When contract caterer Elior renewed its deal with Waterstone's, it was given the entire fifth floor of the bookseller's flagship London store, resulting in a partnership of retail and food largely untried outside large department stores. Janie Stamford reports
Times were tough for business in 2009. The green shoots of recovery didn't materialise until the fourth quarter, when the economy was reported to have grown by a small but significant 0.3%.
So a plan by Waterstone's, the UK's largest bookselling chain, to give up premium retail trading space at its flagship store on London's Piccadilly could certainly have been seen as a risky strategy. But encouraged by Elior concessions managing director Adam Elliott and his team, Waterstone's went for a partnership of retail and food largely untried outside large department stores.
Elior's relationship with Waterstone's Piccadilly began in 2005 when, under the Digby Trout brand, the contract caterer signed a deal to operate the 5th View restaurant and bar that occupied half of the store's fifth floor - the remainder was given over to retail space.
Last year, this contract was impressively renewed for a further 10 years without going out to tender and Elior was given the entire floor in which to expand its offer, including the addition of a Champagne and seafood bar.
"It was a fantastic win for us," says Elliott. "But it wasn't handed to us on a plate. We had to work hard for it."
In addition to building and maintaining a good relationship with the Waterstone's team, Elliott believes it was Elior's successful introduction of its Espressamente Illy coffee concessions in the retailer's Liverpool and Livingston stores that helped seal the deal.
Elliott and Elior concessions finance director Graham Boyle first conceived the seafood bar proposal in October 2009, prior to the extension of the mutually lucrative contract, which sees Waterstone's receive a percentage of the turnover.
"We originated the idea, but as with all male-generated ideas it needed a female to come in and help make it real," says Elliott. That female was Elior marketing director Diane King. According to Elliott, she was key in the design process. King worked with design company and fit-out specialist The Deluxe Group to carry out a swift refurbishment programme, which cost in excess of £200,000 but took less than a fortnight to complete by November.
While reluctant to use a term that is all too often simply given lip service, Elliott describes the relationship between Elior and Waterstone's as a partnership.
"They view us as credible caterers and we view them as fantastic clients," he says.
So strong is the partnership, Waterstone's flagship store is quickly evolving into a flagship site for Elior not only in terms of a statement concession but also a training centre. Plans are already afoot to transform a demonstration kitchen in the store's basement into Elior UK's development kitchen, and the Chef Academy, forthcoming Barista Academy and chefs from across the caterer's UK operations will use the new facility when it opens in the second week of April.
"In terms of food, service and design, we've delivered. The response from Waterstone's is that we've cracked it in terms of quirkiness without losing the bookstore feel," explains Elliott. As a result, he believes there is real growth potential for similar concessions elsewhere in the UK. But while Waterstone's is extremely happy with the 5th View, Elliott is keen to point out that no one from either party would want to roll out a series of carbon copies.
Elliott explains: "The individuality of the site in Piccadilly was a key factor in the refurbishment of the 5th View. We wanted to keep the character of this beautiful location; it had to blend in seamlessly with its environment."
The bar, which was previously tucked away, has been expanded and relocated so that it greets visitors when they exit the lifts. Where once there was retail stock now stands the new U-shaped seafood bar, which invites with a sumptuous array of fresh shellfish and contemporary and comfortable seating.
By removing the books and transforming the entire floor into hospitality space there was a fear that the marriage of retail and restaurant would be a rocky one, but that has thus far proved unfounded. Elliott admits that the decision to open a seafood bar was the easy part, but expertise in the field was essential, which is where Elior consultant chef Anton Edelmann came in.
"Anton understands seafood backwards," says Elliott. "His skill, knowledge and work with the on-site chefs and development chefs was absolutely crucial."
The 5th View Champagne and Seafood Bar launched without fanfare at the tail-end of 2009. Despite the 5th View's quiet re-entry into the market, Elliott says it has gone fantastically well.
"Expectations have definitely been exceeded in terms of turnover," he says. "Our estimate that the full length of the contract will be worth around £10m is likely to be a conservative one."
The venue in its previous incarnation was very popular and boasted a large number of regular customers, so for both parties it was essential that the clientele wasn't alienated by the new look and offer.
"We were worried we'd lose our original customers, but instead we've gained more," says Elliott. He describes the venue as chameleon-like: during the day it plays host to numerous informal business meetings and visiting tourists, and spend is around £8-£12, but at night, customers visit for a full-blown restaurant experience and as a result spend goes up accordingly. The average number of customers served in a month is 8,200, but private parties can increase that figure by at least 500.
Elliott says the new venture has allowed Elior to take its existing offer at the 5th View to the next level.
"We completely revamped the menu and the new seafood element has given us a fresh lease of life. It's a niche market, but I feel we've captured it here very nicely," he says.
SOURCING THE SEAFOOD
When consultant chef Anton Edelmann and the Elior development chefs began work on the seafood bar menu, they were keen that the process would be a gradual evolution.
The aim was to create a balanced, considered and accessible menu that was inexpensive, and key to that is the provenance of the product.
"We looked very carefully at where we would source the seafood," says Edelmann.
As a result the menu reads like a showcase of the best of British seafood. But just as imperative is the sustainability of their offer. Edelmann concedes that the idea of using a fish that is under threat is utterly inconceivable.
"It is all from the UK and everything is sustainable, because it just has to be, hasn't it?" he says.
The chefs plan to move with changing times by making little additions here and there, while still keeping the core principles of the menu: keep it very simple and very British and let the seafood speak for itself. In the next four months there are plans to bring a seasonal element to the menu.
"I found the project so exciting," says Edelmann. "For a start, the location is fabulous. It was already a popular venue and the icing on the cake is that Elior took a nice, reasonably successful set-up and expanded it into something fantastic, with modern and innovative design."
It is possibly the first time a seafood bar has opened in a bookstore, but interestingly the building has a history with fish. In the 1980s when it was the department store Simpsons of Piccadilly, it was host to one of the very first sushi bars in London, where Edelmann was a frequent visitor.