is worth it.”
“These are very exciting times for Pesto and in the near future I’m looking forward to growing the brand and opening more restaurants, hopefully bringing our concept to new customers in the south of England.”
And Sara is still carrying that travel bug – years later.
“Personally, once we have more time on our hands I’d love to go travelling again.
“There is so much to see out there, but this time it will be with Neil and a sailing boat – not a backpack!”