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The Caterer interview: Peter Prescott

17 June 2016 by
The Caterer interview: Peter Prescott

Lutyens, the Boundary hotel, Les Deux Salons and the Albion group in London are all owned and operated by Peter Prescott with legendary designer Sir Terence Conran. He talks to Neil Gerrard about predicting diners' habits and how to design a timeless restaurant

You have worked with Sir Terence Conran for quite a few years now, rising to operations director of Conran Restaurants (now D&D London) before the formation of Prescott & Conran. How did you start working for him?

I have been working with Terence for 15 or 16 years. I started at Bluebird in Battersea. I was being interviewed for a job at one of the other Conran places, and I said it wasn't quite for me, but that I lived in Battersea and I absolutely loved the Bluebird and that I'd love it if an opportunity ever came up there. And 24 hours later they were on the phone to me. I started there as a general manager and loved every minute of it.

What is your working relationship with Sir Terence like?

Terence thinks about everything from a design perspective - the table, the chair, how the knife looks, and so on. He is intimately involved with the details and also with back of house.

Occasionally we have a difference of opinion, but I think over the years we have pretty much had the same view on everything. We have done some books together and have just been commissioned to do Eat London 3 [see panel].

You opened the first Albion together in Shoreditch in 2006 and another this year in June in Clerkenwell. It's a multi-faceted operation with many different zones [see below] What is the thinking behind having so many different elements to the site?

We have found in Shoreditch, which is home to a lot of creative professions in the same way that Clerkenwell is, that we are busy all day -whether it's 3pm or 10.30am. If you are not dining, you might be picking up a coffee or a pastry. Or you might be taking home a bottle of wine, or buying some beers, or a bar of chocolate. It is one stop for everything.

In Shoreditch, people may have breakfast there and then come in for a takeaway coffee. They might pick up something in the afternoon, come over for a meeting, and then have a drink after work. Albion is the old English name for Britain, but it also makes the suggestion that it is a little bit more… I don't want to say like a pub - but it's your local. It's about neighbourhood, community and local people.

Would you say Albion is a reflection of the way in which the British public's approach to dining out has changed in recent years?

I think certainly that is the case. If you look at the weekends - we serve Sunday roast until 5pm, but rewind a few years and people would stop doing roast beef at 1pm. It is far more flexible. When we first opened the Albion Shoreditch, the best-seller was the all-day breakfast, and we are still selling it at 9pm at night. It literally is all day.

What is the average spend at an Albion site?

We can monitor the average spend per hour with our EPoS system, and the dynamics throughout the day are so different. One of the key things we have said from the outset is that if you are here having a steak and someone else at another table is having just a cup of coffee, it doesn't matter. That is what adds to it all. You have a mixed group of people.

The communal tables have always been very popular. People come in and sit at the tables and they will be there for four or five hours on the Wi-Fi. We had to do a massive upgrade to something like 300Mbps. When it was slow, before we got it sorted out, we saw a big dip in revenue. Clearly the customers had noticed.

You are now running Albion as a separate business, outside Lutyens, Boundary and Les Deux Salons - why is that?

Each Albion location is set up as a separate company, but all are wholly owned by Prescott & Conran as the holding company. I think it is about creating two teams. The business is now of a size and a scale and performance that it warrants its own team. Previously, we had a guy in purchasing sourcing the finest Zalto glass for our wine bar at Lutyens, and the next he was buying a beaker for the Albion group.

Having two teams is quite a big step, because the company is evolving. We started out with just Shoreditch and then we did Bankside and one or two others, and over the last 18 months or so we have added more businesses. We are now of the view that it is going two ways: the Albion way and the other Prescott & Conran restaurants. We would like to do another hotel, but it is very expensive to do and we have to find the right site.

Will you continue to expand Albion?

We are going to see how this one goes. They are all different, like children. We have no sites definitely confirmed. We weren't necessarily looking for a Clerkenwell site. We always thought it would be a great area for us, but we needed to find the right place, and when it came up it was almost impossible to resist. And I think if something were to come up again, with similar dynamics and characteristics, we would probably look at it.

What's the advantage of having a retail space in a restaurant?

In Shoreditch, it probably takes 15% of the floor space, but it can sometimes take 30% of the revenue. It also softens the entrance and makes it more welcoming. You are more likely to step inside a shop than you are a restaurant.

Can Albion work outside London?

We have certainly been approached by a number of people. One of the quite famous piers wanted an Albion and we have been approached by two different arts centres. There is an interest in that, but personally I am a little cautious at this stage. I think perhaps we need to do another one or two in London first.

You bought Les Deux Salons from Will Smith and Anthony Demetre in 2014 before refurbishing it last year. How is it faring?

Well, it has not quite been a year since we refurbished it. Everyone else seems to be going for smaller sites and we go for larger sites - hopefully we are making the right decision. Lutyens is 10,500 sq ft, Boundary is 33,000 sq ft, Les Deux Salons is around 8,500 sq ft, and it's going well.

We are learning more about the theatre-going crowd and their likes and dislikes. It is so funny to see the restaurant packed at 6.30pm and then at 7.30pm, when a restaurant normally starts to get busy, you see a wave of people leaving. It is almost the exact opposite of normal.

The challenging thing is designing the menus around taste and speed of service and avoiding a two-tier system, which we really don't want. We want to persuade the people eating the pre-theatre menu to come back on another occasion.

Would you acquire an established business like that again?

It was more of a one-off because of the location. If an opportunity like that came along again and it was right, then maybe. I wouldn't rule it out, but we have built most of our other places from scratch.

What about your other sites?

The one that is doing particularly well at the moment is Lutyens - we have had quite a good moment for about a year now. Boundary is hitting its seventh year, which is good. That said, I don't think it is an amazing marketplace in general.

Would you say that 2016 has been a tough year so far?

Last year, there were a few ups and downs, but mostly ups, and December was really good for all our businesses. The first few months of 2016 haven't been absolutely booming, but they haven't been absolutely terrible.

The oddity this year has been having Easter in March, so it is hard to compare. But April has been good for us. What will happen on 23 June [the EU referendum] I don't know, but I think the combination of new and exciting restaurants means everyone is launching and opening new things, so there is enough business there.

What goes into your thinking when opening a new restaurant?

We set out for our restaurants to be timeless. We wouldn't rush to redesign them in a few years' time. The idea is to look after them and keep them well maintained. You start off with good materials and furniture and so on and maintain them. We try to focus on space, light and proportion. I don't think they will go out of fashion - they will always be well received.

Ian Wood, Peter Prescott and Duncan Cruickshanks

Prescott and Conran

In 2006, long-time Conran Restaurants group employee Peter Prescott formed a private limited company along with Terence and Vicki Conran.

The company's first venture, the Boundary hotel, restaurant and Rooftop, plus the Albion café, bakery and British food shop, launched in 2008.

Lutyens restaurant, bar and private dining room followed in Fleet Street in 2009. A second Albion opened at the Lord Rogers-designed NEO Bankside, next to the Tate Modern, in July 2013, before the acquisition in 2014 of Les Deux Salons in Covent Garden.

In summer 2015, Prescott & Conran launched Counter Albion in Shoreditch, an informal offshoot of the Albion concept. The business as a whole turned over just over £11.5m in the year to 30 June 2015, according to accounts filed in Companies House.

Eat London

Peter Prescott and Sir Terence Conran's first book, Eat London, was published in 2007. It was billed not as a restaurant guide, but as a book about food across the capital. It proved popular enough to undergo a revision, for 2012's Eat London 2, and now Prescott and Sir Terence are working on the third edition.

"In the original Eat London, east London was six pages. In the second, it was a big chapter, and on the next one we are splitting it into four sections. There will be more pages than the West End, because it's where the excitement and the vibrancy is," Prescott says.

"It's a passion project and it helps us. We go to some places separately and others together, and that is what we should be doing as restaurateurs."

Eat London 3 will be published in 2017.

Albion Clerkenwell

At 225 covers and a cost of £3m, Albion in Clerkenwell is Prescott & Conran's biggest Albion yet. In early 2015, the business reached an agreement to lease the large premises next to what is now Jason Atherton's Sosharu at the Turnmills building.

Albion offers food and drink across a range of zones, including a takeaway foods, hot drinks and juice bar; a bakery; a grocery (open from early until late, selling British food and drink); and a craft beer and wine shop, selling more than 100 French wines, five wines from Albion's own label and a small range of spirits with a British focus. There is also an oyster bar, a cheese and charcuterie corner, a pie room and a cocktail bar.

It was designed by Conran, Prescott and Isabelle Chatel de Brancion of Spin Architecture, and has a clean, stripped-back, modern-industrial feel.

With the opening of Clerkenwell, Prescott & Conran has also asked Sebastian Conran, son of Sir Terence, to evolve the look and feel of the Albion graphics. Sebastian came up with the original design, which reflects the Britishness of the proposition, and has now been asked to update it, adding new colours and a seasonal element to the brand identity so that it will appear in different colours according to the time of year. The new, subtle changes will now be taken to the other Albion sites as well.

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