Tom Van Zeller opened his eponymous restaurant in Harrogate in the midst of the recession but has quietly got on with making the award-winning restaurant a success. Tom Vaughan reports
Each week we examine a feted hospitality business to uncover the secrets of its success
This week Van Zeller Restaurant, Harrogate, North Yorkshire
Why? Good Food Guide Readers' Restaurant of the Year
Two AA Rosettes Best Restaurant in Yorkshire & the North East, 2012 Hi-Life Dining Awards
Need to know After growing up in Harrogate, where his first job was at the iconic Betty's Tea Room, Tom Van Zeller worked several stints in the UK - most notably at London's Pied à Terre and La Tante Claire - Australia and New York, before returning to his roots as head chef of the Harrogate Hotel du Vin.
Having built up a loyal clientele and a kitchen that turned over £1m a year, Van Zeller realised that he could be doing the same for himself. After raising £86,000 through investors, one of whom was Pied à Terre owner David Moore, Van Zeller opened in Harrogate in February 2009.
Starting out in a recession "I decided to go it alone at the start of October 2008, shortly before Lehmann Brothers collapsed," recalls Van Zeller. "A lot of people said: ‘Don't be so crazy, don't leave your job.' But the time was right in my career."
The £86,000 investment was, Van Zeller admits, about £65,000 short of the total needed. "We just had to get on with it. We got credit, we used revenue immediately on interior design. We've had cash-flow problems as a result but we've proved that it is possible just to get on with it."
It wasn't until December 2011 that the restaurant started to turn a profit, and it has been in the black every month since. However, it continues to be a struggle to fight against the economic climate up north.
"The one thing that hasn't lived up to expectations is that the economy hasn't recovered - there's no predictability to the market. We could be packed out on a Tuesday but do just two or three tables on a Wednesday. Two and a half years of books are no help in trying to predict things."
Inconsistent footfall Despite numerous accolades, the most recent of which was the Best Restaurant in the Good Food Guide Readers' awards, the 36-seat restaurant currently does just 80 covers on a good week, 50 on a bad, down from an all-time high of 200 when several big conferences were coming to Harrogate. Staying assured that he isn't doing something wrong can be hard at times, says Van Zeller.
"I walk around other restaurants to see if they are busy and ask suppliers and delivery men what other hotels and restaurants are like. You need to get that piece of mind."
PR and marketing Getting the word out about the restaurant's launch wasn't so hard, as Van Zeller had a good feel of the local market and could let people know that he'd moved across from Hotel du Vin. However, keeping up the interest has proved more of a challenge and he donates a lot of his time to PR and marketing.
"This week, for example, I've been completing an application for Welcome to Yorkshire, who do an annual best restaurant award. It's time consuming, like writing an essay for each answer. When we got the Good Food Guide Best Restaurant in the North East, I was fielding congratulation e-mails and tweets and trying to feed the news to the local media."
Investing in staff Transient staff is an issue in the wider hospitality industry, but in Harrogate it is even more acute, says Van Zeller.
"It can be so difficult to replace a key individual. A departure can really affect colleagues and, if it's a front-of-house member of staff, customers as well. It's so important to empower staff. I wondered through my career how people like Raymond Blanc do so much media yet still maintain a two-star restaurant. But we have got to where we are because of our team, and it's vital that we develop them.
"When I interview staff lots of them say, ‘I'm taught how to cook a dish but never told about profit', so I teach them. You have to empower them; that way I can take time out of the kitchen to run the restaurant."
The food Van Zeller's modern British food has won nationwide plaudits, even if it doesn't get the attention it deserves in Harrogate. His team's style is, he says, a continuous work in progress.
"I'm so proud where our style is now. We have three key principles - we use local food whenever possible, but only if it is good; we are always seasonal; and we never repeat a dish. I want to be fresh and creative each day. It's about keeping my chefs interested.
He adds that he buys in whole carcasses - Sika deer, lambs and most recently Saddleback suckling piglet - both because it's more economical and to teach his chefs the necessary skills needed to work with the whole animal.
"We buy the pigs from Taste Tradition, who supply rare breed pigs and the meat is fantastic quality," Van Zeller explains.
"We're currently serving it three ways: a croquette of the head, a small piece of the belly and either the loin or the leg."
Future plans Running a restaurant through the course of one of the worst recessions in living memory has been no walk in the park, admits Van Zeller, but he is looking forward to the future.
"Just being able to wash your face with the profits isn't enough. I want to be able to pay my staff more, pay shareholders dividends. But because we are set up so well now, when the good times come again, we will fly. I have faith it will come good for us."
He also has big plans afoot. "I've been lucky enough to have been given a big investment in cash recently, but the timing and the opportunity have to be right. I'm looking at north Leeds, York is another possibility - there are lots of tourists and no fine-dining - then there's not much in Manchester beyond Abode.
"But then at the same time, I'm keeping an eye on the situation on Greece and Spain, because if that all kicks off I want to be where I am, not haemorrhaging money elsewhere."
SPOTLIGHT ON VAN ZELLER AT HOME AND TOM'S SATURDAY MORNING KITCHEN
With table numbers at the restaurant so unpredictable, Van Zeller has sought out other revenue streams for the restaurants. Firstly, there is his outside catering service, Van Zeller at Home.
"It's a chance to take our restaurant experience to people's homes, whether it's for a birthday or a christening. We take all the food ready to go so that we can work inside their premises. It's an additional income to the business that is much needed," explains Van Zeller.
Then there's Tom's Saturday Morning Kitchen. Teaming up with Arlington Interiors, which sponsored the Best Fine-Dining category in the Yorkshire Evening Post's 2010 Oliver awards, where Van Zeller won best chef, Van Zeller runs a regular Saturday cookery demonstration at its kitchen showroom. Priced at £35 a head, the first one took place on 26 May, with Van Zeller demonstrating a dish of turbot, morels, Jersey Royals, asparagus and Parmesan vinaigrette in front of a cosy audience of six.
FACTS AND STATS
Opened February 2009
Owner Tom Van Zeller
Weekly covers 50-80
Average spend (lunch/dinner) £35/£54