After five years of steady progress, this month sees D&D London, formerly Conran Restaurants, make a big splash, with the opening of two major new destinations in the capital: South Place Hotel and the Old Bengal Warehouse outlets. Kerstin Kühn speaks to chairman and CEO Des Gunewardena and managing director David Loewi
Your last opening was Skylon five years ago. With the South Place Hotel and the Old Bengal Warehouse restaurants both opening this month, it must be an exciting time for you after such a long period of consolidation.David Loewi We were always planning these new ventures and yes, it is very exciting. It's always an adrenalin kick to open new restaurants, both for the staff and the management because they present new opportunities to grow. People who have left the company return and we're in a really exciting time right now with these two new major openings.
Des Gunewardena But a lot of people have said to us: "You've been really clever, you've been through a period of consolidation during the recession." But it really wasn't by planning at all. The reason is that there have been delays - the Old Bengal Warehouses should have opened two years ago - and problems with landlords and developers. We wanted to open a new restaurant at the Cube in Birmingham in the site that Marco Pierre White has now got but in that case our developer went bust. So it has been a little bit more by luck than judgement that we've had this period of consolidation, which actually served us quite well. The past few years have been tough for the restaurant business, particularly 2009. The past two years have been OK and in London restaurants still outperform the rest of the UK.
You put the company up for sale a few months ago. What's happening with that?DG It's happening. We've had a lot of interest, ranging from people you might expect, such as UK private equity houses, to quite a lot of people who are overseas. We've had interest from America, from Hong Kong, the Middle East and India. We're now in the process of evaluating the bids and in an ideal world, we'd like to make a decision at the end of summer.
You sold your interest in the Copenhagen venture. Will you try to move away from your other overseas businesses, too?DG No, not at all. Our plan over the next 10 years is to do more overseas ventures. We're very happy with trading in Paris, Tokyo and New York and we're very happy being there. We entered Copenhagen as a joint venture and then the property developer went bust so we ended up buying back his shares. Now we have sold that share to a local consortium. Whenever we launch a business overseas we always like to partner up with someone local so that's what we've now done in Copenhagen, too.
How did the Olympics affect your restaurants?DL Most of our restaurants benefited from strong Olympics bookings both from sponsors and the National Olympics Committees. A handful of our venues, mainly in the City, did suffer from regular customers deciding not to come to London because of the exaggerated fear of transport problems. But overall we had far more winners than losers and the Olympics was a great boost to the business after what has been a tough few months because of the awful wet and cold non-summer we've had this year.
Next year will see your first out of London launch. Tell us more.DL We are opening at the Trinity Leeds shopping centre in March next year. It's an amazing development, it's going to bring that part of Leeds to life again. We have a fantastic space on the two top floors of the building next door. It's going to be a very glamorous space. There will be two restaurants overlooking Leeds' Holy Trinity Church. We're going to have some lovely outdoor terraces and a garden - it's going to be great. Although we are a London business, we're really excited about this project.
As you are a London-based business, how much market research have you had to do to get the offer for the Leeds clientele right?DG We have a small investment in a company called IRC, which has a very successful restaurant in Leeds called Restaurant Bar & Grill. Leeds isn't London but there's a good restaurant scene there and it has got quite a well developed financial sector of lawyers and accountants and out of all the cities outside London it's probably one of the strongest.
The people of Leeds like to go out and our location is very central. The restaurants are going to be very high-end, destination restaurants - not at all like last time when we took Zincs out of London, which was much simpler.
How do you run your business?DG The thing about us as a company is that we're not so centrally run. We do expect general managers and executive chefs to run their restaurants as their own businesses and take on that responsibility. We're asking them to let us know what we should be doing rather than us telling them how to run their restaurants. That structure is absolutely at the heart of what we do and without that we would never have been able to grow as much as we have.
DL That's why I joined the company all those years ago. I came from a big international hotel company where decisions were made in Geneva and Chicago and it would take years to change the concept of a restaurant. Some people really enjoy that but our business is much more about empowering people and letting them make their own decisions and become entrepreneurial. Of course we'll nurture and guide them and the DNA of the business comes from us. But we do expect our managers to be like managing directors in how they run their business.
What is the secret behind running a successful restaurant?DG What makes a successful restaurateur is really understanding the dynamics of how to be a success. Sometimes you can design something and it might work for a while; a successful restaurateur will have the vision of how to evolve that so that it continues to be successful.
We have sold restaurants but we have never had to close one because we always managed to make them work. A good example of that was Paris when we opened Alcazar. We're generally very good at openings and we've never struggled to get people to come; but in Paris a few months in it wasn't a big success. Paris restaurants work very differently from restaurants in London and together with Michel Besmond we worked out why it wasn't working and made changes accordingly.
Sometimes it's about having the vision to see how it can all come together.
What is your view of Michelin stars?DL Michelin is still very recognisable and a very good accolade to have. But often it's more important for the chefs than the customers, who just want a wonderful restaurant experience with great food and service. We definitely encourage our chefs who do chase stars because we recognise that it is important for them but it's not something we place a huge amount of importance on.
The Modern Pantry is a restaurant in which you backed Anna Hansen. Is this something you'd like to do more of?DG We absolutely would. We have been approached by a number of people and it's a really interesting business model and something we'd definitely like to do more of.
The reason that it works so well is that we are investors and co-owners but it's Anna's business and she runs it. We're there to help her, of course, but it wouldn't work as well if she was constantly asking us for advice.
Where do you see D&D London in 10 years?DG I think we'll be a much more international business. At the moment we are still a London business with some ventures overseas but in 10 years' time that part of the company will be much bigger. We will be much stronger in the Far East, where there are lots of opportunities for us - we'll be in Singapore, China, Malaysia, India - and we'll have more sites in New York. We will be a much bigger business and hopefully have a few more hotels, too, both in London and internationally.
Tell us more about the hotels side of things.DG Hotels are way more profitable than restaurants - the Great Eastern hotel was the most profitable deal we ever did. We borrowed £50m, put in £25m with our investors and sold for £150m. We'd definitely like to open another one in London as well as in New York, Paris - cities where we already have restaurants.
DL But they are hotels with a difference. The Great Eastern Hotel was different because of the number of restaurants it had and the success of those restaurants. South Place will be the same, it's not just a hotel but there's a restaurant atop, a restaurant on the ground floor and all the activities that go with that. It's a different philosophy that we bring to hotels.
What is that philosophy?DG Most hoteliers look at a hotel, see the square footage and think about how many bedrooms they can squeeze in so they can maximise the value. Restaurants and bars are second thoughts. We look at hotels very differently - we think about how we can really bring a building to life, how we can make it a really sexy place. Because if we create that buzz, the rooms will be so much more successful.
Most hoteliers will look at the 75,000sq ft at South Place and laugh at the fact that we've only got 80 rooms, but for us it's so much more important to have the restaurants and bars.
SOUTH PLACE HOTEL
Situated between Moorgate and Liverpool Street in the City of London, South Place Hotel will be "more meet than sleep". The hotel will feature two restaurants - the 80-seat Angler restaurant, focusing on seafood and shellfish on the seventh floor, with a rooftop terrace, and the 70-seat 3 South Place, an informal, all-day diner on the ground floor with its own entrance.
There will also be three bars, a residents' games room called La Chiffre, and a gym with beauty and wellness treatments.
Specially commissioned work by contemporary London artists will be a key feature of the hotel, with the first winner of the annual South Place Hotel Art Prize having their work displayed in a dedicated window on the ground floor.
Opened 3 September
Designer Conran & Partners
General manager Bruce Robertson
Executive chef Tony Fleming
Price From £269 per night
Address 3 South Place, London EC2M 2AF
THE OLD BENGAL WAREHOUSE
The new outlets open on 17 September and will occupy the oldest surviving warehouses built by the East India Company between 1768 and 1771. D&D London is opening four new ventures: a modern British grill restaurant alongside a cocktail bar, a fish restaurant and a specialist wine shop. The sites - designed by Conran & Partners - will occupy the ground and basement floors of the Grade II-listed Georgian brick warehouse covering over 10,000sq ft in New Street.
NEW STREET GRILL & OLD BENGAL BAR
Head chef Kalifa Diakhaby
Bar manager Milos Popovic
Capacity (grill) 56, 24 outside
Capacity (bar) 52, plus 30 outside
Typical dishes Aylesbury game terrine, pickled shallots, toast; fillet steak tartare, Melba toast; devilled free-range spring chicken; calves' liver, crisp onion, bacon and sage; Dover sole grilled or pan-fried; steaks from the Josper grill.
Average spend £40 lunch; £60 dinner
Telephone 020 3503 0785 (restaurant) 020 3503 0780 (bar)
Head chef Barry Macmillan
Manager Miguel Sousa
Capacity 55, plus 40 outside
Typical dishes smoked eel, pickled red onions and horseradish; grilled Orkney Isle scallops, citrus dressing; Cornish fish soup; whole grilled native lobster and chips; fish pie; and sirloin steak, chips and béarnaise sauce
Average spend £20 lunch; £40 dinner
Telephone 020 3503 0790
NEW STREET WINE SHOP
The shop will specialise in wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy and the space will be available for wine tastings and dinners. A unique colour spectrum system will ease customers through the process of identifying different styles of wine, while expert sommeliers, led by Nicolas Clerc, will be on hand.
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