The building work is complete, the PR machine is in overdrive, and the steaks are sizzling. Oxford's Savannah restaurant is open for business. David Jones takes up the story….
"Doing the simple things to a high standard, in full view of the customer, is actually more difficult than doing complicated cooking," says Stuart Campbell, managing director of Savannah Restaurants. "Everything is cooked to order here, and all the desserts and sauces are made in-house."
Campbell is explaining the menu at his recently opened 150-seat restaurant. Savannah offers a choice of cuts of beef - you can tell the chef exactly how much you would like - with lamb rump, pork chop or chicken as alternatives. Then you have a choice of sauces. There are three fish and three vegetarian options.
This is all part of Campbell's new approach to running restaurants; one that he hopes will see Savannah grow into a chain of 15 within the next five years. He wants customers to enjoy a bit of theatre when they eat out. You can discuss your order with the chefs, watch them cook it to your precise specification, and then taste up to three wines before deciding on which goes best with your meal.
It's a bold plan, underlined by the layout of the restaurant. There's no sharp distinction between the open-plan kitchen and front of house. The room is light and spacious, and the furnishings are simple and unobtrusive.
"So far, customers seem to be responding well," Campbell says. He is looking back with some satisfaction over the first week-and-a-half of trading. The official opening date was Monday 29 October, but the staff had been busy enough the previous week. First, on the Thursday and Friday, they opened for two "critics" nights. Readers of two local papers - the Oxford Times and the Oxford Mail - were invited to come and sample the fare free of charge. Between 40 and 50 people took up the offer on each night and Campbell is pleased with the feedback. "There were lots of positive comments, and we learnt much more than we would have done from a ‘guinea pig' evening, where you invite a lot of family and friends. I've run lots of those before. This was a much better option."
Then, on the Saturday, the restaurant organised a press and PR night for journalists and local business people. During the weeks leading up to the opening, the Savannah team had put a lot of effort into building up a good relationship with the local community, particularly businesses, and it paid off: 110 people attended.
The restaurant served only about two dozen meals on the first day of normal opening, but there has been a gradual increase since then. "Every day last week we had more customers than the day before," Campbell says. "On Saturday evening we did about 130 covers."
Most diners are spending £22-£25, so the average is only slightly below the projected figure of £25, and Campbell seems pleased: "By the end of the first full week of trading we had taken £8,400. I'm very comfortable with that. We're looking at £13,000-£14,000 for the second week."
Although most customers will treat Savannah as a destination restaurant, a few people from the adjacent Royal Oxford hotel do come to eat in the evenings. The hotel also helps to keep business ticking over at other times: under the lease agreement with the Royal Oxford, Savannah has to open for breakfast, and quite a few guests have taken advantage of this.
Recruitment has proved to be the only significant problem so far, particularly for chef positions. By opening night the restaurant had a staff of 20, against a target of 30. Roughly 50% of these are full-time. "In the past week-and-a-half we have recruited four more and lost three," Campbell says. It's all because unemployment is so low in Oxford, and people often do more than one job, as Campbell has discovered: "One of our waitresses also works at a nightclub on some evenings, and during the day she works in a pub."
Next visit to Savannah: 17 January
17 Park End Street, Oxford OX1 1HU
Tel: 01865 793793
Managing director: Stuart Campbell
First week sales: £8,400
Average spend: £22-£25
Marketing budget: £50,000 for first year, half of which has been spent
Projected annual sales: £1.5m
Projected covers: 1,500 a week
The story so far
Savannah Restaurants is a new company formed by Stuart Campbell, formerly a manager at Gioma UK and Smollensky's Balloon, backed equally by private investors (who sit on the board) and venture capital funds. The first restaurant is located on what used to be the ground floor of the Royal Oxford hotel. It has cost £1m to get the site ready, largely because of the structural work required to separate the hotel and the restaurant.