Success… a survivor's guide

23 February 2006
Success… a survivor's guide

The London Evening Standard‘s restaurant critic, Fay Maschler, seems able to winkle out the most low-key opening - and where she goes, the rest will surely follow. She was the first to give the thumbs-up to Galvin Bistrot De Luxe in the week it opened last September. A fortnight later, many of Fleet Street's most cynical critics had sampled the restaurant's fare - and they loved it.

"All hell broke loose," says Chris Galvin, the former Wolseley executive chef who has launched his first venture with brother Jeff. "It was a lot of pressure. We had wonderful reviews, but it was almost impossible to cope with the numbers. Within weeks of opening our booking enquiries shot up to 1,000 calls a day."

It was a catch-22 situation. Although the 95-seat Galvin could have turned tables, the brothers were still finding their feet. Wisely recognising that it wouldn't pay to be greedy at the expense of quality, they capped bookings, taking 20% less business than they could have had - much to their bank manager's horror.

Excess tables Predictably, this in turn led to customers complaining of being turned away while tables lay empty. Eventually, the problem was solved by Michael West, restaurant director at Maze, who suggested that they simply removed the excess tables. Five months on, they now handle up to 90 covers for lunch and 110 for dinner, with a view to rising to 100 and 150 covers respectively.

More alarmingly, the carefully planned budget went out of the window. Some £30,000 had to be borrowed from the bank to pay for more staff; the front-of-house team was doubled to 24, and five extra chefs joined the original six-strong brigade.

The stress was compounded by the fact that the builders had run over by a week, so there had been no time to train staff before opening.

"When you're busy there's no time to improve. It's frightening. You can't stop. You have to recruit and train on the run," says Chris.

That was the root of the problem. The overnight success - which subsequently led to a Michelin Bib Gourmand - was totally unexpected. The site, in Baker Street, had seen several restaurants fail, including Alan Yau's short-lived Anda. Its subsequently affordable rent attracted the Galvins, who drew up a tight, conservative business plan and prepared themselves for a slow burn.

"I dreamed of evolving slowly and building the product," says Chris. "We just had a small team front and back of house, and we nearly paid a high price for that."

Having worked at the Ivy, Chris says he now fully appreciates Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin's advice that you have to speculate to be successful.

"They weren't shy of spending money," he says. "The second time around I would be more confident and spend a lot more money on key staff."

Certainly, one of the main dangers of finding success early is of quality suffering and customers leaving disappointed. Chris remembers one critic who wrote that he'd had poor service.

"That is bad," he admits, "but we went on to invest £30,000 on new staff and procedures, so when the critic mentioned it again in his end-of-year round-up, I thought that was lazy journalism. He had reviewed us when we were two months old, but we had subsequently addressed the problem."

It might not seem fair to find yourself under the scrutiny of an army of critics before you've got your feet under the table, but it can be hard to control. Sam Harrison had a similar experience when he first opened Sam's Brasserie in Chiswick, west London, last August. Concerned that the suburb was traditionally slow, he generated business by advertising to locals and offering a 50% discount in the first month. Within weeks, Independent critic Terry Durack had chipped at the restaurant for being unable to cope with the numbers - and asked if success had come too quickly.

Harrison's response is resigned. "We didn't get it perfect immediately. It would be almost impossible," he says. "A restaurant is organic, and you have to find your feet."

Capping bookings He was, in fact, already trying to tackle the problem, capping bookings at the 100-seat restaurant at 50-75 for lunch and 80-100 for dinner. The public voted with their feet, and this has now risen to 100 at lunch and 120 at dinner.

Despite having spent the previous year planning the opening, Harrison was unprepared for the sheer relentlessness of business. The restaurant had to increase its phone lines from three to five, and within a week of opening he had to recruit someone full-time to answer calls.

"I've been in restaurants for 16 years and have been involved in openings, but I would have been lost without that experience. It was the most stressful period of my life," says Harrison.

He reckons the £15,000 spent on training staff before opening was some of the best money he spent, but says that without his mentor and co-investor, Rick Stein, making such a decision would have been much tougher.

Which brings us to the question of whether it is easy to translate public acclaim into financial success. Chef-proprietor Paul Heathcote is an old hand at openings, having opened his 11th restaurant in the North-west recently, but he remembers how a favourable review by Matthew Fort in the Guardian saved his first restaurant, Heathcotes, in Longridge, Lancashire, from bankruptcy.

"It was 1990, there was recession, I had only four full-time staff and I was struggling to hold them, but the review catapulted us. We were full lunch and dinner for 11 solid weeks."

Translating a full house into a healthy bank balance is currently a hot topic at London's Canteen, the restaurant in Spitalfields described as a "democratic Wolseley" that has seen runaway success since opening in October. It wasn't until Fay Maschler's arrival after Christmas, however, that business hit crazy levels. Over two Saturdays the number of covers jumped 50% and the kitchen was running out of produce.

Marketing and communications director Patrick Clayton-Malone, who set up the restaurant with two partners, took two years to plan it and had purposely tried to stay "under the radar" so as not to excite unrealistic expectations (unlike Roast in Borough Market, which opened to fanfare and has been trashed by many critics).

"Nothing could have prepared us for the success, except for a huge pile of cash," says Clayton-Malone. "It has put huge pressures on us."

Although the 75-seat restaurant serves up to 200 covers every day, rising to 400 on Sundays, Clayton-Malone points out that this doesn't necessarily translate to financial success.

"You need to get the balance of food, kitchen staff and front-of-house staff," he says. "I would like to have more time to dissect information and to finesse more."

The fact that one Saturday they did 200 covers and the next 300 means it is hard to predict how much to pre-prep without being massively wasteful. They don't have the economic backing of a large chain, so they are overstretched and initially found it difficult to implement training and raise service standards.

To answer these problems they have reduced bookings to 70% of capacity, which means they have the scope to take walk-ins.

Phone system
Meanwhile, the team is being increased from 25 to 35 and Clayton-Malone is reviewing all the systems. One regret is not having put in a better phone system at the start. "Our phones are engaged most of the time. We just didn't understand the level of bookings," he says.

It's about to get even crazier, though. A further 50 seats are to be introduced in the covered outside area, and there are plans to put in a bar with 25 seats. This heightens Clayton-Malone's slight concern that the restaurant's popularity will plateau or drop off after the initial buzz.

"We are worried about investing. We have to be cautious. We are getting outside ready, so we need to expand for that, but we are careful not to over-expand - we won't be getting a 40-line phone system," he says.

Back up north, Heathcote says he is relieved not to be caught up in the frenzy of London.

"The situation between London and the provinces is different. We have the comfort of time before the critics start heading up the M6," he says. "I don't envy the [early] popularity gained because of reviews."

Getting it right Maze, the Grosvenor Square venue which opened in May and has just won its first Michelin star, was perhaps better prepared for its success than many others.

Part of Gordon Ramsay's seemingly golden empire, it was opened by some of the most experienced professionals in the business. Behind the stove is Jason Atherton, who's done time at El Bulli and also opened Ramsay's Verre in Dubai. Front of house is restaurant director Michael West, who's been with Ramsay for five years, helping to open Claridge's and the Boxwood Café.

It may come as a surprise, then, to hear that Ramsay's problems don't differ much from anyone else's. Predictably, one of the biggest headaches was recruitment. To make sure they were going to hit the ground running, West brought the management team together two months before opening, while the rest of the front-of-house team came on board two weeks before it opened.

"It helps to have openings experience, but it doesn't make it easier. Gordon is constantly striving for perfection, so you can never take your eye off the ball," says West

The training, therefore, left little to chance. In the kitchen, Atherton had spent a year working on the menu concepts that would carry him through the first year, and he had spent a month with his new brigade before the opening.

Front of house, besides role-playing, there were a series of written tests. As the style of Atherton's menu - grazing plates offering unusual combinations of ingredients - was new to the Ramsay group, there were 20 questions on menu knowledge and food. Other sections included 15 questions on the wines by the glass, beer and water; and 10 questions on general customer service, such as "What would you do if a guest complains there is no loo paper?" or "What would you do if a customer dropped a napkin?"

It certainly exposed any weak links. "We did have to shed staff at that stage if they didn't make the grade when they were re-tested," says West, who adds that staff continue to get tested once a month.

There was then a seven-day soft opening with family and friends, where West watched how staff interacted with customers. The critics followed swiftly, and West was careful not to overburden the 90-seat restaurant in the first months. It's now doing 100 covers at lunch and 140 for dinner.

"It's hugely important what people write, but food critics don't bother us. We make sure we are prepared - and we all know each other," says West.

Getting it right

Maze, the Grosvenor Square venue which opened in May and has just won its first Michelin star, was perhaps better prepared for its success than many others.

Part of Gordon Ramsay's seemingly golden empire, it was opened by some of the most experienced professionals in the business. Behind the stove is Jason Atherton, who's done time at El Bulli and also opened Ramsay's Verre in Dubai. Front of house is restaurant director Michael West, who's been with Ramsay for five years, helping to open Claridge's and the Boxwood Café.

It may come as a surprise, then, to hear that Ramsay's problems don't differ much from anyone else's. Predictably, one of the biggest headaches was recruitment. To make sure they were going to hit the ground running, West brought the management team together two months before opening, while the rest of the front-of-house team came on board two weeks before it opened.

"It helps to have openings experience, but it doesn't make it easier. Gordon is constantly striving for perfection, so you can never take your eye off the ball," says West

The training, therefore, left little to chance. In the kitchen, Atherton had spent a year working on the menu concepts that would carry him through the first year, and he had spent a month with his new brigade before the opening.

Front of house, besides role-playing, there were a series of written tests. As the style of Atherton's menu - grazing plates offering unusual combinations of ingredients - was new to the Ramsay group, there were 20 questions on menu knowledge and food. Other sections included 15 questions on the wines by the glass, beer and water; and 10 questions on general customer service, such as "What would you do if a guest complains there is no loo paper?" or "What would you do if a customer dropped a napkin?"

It certainly exposed any weak links. "We did have to shed staff at that stage if they didn't make the grade when they were re-tested," says West, who adds that staff continue to get tested once a month.

There was then a seven-day soft opening with family and friends, where West watched how staff interacted with customers. The critics followed swiftly, and West was careful not to overburden the 90-seat restaurant in the first months. It's now doing 100 covers at lunch and 140 for dinner.

"It's hugely important what people write, but food critics don't bother us. We make sure we are prepared - and we all know each other," says West.

The consultant's view

Peter Antenen, principal at management and marketing consultancy Antenen Consulting, analyses the best approach to opening a restaurant.

The risks

  • The restaurateur over-publicises the opening, and it becomes too busy for his inexperienced staff to deal with the volumes.
  • A bad first impression is created, and reputation is weakened from the outset.
  • Any reviews emerging over this period are likely to be negative.
  • Staff morale worsens, and standards further decline, leading to a vulnerable business that needs to re-establish itself quickly.

The issues

  • The key lies in determining whether a hard or soft launch is appropriate.
  • A hard launch has the advantage of creating impact and generating press coverage and early - hopefully favourable - reviews. The downside is that if the building works or recruitment programme overruns, you still have to launch.
  • A soft launch lets customer volumes build organically, so covers grow at the same pace as staff competence. The weakness with this is that it will take longer to create awareness and establish the restaurant's reputation, and in hyper-competitive markets such as central London this lead time before critical mass is achieved can be fatal.

So what are some winning opening tactics?

  • Open with a preview period, with discounted prices to ensure a forgiving audience. In this case, ensure feedback is given to all staff as part of the wider training programme.
  • Run some friends-and-family events to act as transitional training for staff before they get access to real paying customers.
  • Hold the publicity launch three to four weeks after the soft launch, once all the glitches have been ironed out.
  • Overstaff in the early days. You'll lose up to 40% of your opening crew, and you must expect not to reap economies of scale until all systems are bedded in and the team is working together properly. The opening period also allows management to see which crew members can perform under pressure.
  • Concentrate on day-to-day operations, not on the launch itself. It's a bit like a marriage: you're better off thinking about your life ahead together rather than just the wedding day.
  • Don't panic with one or two poor or average reviews; the paying public will tend to take a wider view.
  • Focus on the basics: location, ambience, price positioning, menu style and quality, guest service and, above all, consistency.

The critic's view

Jan Moir, critic with the Daily Telegraph, warns that there is little chance that a restaurateur can control when a review is done.

"My view is that, if they are open to the public, they are fair game," she says. "It would be unworkable to invite reviewers in - it doesn't work with the theatre. What are they going to do? Experiment on the public for a few months?"

Many restaurants manage to open to rave reviews - such as Fino in London's Charlotte Street - and never miss a beat. "It's up to them whether they can run a restaurant properly," says Moir.

She adds that many restaurants drive a hard PR agenda, which automatically attracts critics. Others, such as Gordon Ramsay's outlets, are what newspaper editors and the public want to read about.

"At the end of the day, we are not working for the catering industry," says Moir. "I'm not unsympathetic to the everyday plight of restaurateurs; they have lots of problems to contend with, but I strongly feel that having a full restaurant isn't one of them."

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