Some 40 years since his uncle opened the Belle Epoque in Knutsford, Matthew Mooney is taking the restaurant to the next stage of its development. He tells James Stagg how it’s evolved into a dining destination with a thriving wedding business
The Belle Eqoque has been in business for 40 years this year. How did it all begin?
My uncle Malcolm Mooney was a business partner with George Best in his footballing heyday in the 1970s. Malcolm married a French lady and set up a small bistro in a nearby village but soon wanted to set up a grander French restaurant. They set up the Belle Epoque.
It was a hell of a gamble. He took it on but tragically was killed in a car crash six months later.
My father was his twin brother and, when they saw it go downhill following Malcolm’s death, decided he would take a share along with my mother.
What were your parents doing before they took on the restaurant?
My mum was a housewife and my dad had a silk screen printing business. Suddenly they had a restaurant business. You can imagine what a culture shock that was. Though that was in an era when, let’s say, things were a little less professional than they are now.
When they opened there was one other restaurant in Knutsford.
How was the business built?
My parents then grew the business and my auntie withdrew over the years. It developed in the 70s and 80s in an era of haute cuisine with fancy folded napkins and vegetables served on a crescent plate. It was very successful but then the recession on the 80s hit and we were struggling.
Is that when you got involved?
In the 80s everything ground to a halt. I was working in marketing and advertising at the time and my parent and brother, who were running the business, didn’t know what to do. I looked at it from a marketing point of view and repositioned and rebranded it.
So instead of the Belle Epoque Restaurant Francais, we rebranded as the Belle Epoque Brasserie. That was in the early 90s and was the campaign that won the Marketing Catey.
The aim was to make the restaurant less formal. We kept tablecloths and certain standards but we introduced more casual dishes and became a brasserie. It was what people wanted. They wanted to come more often but not spend as much when they came. They were after quality but not necessarily three courses and cheese.
When did you join the restaurant full time?
I was doing my own thing in advertising and marketing and did not want to go into the family business at all. Being family and working with family are two very different things. But when we were in our 25th year my father had a stroke. My mother was left on her own to run it and the energy had gone out of the business and certain other family members were abusing the business – they had only ever been employed here and they were doing all sorts of things that were not good for it. I was about to move to a job in Edinburgh but sat down with my mother and came to a deal and took on the business.
What was your first task as the owner in 1998?
The business was six months away from not existing so it’s been a massive learning curve for me. The first job was to cut up the company credit cards that were around at the time.
I came from a very creative industry, but it was also disciplined in its own way. And I worked for some incredibly demanding clients. At the Belle Epoque there was a sense of entitlement and that it could survive. I knew the business world was tough. It’s not about what we do, it’s about what customers want – that’s where the focus had gone wrong.
How did it play out with the rest of the family?
Obviously it was difficult dealing with family as I’m the youngest. I’ve a brother and he was one of the main abusers, which it took me a while to find out.
We’re not the first family business to fall out. It’s intense and when you’re not a large business it comes to a head fast. When your youngest brother is giving you a business plan it can be hard to accept.
What changes did you make to revive the business?
The customer base is so incredibly loyal here that it was easy to lift things up a few years by getting the enthusiasm and passion back. Many customers would tug me on the arm and tell me how much they liked what they were doing.
Whatever day you’ve had you have to open with the biggest smile possible. You can’t take a bad mood onto a service as it spreads. Guests won’t tell you about it they just won’t come back.
How did you transfer your skills is advertising to a small business?
The restaurant business isn’t special. It has its own idiosyncrasies but it’s about customer satisfaction. I’d worked for people that had mentored my and just took basic business principles and applied them to this industry. We just want to leave customers happy and make sure they return. You can’t change your customers – you have to farm, not hunt. The technical elements can be learnt.
How quickly did you turn the Belle Epoque into your vision of the business?
It took five years before I was really convinced that I’d got to stage one, and it’s gone in five year patterns. The last five years have certainly been the most successful.
Initially a lot of investment was needed in the building and the bedrooms, I had to prove to banks that the business was solid. We’ve improved the business on an organic level and bought other venues and developed those too.
Five years ago was a bit of a low point what with the fall out with a family member and it was feeling like hard work. But since then we feel like we’ve really made progress.
So you’ve traded well through the recession.
A huge turning point for us was to look at how we improve things by half a percent here or there. It’s the constant fever that you have to be always assessing and reassessing.
Our wedding business was quite a turning point. We realised we had these big rooms upstairs and not using them enough. So we invested in the rooms and they’re now beautiful and individual. We started at 20 weddings a year and we’re now at 120 weddings a year.
How do you manage so many weddings?
Some might only be for 12, some might be for 100 but they are a significant part of our business. Our regulars understand. We don’t hide behind anything. We’re up from about when we’re closed for a wedding on a Saturday.
We don’t average two a week as we do four every week in August for instance. We keep communicating with our customers to let them know what’s happening.
It’s about innovating. If we’d still been trying to do fine dining in the suburbs we wouldn’t be here. We’ve had to fight hard to survive and thrive.
What kind of effect does it have on turnover?
I’d say it added half a million to our turnover annually when we got up and running. But we’re lucky; we’ve got what it effectively a country house in the middle of a town.
Our strongest asset is that we don’t dumb down for a wedding. We are creative and set a la carte standards. It’s almost easier than a Saturday night when everyone wants to eat at 8pm.
How has the restaurant been perceived in the area?
Knutsford is affluent but not London affluent. Manchester has no Michelin starred restaurants yet, and hasn’t for many years, and there’s a reason for that. It’s a more casual approach to dining. We’re always viewed as a special occasion restaurant and still are to some degree, whereas in London we would be considered more in the Ivy or Langan’s set. Our price point is probably viewed as a bit posher than we really are but the building probably has something to do with that.
How would you describe the business now?
I’ve banned the phrase fine dining. People refer to us as that because we have tablecloths but we think of ourselves as a brasserie. We have a couple of fancier dishes but it’s just one or two. We want to be inclusive, not exclusive. We don’t want to get too formal again. It feels as though those days are gone.
Have you noticed a shift in guest expectations?
Whenever we have a planning meeting we always know steak will be our best seller. Beef is still king. People can be quite schizophrenic and might want a plain starter and something fancier for the main course, or vice versa. For me the biggest change is that there is no normal customer. More people are dining out and people’s expectations are different. Some expect clicked heels and a sommelier, others shoo away someone trying to open a napkin. We try to offer something that’s not too intrusive but still meets the customer expectations. It’s about intuitive service and reading the customer and communicating.
We’re not about hushed tones, we attract colourful characters and people that like to enjoy themselves. We’ve always been the most upmarket restaurant in the neighbourhood but we’re happy for expectations to be high. It keeps us on our toes.
How has business been since the acquisition of the Rose and Crown?
We took over the Rose and Crown next door about four months ago. It was a massive coup for us. It was owned by some old and loyal customers of us and really they didn’t want to sell but we got a deal done in the end.
We probably did six months work in two months. There’s nothing that gives you that kind of adrenaline rush.
It’s been a revelation. Now we can point customers next door too. It’s a Victorian style informal chop house and suits a lot of people. I always walk in there and see one of our longstanding customers.
Do you think diversification has been the key to your success?
The wedding business was a big innovation but it’s only one. There’s always an area of the restaurant that’s under development. We’re getting involved with Cheshire Food Festival, taking sample dishes to the public.
They’re not unique initiatives but they’re not high cost and can open other possibilities. For instance we could be operating street food vans in five years.
I once heard some advice which was to think creatively in a world of suits and accountants. If you step back and do things differently from the restaurant next door you’ll be doing okay. We’ve had some tough times but I’ve never once walked out onto the floor with a smile on my face.