A lot of entrepreneurs report falling into their careers by chance – but Maggie Bolger says she “accidentally fell into parenting” and that triggered her successful career building family clubs. After growing up in New Zealand, she took a gap year “and went travelling to Australia, Hong Kong and London, then got knocked up at 22 with my first child in London”.
That was in 2000 — and she and her then-husband decided to stay in the capital; Bolger was soon a young mum with three kids under five. “That’s when I began to wonder why a nice place did not exist for parents. Soho House was getting traction, as were lots of celebrity restaurants, but all parents’ offerings were an afterthought.”
Bolger would have her friends with kids over to her flat in Kensington, and do activities with them all. “It was just a way to keep everyone entertained and stop us going mad with the craziness of parenting. Then I decided that people might actually pay for something like this, so in 2006 managed to convince a friend’s dad to rent me a garage off Gloucester Road, I got some Farrow and Ball paint and started a little club lounge with classes for mums and kids.”
That former garage grew into Maggie & Rose, which had grown into two family members’ clubs in Chiswick and Kensington and a plan for expansion in Asia, when Bolger decided to leave the business in 2019, with a pay-off and a 12-month no-compete deal.
She left, Bolger adds, “because we had done a deal with a PLC in China, they wanted to take the brand in a very different direction, and I decided I had to prioritise my health and my family [rather than] opening mass sites in China. It was a difficult decision.”
Covid struck just as we were trying to sort pre-launch memberships. We had booked marketing suites, had big ideas for open days to get members, we’d signed the lease, then suddenly it was lockdown. I was sitting on Zooms with council planning committees, unable to walk around and see any progress on the clubs. I didn’t know if the world was even going to open up again.
The no-compete agreement gave Bolger, who is now 45, what she calls “12 months of peace and quiet to come up with b_together — a place to literally be together, to meet like-minded parents going through the same thing, a nice space that was nicely designed, not plastic fantastic play groups in church halls.”
Bolger found a Singaporean partner who was keen to back this new family club: “business 2.0 as my son was calling it. I knew what worked and didn’t — I thought the new food and drink offering shouldn’t only be reliant on members, and I wanted to make a new, creative curriculum that was separately trademarked, with creative goals and all about play, but underpinned with learning.”
Her investor put in £5 million to build two clubs, one in St John’s Wood and another in Singapore, and create an early-years curriculum, with on-site nurseries, art, cookery and other classes and holiday camps. The London site opened in 2021 — “funnily enough, we did not anticipate Covid, Brexit and the war in Ukraine — it’s been a bumpy road,” Bolger grimaces.
“Brexit had such an impact on nursery and hospitality staff — it’s been a spiral of agencies and desperately trying to find people. Covid struck just as we were trying to sort pre-launch memberships. We had booked marketing suites, had big ideas for open days to get members, we’d signed the lease, then suddenly it was lockdown. I was sitting on Zooms with council planning committees, unable to walk around and see any progress on the clubs. I didn’t know if the world was even going to open up again. And then when we finally did open, Russia went to war and our utility bills quadrupled — we just went, ‘are you kidding me?’ What’s coming next!”
But in May 2021, b_together’s restaurant, Feast, in St John’s Wood opened for the first time on the day that indoor dining was first permitted during the pandemic.
“It was carnage,” Bolger reports. “We’d been able to do very little training, and our team was unused to working post-lockdown — they were in tears and we had queues around the block. Then we opened the nursery — where none of the kids had been socialised, so settling-in took three times longer and was 10 times more emotionally draining. The kids hadn’t been with other kids, the parents were super nervous…”
Today, though, both the London and Singapore b_together sites have about 150 family members, each paying a fee starting at £185 a month. Turnover across both sites is £4 million, with the Dempsey club offering a similar set-up to London, although its health and safety checks involve looking for snakes in the outdoor soft play “which doesn’t happen in St John’s Wood,” Bolger chuckles.
The entrepreneur is now pondering the next step for b-together’s growth. A second site in set to open in the capital, and she is talking to a partner in Dubai.
“Two of my children actually work in the business now too: it was created for them, and now they’ve got their first jobs with us. Maybe my grandkids will start playing here too. But I have a few more business children in the pipeline first.”