In a flash, Tom Fahey went from restaurant inspector to restaurant owner. Discover how his reviews influenced his restaurant and the surprises from switching sides
Until early 2020, Tom Fahey was managing director of a talent and HR business consulting firm in London. By July the same year, he'd sold his business and was serving up to 300 customers a day at the Terrace, a modern dining room with a spacious outdoor area overlooking Yarmouth harbour in the Isle of Wight.
Although it was unquestionably a baptism of fire into hospitality, Fahey had unknowingly been preparing for the moment for a number of years. With 70 employees working for him at the consulting firm, he was ‘in and out' of the business, which gave him time to indulge his passion for restaurants by inspecting for some of the major restaurant guides and writing about them for the local and national press.
"You can never prepare yourself for running a restaurant until you actually open one, but I did have an idea of how they ran. When I interviewed people, I did it from the point of view of understanding their business and how it worked. I liked looking at the detail and the nuts and bolts of a restaurant and understanding why it's like it is and who it's for," says Fahey.
He fell into the industry at the age of 43 when his father-in-law bought the lease on what had been an Indian restaurant located above the Yarmouth Wightlink ferry terminal. With his own business sold and Covid putting a stop to UK-wide restaurant inspections, Fahey threw himself into getting the Terrace open.
"I wrote all the menus, I designed all the service steps, I trained all the teams. I did every single element of what you see at the Terrace. I had my father-in-law, who's in his sixties, and he ran a restaurant a very long time ago, and I had a head chef, but I was the general manager. I ended up cooking too – I'd do the starter section or meat section. I did the pass once or twice, but I don't think I'm particularly great at that and I don't like it very much", says Fahey who also worked in the business alongside his wife Ashley, a former hotel manager, superyacht chef and cookery school teacher.
An inspector calls
That Fahey was capable of taking on so many aspects of the opening was partly down to the knowledge he'd gained as a restaurant inspector, taking inspiration and influence from places that had impressed him on his travels. They included Gary Usher's Sticky Walnut in Chester ("the price to quality ratio was unbelievable"), Cass Titcombe's early menus at the Canteen ("I was amazed they could do simple, ingredient-first cooking in a high-volume, multi-site environment at the quality level they had in the first few years") and Hawksmoor ("as well as creative but British-rooted dishes that can be done for high volumes, their approach to HR and employment is something I aspired to").
"When we first opened, I wanted to write menus like Chez Bruce. I wanted it to be classical, recognisable and change with a frequency so that people were engaged, but we've now moved the Terrace more in the direction of somewhere like Brasserie Zédel. As an inspector, you tend to have this idea that if a restaurant isn't ambitious, it isn't good, and yet that's completely wrong. There are a lot of restaurants that don't need to be ambitious at all; they succeed because they understand their guests when they deliver something simple and straightforward for them.
"The Terrace is not a food destination, it's a location destination. Having unfamiliar but ambitious food and less choice put passing guests off, and that had become a real risk by year three. So, a menu of simple bistro classics, like steak frites, fish and chips and a burger, is a good fit for us."
When creating the service steps for the Terrace, Fahey says he planned around his idea of what casual dining should be, rather than modelling any single restaurant. "It's about how do we greet, how do we seat, what do we explain, what do we ignore, when do we clear, when do drinks come, what are our check backs and what do we have zero tolerance for – empties, for example."
Fahey says the steps were based 70% around guest expectation and 30% on what would be comfortable for the team to deliver. "I like to think our service is very human but also sensitive to diner experience and unintentionally negative triggers. A good example is water. The question, ‘still or sparkling?' usually results in an answer of ‘tap please' and that can be stressful for diners who either don't want to pay or look cheap. So, we offer free filtered still water and charge £1.25 for filtered sparkling. We did a lot of work to express this in a simple but clear manner, so diners never had to say ‘tap' but also knew a charge existed for fizz."
In it to win it
With little more than 12 months trading together at the Terrace under their belts, the Faheys acquired a second hospitality business on the island, the 19th-century St Augustine Villa overlooking Ventnor Bay, and set about creating the Terrace Rooms, a luxurious six-bedroom boutique guest house with high-end restaurant and wine shop.
On the face of it, spending £850,000 on a dilapidated building and then a similar amount, and the best part of a year, on renovations was a bold move. While Fahey admits that there was "no planning" and that it "sounds crazy", it makes more sense when you factor in Ashley's previous hospitality career and his experience of staying in hotels while on the road as a restaurant inspector. There were completely practical reasons for the decision too.
"Our original intention was to come over to the island, get the Terrace going and leave. We realised fairly quickly that we had to carry on running the restaurant. We were living in my father-in-law's spare room, so we needed somewhere to live. Augustine Villa had been on the market for a long time and we were convinced to go and look at it by an estate agent. As soon as we saw it, Ashley said, ‘We've got to do it'. We live on the top floor, which is an incredible penthouse. It needs doing up quite badly; we put all our money into the downstairs. But what a spot to live in."
With Ashley overseeing the interior design and hotel management and Tom taking care of the food and beverage, the Terrace Rooms quickly attracted positive press coverage after its launch in summer 2022, with The Times hotel editor awarding it an 8.5 out of 10 review, Conde Nast Traveller featuring it as Hotel of the Month and, with its list of 500 bottles, it was also lauded as one of the best value places to drink wine by Decanter magazine (Fahey has an encyclopaedic knowledge of wines, with a passion for Chablis, and nightly wine tastings are a year-round feature at the hotel).
The Faheys retain a 10% stake in the Terrace in Yarmouth and wholly own the Terrace Rooms, where he says he now spends most of his time. "We needed Yarmouth to run 80 to 90% on its own, so my job was to lay down the systems and the processes, get the people in place and standardise the menu formats. For year one and two I was probably there between four and seven days a week, and now it's one day a week."
Do it for love
Fahey's restaurant inspecting career, as well as the numerous stages he completed, including at the Ledbury, Hand and Flowers and Orwells, influenced his menu design and service style at the hotel, but in a different way to the Terrace.
Between October and March, Fahey singlehandedly prepares a multi-course dinner (currently £50 for four courses, plus ‘bread and bits', but due to rise to £80 for six courses) for up to 14 people. It's served at a communal table in the hotel's bottle-lined wine room and shop on Friday and Saturday nights (there is a second conservatory restaurant overlooking the bay, where breakfast and a casual menu of cheese, meats and breads is served daily, except for Wednesdays). He spends Wednesday to Sunday prepping and cooking and admits that few chefs would go to such lengths for a maximum of 28 diners. He has served the menu on additional nights when bookings demand it, but justifies the effort as a way of filling rooms.
"I'm also doing it because I love it. I can't get enough of this stuff. I want to promote the island and give diners something different. I'm also quite opinionated and I feel like if I don't convey my opinion on the plate, then what's the point?"
His ingredient-led approach is heavily influenced by Mikael Jonsson of Hedone in Chiswick, where Tom dined about 40 times before it closed in 2019: "It's about creating products and supply chains. The dairy beef I've served recently as a tartare with salted pear and baked potato cream is the one I'm most proud of. I pushed Briddlesford Farm in Ryde to send me old dairy cows and the results were amazing. The venison we serve is from a deer park on the island with 300 acres of fallow and red deer. I've worked closely with Juan the owner to try and find a way of getting island-shot animals hung for good periods of time, which hasn't been easy as very little non-beef is hung for more than 10 days here."
No receipts, no review
Despite being a fully paid up critic of restaurants for over a decade, Fahey has become notorious on social media for taking no prisoners when it comes to online reviews.
TripAdvisor is a particular bugbear. Fahey gained traction in the national press with his ‘No receipts, no review' campaign in 2015 that called on the platform to only publish diner reports if they were accompanied by an upload of the bill for the meal in question. His reply in August 2022 to ‘Sue', who complained about the cost of a £7 glass of prosecco among other things went viral and was described by the Daily Mail as "sassy".
"My goal is not to chastise but to help diners understand how not to have the same poor experience as the reviewer. I completely empathise with diners who are afraid to mention an issue because of bad experiences; however, when we spent a lot of time and empathy with each table, sensitively troubleshooting for issues and bending over backwards to address them, those who refuse to be drawn on a problem they clearly have are frustrating."
The seemingly tireless Faheys are for the moment content to consolidate their businesses. Immediate plans include increasing hotel occupancy without using Booking.com or TripAdvisor, launching a wholesale wine business and reducing their support at the Yarmouth to concentrate on Ventnor. Although Fahey might have accidentally fallen into hospitality, there is nothing coincidental about his and Ashley's remarkable success, which would bear the scrutiny of the most forensic restaurant or hotel inspector.
Top restaurant-running tips from a former inspector
1. Eat your own dishes and enjoy them
Many chefs look to diner feedback as a way to gauge the quality of their food. Become the only arbiter of taste in your kitchen. It's vital you cook food you like. Even if the change is extreme, it's far better than cooking food you can't judge the quality of.
2. Eating out is the greatest learning experience you can have
Watch the restaurant operating around you and consider the experience each customer is having and how it could be improved without excess cost. Use this to judge your own food and service.
3. Develop a style that is yours, that you are able to describe and then stick to it
Don't try to follow trends. You will not be graded by the guides on serving leaf-shaped tuiles or using Japanese ingredients, but on how enjoyable your cooking is.
4. Less is more
Garnish and sauce are only important to enhance a main product and add texture and flavour interest. They are not an opportunity to throw techniques at your guest. Show restraint – cook a piece of fish perfectly before you think about stuffing it and adding two sauces and 10 components to a plate.
5. Work back and front of house
Being among your front of house team gives vital perspective. Chef patrons can sometimes become oblivious to what is going on in their own dining rooms. How are their ideas communicated? How does the style of service they want impact diners in reality? What is the diner's experience? See it first-hand, even if you're just serving food.
While you need a style of your own, gauging what you do and learning from your contemporaries is vital to improving and getting a new perspective.
8. Write to the guides regularly
They love proactive restaurants. Share your news, any changes you're making – anything you feel is useful to a publication that should want to feature you.
9. When planning a food offering, consider these three key things:
- Customers Who is my target audience, what do they enjoy and what is their budget?
- Staff What is the labour pool like, who can I hire and what level will they be able to cook to? Does this mean simplifying my menu or can I trust my hires with regular menu changes, modern ideas and premium products?
- Ingredients Which suppliers operate in my area? Are my team going to treat rare, premium ingredients with respect, and will my guests want to pay for them?
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