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D&D co-founder Des Gunewardena on the opening of 14 Hills

28 November 2019 by

High above the Square Mile, D&D London is maintaining its steep growth curve with the launch of 14 Hills. Emma Lake asks the fine-dining group's co-founder Des Gunewardena about the business model, whether Brexit will puncture it, and the group's plans for the future

Des Gunewardena founded D&D London with David Loewi in 2006 following a management buyout of Conran Restaurants. The pair have since grown the business to 43 sites, incorporating restaurants, bars and a hotel. Their latest opening is 14 Hills on the 14th floor of the 120 Fenchurch Street office block in the City.

14 Hills is a beautiful restaurant. Tell us about it.

It's got the most amazing view looking out at Canary Wharf, Tower Bridge, the Shard.

The brief for the designer was to create a garden in the sky. When we finished, he said we'd created a forest in the sky. There are more than 100 trees and thousands of shrubs.

We've created a very luxurious garden on the 14th floor of a steel and glass building. I think people will come out of the lift and be surprised. It's a lovely contrast between the building, the view and what we've done with the space.

And what about the F&B offering?

Our chef Thomas Piat is French – he was previously executive chef at Daniel Boulud's Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge. He's a classic French chef; originally, because of where 14 Hills is, we were going to have a British menu, but because of Thomas we said we'll have a British menu but with some French dishes, too.

14 Hills Crab - white crab, crab essence, cauliflower, oscietra caviar
14 Hills Crab - white crab, crab essence, cauliflower, oscietra caviar

It will be a restaurant very much for the new relationship with the European Union. We're not going British and leaving the French behind, we're embracing the French. We love French food and it's British-French… although I'm not that keen on labelling menus.

The bar has some very interesting variations on classic cocktails. It sits in the middle of the space and is very much the focal point – it will be the hub all day.

Design plays a significant part in D&D London restaurants. Do you think it's something demanded by the contemporary consumer?

There are restaurants that are all about the food, and the food is so amazing it doesn't matter what environment you're in. As a company we have always been known for working with interesting buildings and creating interesting spaces – we've always been labelled as very design-led. Obviously the food has to be the number one because people are coming here to eat, but we've always been interested in giving people a great day, a great lunch or a great night out in terms of their overall experience.

If you look at some of the projects we've opened recently, German Gymnasium [in King's Cross] is an old gymnasium built in 1860, which we turned into a restaurant, whereas the 14 Hills building has just been completed this year – it's all steel and glass.

We took this space not so much because we loved the interior of the building, but because we just loved the view and thought we could do something spectacular within the space.

14 Hills 3
14 Hills 3

In your latest financial update you suggested you would be looking away from London for future growth. Is this the case?

You'd have to be a nutter not to be concerned about where the UK is going, because there's a huge amount of uncertainty. Three years ago, shortly after the referendum, we decided it was not a great idea [to remain London-focused]. It wasn't being pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit; it was just that we were going into a time of potential uncertainty and it didn't really make sense to be so dependent on London and the UK.

At that time we were 85%-90% London, now it's more like 70% London; we've developed in the US, and outside London in the UK. Looking forward it depends how the economy goes; if it's all great and Boris Johnson's Britain is brilliant and the economy recovers, we'll do more in the UK, but otherwise we'll do a few more in the States and also in Europe.

What are your biggest concerns: consumer confidence falling and hitting revenue, or issues such as staffing if immigration restrictions are introduced?

My immediate concern is probably revenue, because if after the New Year we end up with the economy slowing down and revenue is not so great, then your need for staff is less. The staffing issue, of course, has impacted us, but we don't really yet know what it's going to be like next year. It might be that the regime we have does allow us to bring in EU staff – and not just staff from the EU, but also other countries. We're not making a judgment yet on that.

We've just opened 14 Hills, which was a conscious decision made after the referendum, and we're opening another restaurant in Bristol and have one or two other projects in the UK. On balance, I think we will expand in the UK. How much we do will be dependent on our ability to bring staff in and how strong the economy is going to be.

What are your international growth ambitions?

The extent will depend on how successful we are. It's still early days. We've opened two restaurants in New York and had lots of people approaching us to open other restaurants in the US. If they continue to trade well and develop and make a decent profit for us, then we're more likely to press the accelerator on expansion over there.

We've only traded Bluebird in New York for a year and Queensyard for seven months, so we're still learning, but we've learned quite a lot in the year and we've evolved. Initially, we didn't really get Bluebird right; we had to make a number of changes to the menu, to how we ran the service and so on. It's evolved more into a restaurant that works in the New York scene. Some of the learnings we had from Bluebird were reflected in what we did in Queensyard, and the restaurant from day one was very busy and quite successful for us.

What can you tell us about your plans for Bristol?

It is very early days. We've acquired a Grade I-listed building, so we're working with the planners on our design and hoping to open next Easter.

We like to open restaurants that are accessible, informal and busy, and that will be what Bristol will be.

Speaking of busy, you mentioned in your latest results that 20 Stories in Manchester has surpassed all expectations.

It was a stunningly successful first year. The restaurant is on top of a building in Spinningfields with amazing views of Manchester and a beautiful terrace; it was a lot busier than we expected – it was our third highestgrossing restaurant. Not everybody thinks you can achieve very high revenues in cities in the UK outside London, but 20 Stories absolutely disproves that theory and did far more revenue in the first year than we expected. We're in our second year now and it continues to be a big success for us.

What surprised us in 20 Stories was it was clearly very busy at weekends, but we did very good business during the week as well, which was a surprise. Equally, when we opened German Gymnasium we were surprised at how successful it became. I think when restaurants work, you're always surprised how busy you are; when they don't work, you're surprised how you are not as busy as you should be.

This year you launched a WorkRoom app to allow people to book tables to work at across some D&D London sites. Is this going to be a big element of growth?

It's a small idea that came after an approach from an entrepreneur who said, why don't you use the space during mid-morning and the afternoon rather than leave them empty? We can't do it with all the restaurants, but others with bars that are slightly more casual do lend themselves to being used as places for people who want to work in public spaces.

We launched WorkRoom in four or five venues, so it's very small, but there's nothing better than having spaces full of people. It's much better to have spaces full of people even if they're not spending any money than to have spaces sitting empty.

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Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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