Des McDonald has turned his attention from large brasseries such as the Ivy, Scott’s and Le Caprice to creating a modern British fish and chip shop and a barbecue restaurant fit for the discerning foodie. He tells Hannah Thompson his philosophy for creating an energetic and theatrical restaurant and where he gets his inspiration
You are working on a number of projects at
the moment – can you sum them up for us?
We’re very busy. We’re opening the Holborn Dining Room, which is a great British brasserie, under a five-year agreement with the Rosewood hotel in London.
We have also just opened the Q Grill in Camden – that’s our modern barbecue. There’s a Josper grill and a raw bar, and the strapline is raw, charred and smoked. It’s about lighter options with more foodie flavours, such as chargrilled octopus or grilled asparagus. We’re paying homage to barbecues, but this is about modernising.
We’re also modernising the great British fish and chips with our Fish & Chip Shop; the fish has a lighter, gluten-free batter. We’ve got a second shop opening in the City in June.
The concepts for the different restaurants
are quite eclectic. Is that intentional?
It’s very intentional. My background is in opening large brasseries, such as the Ivy, Scott’s and Le Caprice, but what we’ve achieved at the Holborn Dining Room is that brasserie layout with scale, yet in mid-town London.
I don’t want any of my businesses to be a cookie-cutter environment. What we always do when we start any business plan is to look at the area, the buildings and the demographic, and adapt accordingly. The common thread is the people, the self-discipline, sourcing great ingredients and creativity.
We like to create energy and theatre. People spend a bit less these days, but they still want to have a good time. In all my places, I want people to walk into energy, noise and the sound of people having fun. If you have sophisticated service in a casual environment it should be seamless. It should be great food that’s affordable. It’s not rocket science; it’s giving people what they want.
You started your career in the kitchen and on the shop floor. Are there any common links between that and the boardroom?
It’s about communication, common sense and personality. I’ve been in boardrooms that could take some dynamism from the shop floor.
The key message is about creating a strategy and then drilling into the detail. Many board members spend a lot of time discussing ideas and not enough time implementing them. I like to be focused, to distil an idea, get a working party around it, and then launch it. I have a humble approach to business – we all roll our sleeves up and get involved. I was on the pass at Q Grill until midnight at the soft launch because it was busy. As a manager in any business you have to lead by example and work as a team.
Looking at the restaurants you’ve already opened, a fish and chip shop might not seem like the most logical step. Where did your inspiration come from?
It comes from my working class background. When I was cooking at the Ivy 15 years ago, I decided to put shepherd’s pie on the menu and we sold 400 portions a week. It was a luxury version, of course, but when you’re paying homage to the past and developing great British food, I don’t believe in overcomplicating it.
I sat in my office a couple of years ago and thought, what is the gap in the market? Allegedly, there are 5,000 fish and chip restaurants up and down the country. I wanted to take a small slice of that and recreate it for the discerning foodie: give them a glass of Kentish sparkling wine or Champagne, some great fish and chips or some oysters. It’s taking fish and chips on a slightly different journey.
Apart from Harry Ramsden’s, there are not many larger fish and chip groups in this country. Why do you think that is?
I think it starts with the price of commodities. We have some very good sources for fresh fish and some of my investors are heavily involved in the fishing industry. I think if we didn’t have that straightforward route to market it would be very difficult to make a point of difference in a fish and chip shop.
We are a premium offer for people who want to eat Dover sole on a Monday and fish and chips on a Friday. It’s about a good supply chain and then adding our twist to it: a warehouse environment, great lighting, cocktails, a well-chosen wine list. It makes a world of difference.
Has social media changed your approach?
It’s revolutionised my business. In years gone by, we’d open a restaurant, wait for the food critics to come in and you’d see a spike in business up or down depending on how well you did. Now, diners are blogging and tweeting.
We worked out that even within a few days of doing a soft launch you could potentially tap into over a million people – with photos too. People are far more versed and educated about restaurants and food; it’s very much on their radar. That immediacy of information is quite incredible. We are working in quite an objective business, and we are ‘live’ to the public seven days a week. Every customer’s got an opinion – I think it’s positive – but being aware of it is very important.
You started your consultancy in 2012. How do you juggle that and running your own restaurants?
It’s my business and within it I have different arms: investment, branding, etc. Working for myself and in my own company has been fantastic. I was an employee for 30 years, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but ultimately it was important for me to work for myself. It gives me flexibility and opportunities and I enjoy it.
Holborn Dining Room has a delicatessen
as well. What’s the thinking behind that?
It’s an additional opportunity. The Rosewood hotel is a phenomenal building and it’s a chance for customers to come into the deli and see the restaurant, see the menu, see the coffee and introduce more fluidity into the space. The deli sells charcuterie, oils, fine wines, pickles and cheeses. I think of it more like a sophisticated larder. There’s also breakfast, toast to go, lunchtime sandwiches, homemade stews, hotpots and soups of the day. It has a casual feel.
What would you say are the common mistakes people make when opening restaurants?
I’d say try not to overcomplicate the menus and try and understand your market. We just look for raw talent and train, train, train people properly.
When I employ people I ask them, do you know how to make money? A lot of people can turn over money, but can they actually make money? We have to get the government to support apprenticeships more, promote the marketplace and bring young people into the business. There is a lack of trained young people and London has exploded with lots of great restaurants, so that’s always a challenge.
What is the most useful thing you’ve learned?
Not reading too much of your own press… and the ability to correct mistakes quickly. Not all restaurants get it right every day and this is a 365/7 day operation. My view is that if you can find ways to make bad experiences into good experiences and make sure you understand your customers, that’s the key.
It’s also about learning to adapt, however big or small your offer. That could be cost cutting or changing your menu; adapting to the environment to keep that shift, to keep on a straight course. Lots of businesses lose their way, but it’s having the ability to move it back.
What’s your ambition for the brands?
With both Q Grill and Fish & Chip Shop, we might have two sites or 100. It’s all very well having a business plan and high-falutin’ ideas, but we are also realistic that we can’t get carried away. If we can open five or six restaurants a year for the next couple of years, then great.
We’re moving into the City with another Fish & Chip Shop in Liverpool Street in June, and we’re looking at other sites – maybe Covent Garden – plus a second Q Grill in May. We’re also considering Battersea Riverside and Soho.
What do you think is the next big thing in London trends?
We’re seeing a lot of Brazilian street food, with the World Cup coming up. Nowadays people are well-travelled so there are more ethnic opportunities coming to the market. The new concepts start as street food and pop-ups, and entrepreneurs then want to bring them to the high street.
I think there is also a trend towards fresh juices and healthier living. I don’t know how long the burger side will carry on for, but I think people still want to be discerning about what they’re spending.
This is a creative industry. If you’re a creative person you need to have an outlet for those ideas. But only some of those are winning ideas – you have to have a think tank to distil and review and see which ideas are going to work. Consumers are well-versed and know what they want, so we always have to do better.
DES McDONALD: A TIMELINE
1965 Born in East London
1981 Begins studies at Westminster Catering College. First jobs include Sheraton Park Tower, the Ritz and stints in San Francisco
1987 Opens restaurants Mr Pontac’s and Mr Garraway with Mark Hix
1992 Becomes head chef at the Ivy restaurant, owned by Caprice Holdings
1998 Becomes managing director and chief executive of Caprice Holdings and oversees the Ivy, Le Caprice, J Sheekey, The Collection, Pasha and Daphne’s
2005 Richard Caring acquires Caprice Holdings for £34m
2006 Oversees the purchase and relaunch of Scott’s restaurant
2007 Oversees acquisition of the Birley Group, including Annabel’s and Harry’s Bar
2012 Leaves Caprice Holdings and sets up his own consultancy, Des McDonald Restaurants Etc
2013 Opens first Fish & Chip Shop in Islington
2014 Opens Holborn Dining Room in luxury hotel Rosewood London and Q Grill in Camden
DES McDONALD RESTAURANTS ECT: THE SITES
Q Grill, Camden, London
Owner Wholly owned with another Des McDonald company, Casual Restaurants
Opened March 2014. Another branch will open near Liverpool Street in May
Aim To serve traditional barbecue food but in a lighter, fresher, more modern way
Fish & Chip Shop, Islington, London
Owner Wholly owned
Opened May 2013. Another branch will open near Liverpool Street in June
Aim To bring traditional British fare to the discerning foodie, serving rock oysters, garlic mayo whitebait and fish with a light, gluten-free batter
Holborn Dining Room, Holborn, London
Owner Management contract
Opened February 2014
Aim A welcoming yet grand brasserie plus a delicatessen for passing trade
The company also operates as a consultant and advisor to a number of F&B operations, in the UK and globally.