The Caterer Interview – Oliver Peyton

17 February 2011 by
The Caterer Interview – Oliver Peyton

As Peyton and Byrne kicks off the New Year with a brace of high-profile contracts at London tourist venues, Oliver Peyton explains how he selects concessions and increases turnover by making everything from scratch

Peyton and Byrne already has concessions at London venues such as the National Gallery, Wallace Collection and British Library, and it ended 2010 on a high with multimillion-pound restaurant deals at the Royal Academy and Kew Gardens. So what's on the cards for 2011? This is a pivotal year for us. We've grown and we need to think about the type of business [we want] for next year.

We look outside London all the time. I'm not against it, but it's got to be the right fit. If we can't do a good job, we won't take it.

We've also got to choose our clients carefully because they're the people we work with. We have a natural empathy with culture and the arts - and the market reach is there.

Are you looking to broaden your offer in terms of price points?
We can't do anything that is too price-sensitive, mainly because our food is high quality and made from scratch. For instance, we make all our own cakes and use short-life products such as cream, and our sandwiches are made using fresh ingredients and are only good for a day.

Besides the restaurants, we've got four shop/cafés in places such as St Pancras station and the Heals store. I'd like to open more and get up a head of steam with them. They wouldn't work as standalone on a high street, though, and I think they need to stay in London.

Basically, we don't stop, we keep on going and developing. We're always bringing in new ideas. This summer, for example, we're planning to open a café in Trafalgar Square on the grass outside the National Gallery.

What makes the restaurant at the Royal Academy special? The restaurant at the Royal Academy of Arts has been designed by Design Research Studio and will offer all-day dining with waiter service. Head chef Andrea Zuccolo has designed a menu that makes use of British ingredients. For instance, half-a-dozen Mersea Island oysters, black pepper, lemon (£12.50) or mixed venison grill (£19). As well as starters, mains and desserts, a selection of small plates and terrines are available, offering diners the flexibility to enjoy a full two- or three-course meal, order tapas-style, or drop by for a quick bite.

What has the company tapped into that's making it so successful?
We like to think we help to bring visitors to places such as museums, institutions and galleries and that we create an experience. When we started, people visiting museums would go out to eat. In a short space of time that has changed. Our job is to commercialise things. Galleries are free in the UK and if people leave to eat elsewhere then the gallery is losing money.

At the British Library, for example, there's a good cross-section of people - including a lot of researchers and journalists. Since we arrived in 2009, we've seen a 23% increase on turnover because our café has suited the diversity of people there. They used to get their coffee elsewhere, but we roast our coffee every day from green beans and slowly people have realised that. Our sandwiches are made from scratch every day. We even roast the chicken for sandwiches and people see that, too.

So you see your company as different from most contract or concession caterers?
The key is that I don't see us as contract caterers - I see us as restaurateurs. We put in concepts to suit the venues rather than one size fits all. Because British galleries and museums are free they attract different socio-economic groups.

That's why our business hasn't been affected by the downturn. Anybody can walk through a museum and we facilitate that. And you've got to remember, London is now an amazing tourist destination because everyone - the Mayor, VisitBritain, and so on - have pulled together. As a result, we have a cosmopolitan clientele who think what we do is great because it's not usually available where they come from.

Back in the 1990s you opened - and closed - some pretty cutting-edge high street restaurants. What have you learnt from the highs and the lows?
Well they say youth is wasted on the young. I made lots of mistakes. I'm always scared now.

When you're young you're trying to prove yourself - you want to be the fastest. I've learnt it's better to be second. Life's a journey and it's difficult to be successful without having some failure.

I'm reluctant now about doing any more high street restaurants. I keep being asked, but… It's so transitory on the high street, particularly in London. People are pouring money into businesses that often aren't sustainable - the rents are too high, good chefs remain scarce and consumers are fickle.

Can we expect any more inspiring concepts?
Hah! Sadly, I don't run out of new ideas. Life is for living. I like the public and dealing with people. It makes me happy.

You're not one for ducking controversy, but you've been quiet about industry issues… The problem is still the lack of skilled staff. I stopped canvassing because I met blank walls, but I would happily do it again. The Government has failed the country on all levels.

Any Government should be putting into place skill-based colleges, but there are no really top-end hospitality colleges in this country. Colleges such as Westminster Kingsway do a good job, but there's no Harvard for hospitality, no alternative to Oxford and Cambridge, even though hospitality is one of the biggest earners for the country.

On a lighter note, you're filming the fourth series of the BBC's Great British Menu - does that help the day job? How can it not be a benefit? I love doing it - it's good for showcasing suppliers and chefs in the UK and for British food. So, hats off to the BBC. When I opened Inn the Park, which uses organic and sustainably-harvested ingredients, I was petrified about the availability of good produce, but in fact the quality we get in this country is amazing.

Tell us about being chairman of the company - sounds a bit hands-off for you? Stop using that word! I sit in a chair every day but that's all. I start every day in a different restaurant or café. The challenge is trying to keep our business relevant and, obviously, if we get bigger it'll be harder for me to get around them … but that's a bridge we haven't yet crossed.


â- Restaurants are: The National Dining Rooms and National Café at the National Gallery (2006), the Wallace Collection (2007), Meals Heals in Heals store (2006), the ICA Bar & Café at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (2008). It includes Inn the Park, in St James's Park, which opened in 2004
â- Recent openings: a six-year deal worth £38m at Kew Gardens, which opened last year; and a restaurant at the Royal Academy of Arts which opened this January
â- The company also has café/bakery outlets at Heals, the British Library (2009), St Pancras International station (2007) and Wellcome Collection (2007)
â- Events division Peyton Events caters at Lancaster House and Kew Palace

â- 1980s Opens two nightclubs - the Can in Brighton (with DJ Fatboy Slim) and RAW in London
â- 1990s His company Gruppo takes the restaurant scene by storm with:

  • Atlantic Bar and Grill off Piccadilly Circus (opened 1994, closed 2005)
  • Coast, London (opened 1995, closed 2001)
  • Mash & Air, Manchester (opened 1996, closed 2000)
  • Mash, London (opened 1998, closed 2008)
  • Isola (opened 1999, sold 2004 after being merged with Osteria d'Isola)
    â- 2000 A new phase as he takes over the catering at the Admiralty restaurant and function rooms at Somerset House museum and art gallery under subsidiary Gruppo Events
    â- 2002 Peyton sells Gruppo Events to Compass for £3.6m
    â- 2004 Opens Inn the Park, an eco-friendly restaurant in St James's Park, in partnership with the Royal Parks Agency - and sows the seeds for the birth of Peyton and Byrne
    â- 2006 Peyton's public profile rises when he becomes a judge on the BBC's Great British Menu

â- Don't pour money into a restaurant unless its sustainable in terms of rents and skilled staff
â- A failed business is not the end of your career - learn from your mistakes and move on
â- Not all concepts that work in London can be exported
â- Keep developing your business - don't rest on your laurels

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