The unsung heroes of the restaurant scene

By Nici Wickes

Celebrity chefs may be the trend du jour, but behind each one is a hard-working restaurateur, writes Nici Wickes

Restaurateur Chris Upton at his restaurant O'Connell Street Bistro. Photo / Babiche Martens
Restaurateur Chris Upton at his restaurant O'Connell Street Bistro. Photo / Babiche Martens

Some say the restaurant business is for gamblers. Win and you win big, but fail and you're likely to lose the shirt off your back.

Like never before, restaurateurs need to be bold to succeed in this highly competitive industry, yet who are these courageous folk and why aren't they profiled more? While chefs continue to garner attention these often humble, hard-working individuals who seek out glamorous locations, commission the fit-out, train the staff, pay the bills, and stand to suffer in a recession, are often unknown to those who eat at their tables.

Nicholas Lander, former British restaur-ateur and writer of the Financial Times restaurant column since 1989, has written The Art of the Restaurateur (Phaidon, 2012), a fascinating book which lifts the lid on some of the world's most famed eateries and who is really behind their success.

"Chefs, in my opinion, have been elevated to an overly lofty position. The attention the chefs receive is misguided to say the least," he tells me in his endearing English accent.

He's not bitter, just intent on correcting the misconception that exists in restaurant-goers' minds about who and what makes a successful restaurant. "Many chefs are extraordinarily talented individuals whose food I have had great pleasure in eating, but great chefs do not necessarily make great restaurants."

And he should know.

Lander was responsible for establishing the hugely successful L'Escargot, a bar and restaurant in Soho, London, from 1980 to 1988, which at its height was employing almost 100 staff, serving more than 400 customers a day and had weekly sales of over £55,000. Lander was a serious restaurateur and has remained closely connected to the industry and its complexities ever since.

I start by asking him why we are so obsessed with the chefs. "It just started and didn't stop and restaurateurs tend not to want the limelight. They are happy to go under the radar and even when I approached them for the book, many were shy about their accomplishments.

"In questioning them about what they attribute their success to, many felt as though it was nothing beyond what they do naturally. This made it hard to interview them, to get them to pinpoint what they'd done right."

Yet he gained their trust and the resulting book is a marvellous collection of insightful stories highlighting the key ingredients behind the leading and most inspirational restaurateurs worldwide.

"We're being drawn to some of the bigger names through TV these days - Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal and co - but actually, these are not the most important people in the industry. What's interesting is that while we know many restaurants by name - El Bulli, St John, Ballymaloe - and most likely the chefs associated with them, many of the names behind them are new to us, Juli Soler, Trevor Gulliver, Hazel Allen respectively, and their stories about how they started, their motivations, how they risked it all, and successes and failures along the way, are riveting and we can all learn from them."

There are familiar names in the book such as Australia's Neil Perry and New York City's Danny Meyer, but there are many who, outside of Britain at least, Lander admits are probably less well-known. Yet they may well be responsible for many of the trends in our own industry. Russell Norman is a case in point. He is the man responsible for setting up London's Polpo in 2009, a Venetian-style wine bar, and a raft of other casual eateries.

"He was one of the first to introduce shared plate dining and a no-bookings policy across his eateries. Both were met with resistance for a short time, but now both are trends popular with restaurateurs and diners alike."

"Know your numbers" is another mantra Lander reveals as important to a restaurateur's ability to succeed. He cites the St John Hotel in Leicester Square where a discrepancy between the final computer drawings and the actual space meant it was not possible to fit in the planned number of tables. Calculations showed there would be an annual loss of income of £50,000. "All restaurateurs need to be good at arithmetic."

For some in Lander's book, the tips for success start with something much simpler.

"Those first few seconds upon arrival are absolutely crucial in putting the guest at ease, making sure they feel welcome. It always surprises me how many hoteliers and restaurateurs get this wrong. It is absolutely vital to get it right," Hazel Allen of the famous Ballymaloe in Ireland told Lander.

For this reason Ballymaloe, one of the finest restaurants, country-house hotels and cookery schools in the world, has always operated with a glass door entranceway through which the reception person is able to see the approach of each party and greet them immediately. Unsurprisingly, a large portion of their business is from repeat diners and guests. Simple yet effective.

Lander points to Nigel Platts-Martin who started his first restaurant, Harvey's, with chef Marco Pierre White in 1987, as the only one he interviewed who had never had a closure.

"His skill is in choosing, carefully but courageously, his locations. He may go into areas that are not the norm but they are very good areas where there are affluent businesspeople, so there will be a lunch trade to rely on."

Lander has the highest respect for restaurateurs, describing them glowingly to me as "extremely brave people who have courage and foresight and who go for it. It is terrifying, risky, there are always lower profits than what you see from the outside and it's hard work."

When I ask Lander if there is one thing every restaurateur must have to be successful, he laughs and says, "There are 10. They must have a have a good sense of humour and possess a love of good food, wine and their fellow human beings. They need to combine sensitivity, to change and to acknowledge mistakes, with a thick skin to tolerate reviewers and bloggers. It's important to have a nose for the right location and you need to understand the fundamental arithmetic of how a restaurant works or it sinks. It's a must to ensure you lead from the front and communicate, appreciate lease and license and have vision and determination. As well, you need the stubbornness to stick to your own vision with the flexibility to encompass changing popular demand without letting it ruin your core values. And lastly and increasingly, be aware of environmental and social issues. Opening a restaurant is a remarkably complex journey."

And may we, the humble diners, give thanks to those who rise to that challenge so we can enjoy a great meal, good wine and charming service from one of the many fabulous choices afforded to us in our own city.


We asked some of our local restaurant heroes and industry experts for their take on what factors were key to surviving and thriving in the business.

Owner of O'Connell St Bistro

"It all comes down to consistency and that means resisting the urge to change every two to three years based on what's fashionable. Things first started changing around 1997 when TV pole-vaulted chefs into the limelight, but we understood that it takes much more than a chef to be successful, it's a whole team, so we've stuck to our style of being a solid modern European-style bistro in the heart of the CBD and that's what we're now renowned for here and overseas.

The last four to five years the dining dollars have tightened with more operations starting up which always has the effect of diluting the market, but our biggest strength is that we have a distinctive, reliable style and we've stuck to it. When people come to us, they know what they'll get."

CEO and director of Pack and Company (Imperial Lane, Everybody's, The Commons, Blunderbuss, Libertine)

"The biggest pressure you're under constantly is that you need to provide great quality and service and there still needs to be some change left over. In New Zealand it's a struggle to sit at the top end in terms of pricing; that's why we had to close Roxy. We weren't doing anything wrong, just not enough people were prepared to pay what it costs to produce such exquisite food. And it's important to recognise quickly what's working and make decisions that are based on sound business."

CEO Restaurant Association of New Zealand

"Success is not down to any one factor. Restaurateurs have to be good at every aspect, or be in a group where there are complementary individual strengths to make the whole operation succeed. Most importantly, they'll have their systems in place and these will be invisible to most diners, but the result is an experience that is seamless. As a diner you are less likely to notice the detail of a functioning establishment - it will all appear to flow effortlessly, but behind the scenes there will have been an immense amount of work that has gone into it. A mistake people make with hospitality is that it looks easy, but it isn't."

Owner of Number 5 Restaurant

"The one aspect I attend to is, don't drop the standards for the food and the service. Business is more difficult than it was in the old days. I [used to] open the doors and the punters would just walk in, now I have to work harder on getting people in the door. There is less disposable income and more competition. But I like the challenge of being in the heart of Auckland City - it is busy all the time, there are people going out all the time and Number 5-style dining, which is an experience, not just a meal, is more suited to the city than the suburbs. I still love what I am doing, I am passionate about food and wine and my restaurants are my life. As long as I can go to Bali once a year I am happy - I can recharge and come back full of energy to tackle the business."


- NZ Herald

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