In this 10-step guide, we speak to the chefs, owners and founders at some of the most successful restaurants and chains in the UK to find out how they've not only kept their heads above water, but thrived.
And that really is just the tip of the iceberg. Restaurateurs also need to consider factors as varied as finding the right location, planning strategically and hiring - and retaining - the right staff, as well as making sure they are constantly evolving to keep up with trends in everything from design to technology.
But don't take our word for it. In this 10-step guide, we speak to the chefs, owners and founders at some of the most successful restaurants and chains in the UK to find out how they've not only kept their heads above water, but thrived.
1 What makes you so special? If you don't know, find out
First thing's first; restaurateurs must have a deep understanding of what it is they're offering and how it stands out from the competition. As Duncan Ackery, founder of Ackery Consulting, says: "The competition is everywhere and they are better than you. Just what makes you so special? If you can't articulate this, you do not have a business."
Alexander Salussolia, managing director of Glendola Leisure Group, which includes award-winning Irish pub Waxy O'Connor's and Europe's largest family restaurant the Rainforest Cafe, agrees. "Create a clear 'difference that counts' in your offer and ask yourself the question: 'If tomorrow you weren't there, would any of your customers actually miss you or would they move on to the next restaurant?'"
Acording to Ed Templeton, co-founder of Carousel - a restaurant where the open kitchen is home to an ever-changing line-up of different international guest chefs - it's about keeping hold of that personality at all costs. "The London restaurant scene seems to be full of 'concepts' these days. Carousel certainly sounds pretty concept-y, but we put a huge amount of effort into consistency and experience to ensure that, no matter who's cooking or what's on the menu, our own personality will always come across," he says.
2 Location, location, location
It might be an obvious one, but location really is king when it comes to running a successful restaurant. It's also only something that can be thought about after an operator has a deep understanding of their offering and the audience they want to attract. 'Are you a restaurant that requires high footfall or are you a restaurant people will be willing to travel to?' is a question every restaurateur needs to ask, according to David Moore, the founder of Michelin-starred London restaurants Pied Á Terre and L'Autre Pied.
Once that's been decided, it's time for some research. "You must really understand how the area works and what the people living, working or even visiting want from a new restaurant," says Agnar Sverrisson, chef-patron and owner of the Texture and 28Â°-50Â° restaurant group.
He adds that the best way to do this is to spend time in the area you're considering. "Visit local restaurants and walk the neighbourhood and observe. Even speaking to locals helps."
Above all, remember that patience is a virtue. "We are currently looking for our fourth 28Â°-50Â° site and you must be patient - it can take time to find the right property in the right location," Sverrisson says.
"To be fair… trade has been a little slack"
3 Be nice!
For Templeton, whose business model is an open kitchen that's intended to be a home away from home for international chefs, the 'being nice' approach has been his key to success. "We can't afford to be anything other than friendly and welcoming," he says. "It's a word of mouth thing; the more friends we make, the more talented individuals we're exposed to. It really is true - there's no substitute for personal recommendations."
You just might learn something from being open and friendly with your competitors, too. Wahaca co-founder Mark Selby says: "Whether its customers, investors, other restaurateurs or your teams in the restaurant, we have learned a huge amount by getting everyone's opinion and chewing over it all and it has helped us to work out our version of what we are seeing and hearing. There are so many amazing people and we should welcome their thoughts."
4 Keep innovating
In such a fast-moving industry, restaurants and chains that don't stay up to date with trends, or even ahead of them, will be left behind - something Selby is only too aware of. "Moving and innovating is our biggest focus as a restaurant group," he stresses. "The industry is moving fast and it is our responsibility to be driving it, whether it's in ingredients, debate, technology or design."
In order to achieve this, Wahaca's management constantly encourages innovation, not only from restaurant teams but also from suppliers. "You have to keep an open mind and meet lots of people to hear what they have to offer, as you never know where the next idea will come from," Selby explains.
One example was deciding to team up with mobile payment app company Flypay four years ago to develop a seamless mobile payment system. "We started this before anyone else was doing it - 70,000 people are now using it," Selby says.
5 Plan ahead
Planning and structure are key to the success of any restaurant, says award-winning Peruvian chef Martin Morales, the owner of Ceviche and Andina.
"We have a clear, 10-year plan of where we are going and what we would like to achieve. It is good to give yourself a guideline and keep your eye on the bigger picture," he says. "A good management team and the right delegation can help you achieve this."
Ackery emphasises the importance of planning even more strongly. "Double the time you dedicate to strategic planning. If you're not planning it, no one is," he says. It's equally key to structure the way you look at your business, giving time to each element: brand, people, product, environment, financial, marketing and so on.
"No matter what, know your numbers - they must trip off your tongue."
"The original plan was for a massage parlour"
6 Take care of the details
They say 'the devil is in the detail', and when it comes to restaurants, those little details really can make the difference. "From the moment you start looking at a lease, there will be little details in there that will affect your business," says Moore.
Those details can extend to anything from the décor to the drainage system, as Moore learned the hard way when he overlooked what seemed like an inconsequential detail at a new site - a manhole in the basement.
"I assumed it was the drainage, so we didn't do a drainage survey. But when we pulled it up, we realised we'd have to put in a pumping system, which would take up 1.5 sq m of floor space," he says. That would then mean the restaurant would lose 4% of its seating space, or three bums on seats, which would then affect the bottom line at the end of the year. "That was all because of me missing a detail."
7 Have the right people in place
A common theme covered by almost all the restaurateurs we spoke to was the importance of having the right people across all areas of the business. Without the right team, they agreed, it's simply impossible to get the rest of it off the ground.
For Allan Pickett, chef-patron of London restaurant Piquet, which combines the culinary cultures of England and France, one way to give yourself the best chance of success is not to rush. "For Piquet I started to recruit at least 18 months before I opened, because I wanted to find the best people to work alongside me," he says. "My chefs all came through word of mouth via friends and people that I had worked with before."
Tom Aikens, who owns several restaurants in the UK and abroad, agrees that calling on people you've worked with previously is a great way to build your team. "It's very difficult to jump straight into a restaurant with staff that don't know what you're trying to achieve," he explains.
Once the right staff are in place, it's then crucial to look after them. "You want to make sure that they grow with the company and show them how they can develop and move up the ranks," says Sverrisson, whose executive development chef has been with him for over six years. "If you have the same people in place for a period of time then the product becomes more consistent and that can only help contribute to the success of the operation."
"You've got all the right people; just the wrong place"
8 Break the rules if your heart says so
If an idea makes sense in the context of your business's vision, there's no reason not to pursue it, believes Mark Selby.
"There have been times when we've been asked by people 'How is that idea going to work?' or told 'That's not what London wants', but we have always had a vision of what we wanted to achieve and we have wanted to see these through," he explains. "Even though some of these ideas broke various restaurant conventions, we went ahead and made them work as they made sense to us."
Most people told Selby and his team that people wanted enchiladas and plenty of booze from a Mexican restaurant, but they firmly believed that their audience would love soft Mexican tacos too. Now they're the group's biggest sellers.
Similarly, Wahaca wanted to recycle all its food waste. "We managed to get [our staff] to buy into our sustainable vision and within a month they were all doing it," Selby recalls. "We are now the first carbon-neutral restaurant business in the UK."
"‘Break the rules if your heart says so,' you said"
9 Build up regular clientele
Once the initial buzz of the opening is out of the way, building up a regular clientele is the only way a restaurant will ultimately thrive, according to Aikens. "You're always going to have a massive amount of interest when you open a restaurant, but after that you rely on repeat business and you need to earn real, regular customers."
And this means not only offering good food, value for money and service, but also making your loyal clientele feel extra special. "They should know that if they're a regular, they're treated like a regular," Aikens says, "that when they come into the restaurant they will get a little bit more appreciation."
"Remembering a guest's favourite apéritif or where they like to sit means everything to the guest and their experience in the restaurant," Sverrisson agrees.
10 When to spend and when to save
Striking the balance between spending on quality and saving isn't easy, but it is essential, according to Frances Atkins, co-owner of the Michelin-starred Yorke Arms.
"Strive for quality with everything. Your ingredients, your staff, your decor and so on - you want the best quality you can afford," she says. "But keep the running of the business as simple as possible to avoid excess cost. In our business, the costs can run away very, very quickly, so you've got to make sure you're not wasting anything - and not just food waste."
Sticking to this philosophy has meant the restaurant can cope even when it isn't at its busiest. "Keeping our systems simple has meant we can manage when we're not so busy," says Atkins.
"You're opening a restaurant? Then you'll need something with deep pockets"
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