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Out of the ashes

Steven Saunders is a survivor. Twice now the chef-restaurateur has drawn on his energy and determination to fight back from the brink of disaster to reach a point where he is busier than ever. As well as having a string of books and TV projects to his name, he is expanding his latest restaurant-hotel venture in Cambridgeshire and has signed a deal to open a 250-seat restaurant at the Lowry Centre in Manchester’s Salford Quays.


But it could all have been so different. In 1991, a fire destroyed the 65-seat Pink Geranium thatched restaurant in Melbourn, Cambridgeshire, which Saunders had taken over four years earlier, aged 24, with his wife Sally. Dating from about 1500, the restaurant was being reroofed at the time and the thatchers inadvertently left a bundle of straw against a halogen lamp. Not only were the roofers not insured, but Saunders discovered that his own insurance policy covered just half the £400,000 replacement cost for the building and its contents.


Determined not to be beaten, Saunders kept the business going – while raising the finance to rebuild – by opening his nearby home to 20 paying customers a night.


Busier than ever


He fought himself out of the situation and within five years had repaid the £200,000 he had had to put into the rebuild. In the meantime, the Pink Geranium flourished, the cookery school he had launched in 1987 was busier than ever, and Saunders launched his career as a celebrity chef, with TV appearances on all channels and a string of cookery books.


But an event, potentially even more cataclysmic than the fire, broke the calm in early 1997. In allegations splashed over the News of the World, Saunders was accused of – and later charged with – indecently assaulting a 15-year-old waitress on New Year’s Eve at the Pink Geranium. At the case brought before Cambridge Crown Court one year later, Saunders was cleared of all charges.


Even though he was exonerated, the episode was devastating – particularly for Saunders’s young family. His wife Sally has been involved in the business from the beginning, running the front of house and looking after the interior design, while their two daughters, 11-year-old Serena and Stefanie, aged eight, have been brought up almost next door to the Pink Geranium.


But while a less determined person might have crumpled under the pressure, Saunders once again picked himself up and moved his career into a new and even more ambitious direction than before. He bought a second restaurant with rooms nearby, and further afield is setting up an extensive catering outlet at the new £64m Lowry Centre. “When you are down,” says Saunders, “you have to put yourself through the stress of fighting back, otherwise you go down with it.”


Business at the Pink Geranium remained steadfast throughout the court case – an indication of the extensive and loyal customer base built up by Saunders over many years. When he appeared on ITV’s This Morning to express his relief at the verdict and thank those who had believed in him, he received a staggering 3,500 letters of support.


As a result of his court appearance, Saunders has felt it necessary to make changes to the way he deals with his staff, with whom he says he has always had an open and friendly relationship. He now no longer sees an individual member of staff on his or her own: there is always a third party present.


The episode also led Saunders to reassess his business and as a result, perhaps ironically, new avenues have opened up. Initially, he decided to take a step back from his TV projects to concentrate on developments in Melbourn. While the Pink Geranium, now with three AA rosettes, has been the culinary high spot of the Cambridgeshire village for 12 years, Saunders was determined to add a second establishment to his portfolio. His opportunity arose when Sheene Mill, a 17th-century water mill sitting on the River Mel and just a few hundreds yards away from the Pink Geranium, came up for sale.


But the purchase of the mill, incorporating a small hotel and restaurant, was not straightforward. The owner did not want to sell to his competitor. Determined to get the business, and despite not having been inside the building since 1991, he had his accountant make the purchase on his behalf through a holding company, Hawthorn Ventures, which he bought off the shelf.


Entering Sheene Mill in December 1997 for the first time after completing the deal was a depressing moment for Saunders. It was dark, dreary and tatty – and the river had dried up. But the potential, particularly with its riverside setting and characterful interior, was there. Despite his impending court appearance, Saunders threw himself into the project with gusto. Over the past two years, each of the nine bedrooms has been given an individual look by a host of designers. Downstairs, the restaurant has been transformed into a Mediterranean-inspired brasserie with bright yellow and blue colour-washed walls offering a warm welcome.


Good investment


By the time an extension is completed in summer 2000, adding an extra five bedrooms, Saunders will have spent about £500,000 on improvements, all provided by self-finance. It will have been a good investment. The number of weekly covers has risen from 200 to 1,200 and annual turnover has leapt from £450,000 to £1.5m, while the bedrooms, excepting Sunday nights, are usually full.


While business has boomed at Sheene Mill, the number of covers being served at the Pink Geranium has dropped. While the 120-seat brasserie at Sheene Mill is often full for midweek lunch service, the more formal, chintzy Pink Geranium has until recently been serving an average of only 10 lunches.


“Sheene Mill is what people want now – a relaxed and informal setting, where people can eat good food frequently at reasonable prices,” says Saunders. As a result, on 4 January the Pink Geranium was relaunched, following redecoration, as an English cottage restaurant. “We have gone away from being a formal restaurant serving French-inspired food to one offering English dishes using seasonal and local produce,” he adds. “The dishes are now much simpler, but the standards are as high as ever, with general manager Lawrence Champion and head chef Mark Jordan still in the driving seat.” Prices are down by almost 50%, with average spend now at about £30 per head.


Saunders spends every night in the kitchen at Sheene Mill, a situation that will change by next April with the opening of Steven Saunders At The Lowry, a 250-seat restaurant in a state-of-the-art building financed primarily through the Millennium Commission. Central to the project is a £1.5m kitchen where Saunders will cook every Friday and Saturday. It will be open from 8am to midnight to cater for the thousands of visitors expected at the Lowry’s art galleries, theatres and shops.


It is unlikely, however, that even the Lowry will satisfy Saunders’ considerable drive. “I’m hyperactive,” he says. “I need to channel my energies in different directions.” Further projects, including a possible restaurant consultancy project in Surrey, are being discussed.


FACTS:


Steven Saunders


Web site: www.stevensaunders.co.uk


Sheene Mill


Melbourn, Cambridgeshire


Tel: 01763 261393


Format: 120-seat brasserie and nine bedrooms


Average spend in brasserie: £25-£30 per head, including wine


Room rates: double occupancy from £85 per night, including full breakfast and VAT


Staff: 127


Annual turnover: £1.5m


Pink Geranium


Melbourn, Cambridgeshire


Tel: 01763 260215


Format: 60-seat restaurant plus 18-seat private dining room


Average spend: £30 per head, plus wine(set lunch: £12 for two courses,£16 for three courses)


Steven Saunders At The Lowry


The Lowry, Salford Quays,Greater Manchester


Opening: 28 April 2000


Format: 250-seat restaurant plus 100 covers on patio in summer


Staff: 100


Estimated annual turnover:


£800,000


Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 13 – 19 January 2000

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