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Arbutus: Winning a Michelin star

22 February 2007 by
Arbutus: Winning a Michelin star

So what difference does a Michelin star make? You're just about to find out. Amanda Afiya reports from the recently awarded Michelin-starred Arbutus in London's Soho in our fifth instalment on this Adopted Business

Let me take you back to Wednesday 24 January - the publication day of the 2007 Michelin Guide (online). On his way to work Anthony Demetre gets his first call of the day. It's Claude Bosi, chef-patron of the two-Michelin-starred Hibiscus in Ludlow. "You've got a well-deserved star," exclaimed Bosi. "I knew you would get it."

Simultaneously, Will Smith, Demetre's partner at Arbutus, receives a call from the restaurant's PR consultant, Maureen Mills, with the same amazing news.

"It came as a major shock," claims Smith, despite the fact that the accolade followed hot on the heels of Arbutus being declared the Decanter Restaurant of the Year - just one of countless awards and numerous Michelin glory predictions that Arbutus has received since it launched in May.

Why the amazement? Well, Demetre and Smith had deliberately styled Arbutus as a no-frills-and-furbelows restaurant in direct contrast to the Michelin-accoladed Putney Bridge where they'd both worked before opening Arbutus. Putney Bridge ticked all the boxes of a Michelin stereotype - a fine-dining, white-tableclothed restaurant - so naturally they didn't think their own restaurant was a contender. "We really didn't do anything with Michelin in mind here," stresses Smith.

Maybe the fact that their own money is at stake at Arbutus has focused their minds on the end product more: stopped them from being too navel-gazing with what they offer their customers. "We prided ourselves on being commercially minded at Putney Bridge, and created what we thought was a great restaurant. But we're a bit older and wiser now, and it's our business. We have got a lot at stake here, it's our livelihoods," agrees Smith.

Demetre adds: "If you look at this, it's a predominantly French, modern bistro. We set our stall out with a menu that would not exceed £30 a head with a real emphasis on seasonality and flavour." He hopes that by achieving a star with their formula it will have a knock-on effect among other aspiring chefs and restaurateurs. Demetre is convinced there is a huge gap in the market for Arbutus-style restaurants - good food at good prices. "We're already seeing copycat operations, which is flattering, but we can't understand why more people haven't done it before.

"It puts to bed the idea borne by chefs and restaurant managers that you need all the luxury trappings, that you need a wine list of 400 wines, that you need the best silverware, crockery and crystal to get a Michelin star. In the majority of restaurants that I worked in as a youngster there was always that perception."

The impact of the star has been immediate, manifesting itself specifically in a greater call by customers for fine wines. Fine wines means a higher wine spend, of course - which means a higher turnover. "The star has brought in the City guys, and we've had more tables drinking two bottles of fine wines instead of one. I guess the star might bring us some more international business too," comments Smith.

But the pair have one concern: that customers will have higher expectations. "People make comparisons to Tom Aikens, ‘at Tom's you get this and that', they judge what you give them and what you don't give them. It's not our ethos to give amuses or canapés."

PR consultant Mills says that cynics will suggest that as soon as a place gets a star they jack their prices up. Arbutus is successful because of two crucial elements: quality, and value for money. You can't beat that combination," says Mills.

She adds that another distinct advantage that Arbutus has is a carefully balanced partnership, 50% front of house, 50% back. "Racine, with Henry Harris and Eric Garnier, is a perfect example - both guys are experts, but respectful of the other's knowledge and experience, and together create an ideal partnership. Also the ‘ma and pa' type of operation is good, such as Claude and Claire Bosi at Hibiscus, David and Helen Everitt-Matthias at Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham and the Kerridges at Marlow's Hand and Flowers."

She concedes that, inevitably, there is increased pressure to perform each time the restaurant receives a new award, and the pair are placed under the microscope even more by both customers and the trade as a result. "The huge volume of trade that results from such positive press means a greater pressure to maintain standards. Lots of people will go in asking whether the awards are worth it and look to pick holes in the product - it's human nature."

January, traditionally a quiet month for the restaurant trade, has been really busy. This, despite the fact that Arbutus was closed for the first week of last month to install a new kitchen floor and a lick of paint throughout the dining room. "We needed a new floor from the outset," says Demetre, "but we had to wait until we had the finances in place." Smith adds: "The walls had been trashed. It made us realise we need to have future funds to regularly freshen up."

In fact, trade has been sensational, with the original target of 120 covers per day being trounced by an extra 80. To cope with demand, the restaurant operates a waiting list every day for lunch and dinner. Their success has given Demetre and Smith the confidence to consider spreading their wings.

"We've got people scouting for a new site. I will remain here," says Demetre, "but I have three guys here who have worked for me for six years and I'd like to create the opportunity for them to grow within the company. If the right site came along, it's got to be immediate. I don't want a virgin site, because of the investment."

He concludes: "We're waiting for the right offer to come along. We recognise the potential in the business. I think there's a huge opportunity for Arbutus to be rolled out, but it's cherry-picking the locations that's going to be the challenge."

Ask an expert

For aspiring restaurateurs looking to learn from Arbutus, Maureen Mills, the restaurant's PR adviser and founder of leading consultancy Network London, suggests the following:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Research your local market.
  • Know what your potential customers want.

"At Arbutus, the boys knew they had to open for dinner at 5pm to accommodate pre-theatre, they also knew that Soho wouldn't sustain a Putney Bridge type of operation in terms of prices and style of food, so they scaled it all down. It's a more casual market - that common-sense approach has worked well."

Arbutus

63-64 Frith Street, London W1D 3JW
Tel: 020 7734 4545
www.arbutusrestaurant.co.uk

  • Owners Anthony Demetre and Will Smith
  • Employees 20 (including Demetre and Smith)
  • Total investment: £600,000
  • Seats 75
  • Average covers 200 per day
  • Average spend £45 (including service)
  • Open Seven days a week, lunch and dinner

Awards

  • Harden's/Rémy Martin Excellence Award 2007
  • Time Out Eating & Drinking Guide‘s Best New Restaurant 2007
  • The Good Food Guide‘s London Newcomer of the Year 2007
  • Decanter Magazine Newcomer of the Year
  • Square Meal/BMW Best Newcomer of 2006
  • Tatler Magazine Newcomer of the Year
  • Michelin star
  • Three AA rosettes
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