The family-run Capital hotel may be going through a change in approach and personnel, but 74-year-old founder David Levin is not even thinking about retirement, although he has brought his youngest daughter on board. Janet Harmer reports.
Nearly 40 years after opening the Capital hotel, founder David Levin is still very much at the forefront of running the five-star business in the heart of London's Knightsbridge.
Now 74 years old, Levin has absolutely no intention of stepping down. "Retirement is just not on my horizon - I'm just as enthusiastic and full of energy about the hotel as I was when we opened in 1971," he says.
Levin may not be going anywhere, but he is looking to the future and taking steps to introduce a more relaxed atmosphere around the 49-bedroom hotel and restaurant, which has retained two Michelin stars since 2001, as well as put his successor in place.
"The mystique and stiffness and bullshit have all got to go," he declares emphatically in a gentle brogue that only occasionally - as he becomes more animated - reflects his Glaswegian roots.
A key factor in Levin's new approach to the business, which has involved a restructuring of the hotel management, is the arrival at the Capital of his youngest daughter, 29-year-old Kate.
With the current average age of guests at the hotel within the 58 to 67 range, it is hoped that Kate's presence will help encourage a younger clientele to visit the property and its restaurant.
"Kate is not just one, but two generations removed from me, so I hope to use her youthful experience to make changes that will help make the business appeal more to her contemporaries," Levin says.
In particular, Levin is aware that the traditional service that the hotel has been known for in the past is not something that young people now want. "For instance, if there is a table of customers in their mid-20s in the restaurant and they ask for the wine list, they don't want to be told that the wine waiter will be sent over," he says.
"They just want the wine list to be given to them, without any fuss, whether it is delivered by the wine waiter or not. The impression that staff might be looking down their noses at certain guests is something that has got to stop in five-star hotels."
Kate readily agrees with her father, who she affectionately refers to as Poppa. She describes the colleagues of her boyfriend, who is a stockbroker, as being some of the wealthiest people she knows and the type of people the Capital should now be encouraging to come through their doors.
"The fact that they may be wearing jeans and T-shirts go to show that you can't judge a book by its cover," she says. Whereas in the past such customers may have been frowned upon for wearing the "wrong" clothes, now they are exactly the kind of people who need to be embraced as guests.
Kate, of course, is not the first child of Levin and his former wife, Margaret, to work at the Capital. Her older brother Joe, 44, was managing director of the Capital Group, the parent company of the Capital (see panel) until last year. He worked for his father for nearly 20 years until he moved to the Grove in Watford, Hertfordshire, as director of food and beverage.
Levin denies there was any disagreement with his son. "I was very sad to see him go," he says. Kate explains that her brother had never worked for another employer and decided he wanted to take up the opportunity of working outside the Capital Group. Is it likely that Joe will return to the family business at some point? "I don't know," says Levin. "Yes, maybe," says Kate.
The Capital's lobby reception
Joe's move was just one of a number of departures among senior employees at the Capital in the past year. General manager Henrik Muehle and restaurant manager Christoph Thuillat both left to join the St James's hotel and club in Mayfair, London, during the summer, while head chef Eric Chavot departed to seek a life change after 10 years of heading up the two-Michelin-starred stove at the Capital.
"Yes, we've had several changes, but it has not been a house of cards," Levin says. "It's a good thing for people to move on - and they've all done so for different reasons - and it has provided me with an opportunity to bring in fresh faces at a time when I want to evolve the business."
So Levin will continue to be - as he has always been, apart from spells away in France setting up the Levin winery - the "main face" of the hotel, with Kate acting as his shadow. There is no general manager; instead three managers are sharing the responsibilities of a duty manager, each with their own separate areas of responsibility. Warren Miller is in charge of purchasing, Steven Kingsley-Jones heads up human resources and training, and Lorena Somera looks after front of house and reservations.
Kate herself is certainly no stranger to the hotel. Born 10 years after the Capital opened, she attended school just around the corner and would arrive at the hotel every afternoon to do her homework. "Many key moments of my early life were spent here, including several Christmas Days," she says. "I even received my GCSE results in the chef's office."
After reading history of art at Nottingham University, she decided she was not yet ready to join the family business - although she knew it was always beckoning. Instead, she began her career working for Joel Cadbury in a leisure management role at the Third Space private members' health and fitness club in Soho, London. She then went on to work for George Hammer at the Urban Retreat beauty salon in Harrods and later in event management at 195 Piccadilly, both also in London, before eventually joining her father at the Capital.
Kate's genes have undoubtedly prepared her for a hotel career. From her mother, Margaret, who is now managing director of the Groucho Club in Soho, London, she has adopted a sense of style and attention to detail, and from her father - now remarried to Lynne Levin, export director of the Levin Winery - she has adopted a flair for entertaining and playing "mine host".
"I've only been here just over a month and I'm quickly learning as much as possible," Kate says. "Being with the guests and getting to know the regulars is the bit I'm really enjoying. They always love to see Dad in the front hall, and I hope they will learn to love seeing me there, too."
Providing such a personal welcome is an essential part of the Capital's success, which currently enjoys 80% repeat business, Levin believes. "If you check into any one of the major five-star hotels you often never get to see a manager - maybe just a receptionist or a baggage porter," he says.
"Everyone else is standing behind a computer sending messages to one another. Face-to-face communication has been lost and, as a result, staff can appear reticent and offhand, which is a disaster for the guest. I have no doubt that my presence here brings in business."
Junior suite bedroom at the Capital
Occupancy at the Capital currently stands at about 82% - a healthy figure for the current climate, although it has dropped 5%. Annual turnover of the hotel is about £6m, and for the Capital Group as a whole, £10m.
Levin says that profitability, the result of maintaining a good room rate, is more important than a good occupancy figure. A reduction in room rates could happen only if Levin was prepared to compromise his standards, which is not something he's willing to consider.
"We want to provide the best-quality Savoir beds, which cost just over £2,000 each, as well as top-quality blankets and pillows," Levin says. "We can't do that if we drop our rates."
Instead, guests are offered better value for money by the inclusion of a breakfast, afternoon tea, pre-theatre supper, car transfer to the airport or theatre tickets - depending on the travel agent. Levin himself is taking a pro-active role in courting agents - he will be talking to 22 of them soon on a forthcoming trip to New York. Packages including tickets to the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which is due to open in Stratford-upon-Avon next year, are expected to be a major attraction of his sales pitch. Other add-ons for guests include Harrods picnics and temporary membership of the Peak health club and spa at the nearby Jumeirah Carlton Tower hotel.
Despite the economic difficulties beyond the Capital, Levin says he is still seeing guests spending huge sums of money at the hotel. For instance, in recent weeks the restaurant has sold its entire stock of Pétrus - about 30 bottles at between £1,000 and £2,000 each, depending on vintage.
However, Levin does recognise that there are people who are feeling the pinch and, as a result, has lowered his mark-up on wines. For any bottle that he has paid more than £100 for, he now adds a small corkage charge; while for bottles bought for under £100, he is now adding a mark up of two-and-a-half times, compared to four-and-a-half-times before.
The restaurant - which Levin always calls a dining room as he sees it as an integral part of the hotel and not a separate entity - has seen fewer bookings over the past year. As a result, Levin is using the arrival of Jérôme Ponchelle to replace Chavot as an opportunity to move away from menus offering fashionable food that has been primped and preened by countless numbers of hands. "People are jaded by that kind of food, they want to see simpler and lighter dishes - what is wrong, for instance, with a beautifully ripe charantais melon on crushed ice?"
Ponchelle, who takes over as head chef on 23 November, was previously chef de cuisine at British restaurant Wiltons. Before that he was sous chef under Michel Bourdin at the Connaught, and it is something of the traditional Connaught menu from Bourdin's days - complete with roast beef on a trolley - that Levin would like to see in the Capital's dining room.
Could the Capital's two Michelin's stars be put at risk by such dramatic changes to its restaurant's menu? Levin is unsure, but he intends to talk to the guidebook about his plans and points out that the Connaught once had two stars. "And what we plan here will be even better than the Connaught," he insists.
As well as being assured that standards will remain as impeccably high as they have done throughout the Capital's history, during which time only four head chefs - Richard Shepherd, Brian Turner, Philip Britten and Eric Chavot - have passed through its kitchens, restaurant customers are likely to benefit from a reduction in prices. The replacement of the set price lunch at £29.50 and set price dinner at £45 with an à la carte menu is expected to bring down the average spend.
"For me, the dining room is a shop window to the hotel and I don't understand why other hotels have to give their restaurant a separate name and entrance," Levin says. "I don't buy the idea that it has to be separate."
With Kate fast taking on board this and other thoughts on hotelkeeping from her father, she certainly does not want him to step down yet. "I've only just arrived and I've got so much to learn from him," she says.
Meanwhile, Levin says that he is enormously proud to be teaching his daughter "to build and strengthen our legacy", but what that legacy morphs into as the pair begin planning for the Capital's future remains to be seen.
THE CAPITAL GROUP
53 Brompton Road, London SW3 1DP
Tel: 020 7808 0600
The Capital hotel, London 49-bedroom hotel and two-Michelin-starred restaurant
The Levin hotel, London 12-bedroom boutique hotel, adjacent to the Capital
Le Metro bar and brasserie Informal eaterie, next door to the Capital
The London bakery After many years working as head baker at the Capital, Thierry Tellier set up the London bakery with the Capital Group and today supplies artisan breads and pastries to many of London's top hotels and restaurants
195 Piccadilly, London The Capital Group organises events and catering at the home of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA)
The Levin winery David Levin has established a winery in the Loire Valley, France, which combines the best of traditional organic agriculture with innovative new world winemaking techniques to produce a Sauvignon Blanc that has been called "world class" by leading wine critics