The Patara restaurant group is famous worldwide for its contemporary Thai cuisine. It now has four London branches, which are run by Saipin Lee, recently named in the ‘Women 1st Top 100 Most Influential Women', writes Neil Gerrard
Background Bangkok-based Thai restaurant group S&P started business 36 years ago and now has around 100 sites in Thailand.
But it expanded beyond the borders of its home country for the first time in 1992 with the opening of Patara in London's Fulham Road. The UK operation has since grown to four Pataras - the three others are in Beauchamp Place, Greek Street and Maddox Street - as well as the newly opened Suda in Covent Garden.
Saipin Lee who has run the UK business for the past 10 years, likens Patara to the Thai equivalent of Carluccio's - a family-run business which has grown progressively out of just one site.
Target market Patara's customers are diverse, owing to the different London locations, which attract different forms of clientele.
But walk into any one of their restaurants and you are more than likely to find young and middle-aged business people, couples travelling from outside London for a trip to the theatre, ladies who are doing lunch, and media executives.
The restaurants also attract a significant number of business travellers, particularly from regions like Scandinavia, as well as from European countries like Italy and France.
How does it stand out? For Lee, it is the standards of service and the standard of ingredients which make Patara stand out and have helped the restaurants earn their reputation as Thai fine dining establishments. "You have to give the best, and the best service as well," she says. "The service must not be too much, but discreetly attentive."
Favourite supplier Patara uses local ingredients wherever possible - so staples like lamb, beef, fish and many of the vegetables come from the British Istles. However there are some items, such as certain herbs, spices, chilli paste and certain vegetables, which have to come from Thailand.
In those cases Patara uses the Tawana Oriental Supermarket in Westbourne Grove.
"They can source whatever we want and they can order it just for us," Lee explains. "So for example rice if we want a certain species of rice they can supply that exclusively to us. We have become friends with them over the years. We do tend to use smaller suppliers because we can communicate with them better."
Marketing Originally, Lee said the restaurants hardly used any marketing campaigns. "Our marketing is a great product - the food and the staff, the venue."
With the most recent venue, Suda, the company has embarked on using social media, and it tends to hire PR people to promote a new opening for around six months. Other than that, it relies on word of mouth. "We let customers speak for us. We want everyone who walks out the door to walk out happy," she says.
As for vouchers or discount deals, all of the Patara restaurants have steered well clear of the idea. "We have to be careful of our positioning. If you slip it is very difficult to rescue it," she says.
Trading through the recession Patara did feel the effects of the recession, particularly at its Maddox Street site in 2009. Local business customers working in the surrounding Mayfair offices appeared to put some of their spending on hold, but Lee and her team pulled through and learned some valuable lessons from the experience. "We had many customers who walked through the door who we wanted to come back so we did our very best to console and comfort them," she says. "We gave more to make sure they were happy. We made sure that we didn't cut any corners. Cutting corners is a no-no. If you start, the customer notices. So we sacrificed our margin a bit to keep our customers happy." Within about six months, the Maddox Street site's fortunes started to turn around and the customers came back. "All the staff noticed that whatever they put in, they got a return on their effort," she explains.
Business advice Aside from working hard and not ever giving up, Lee's best piece of business advice is simple: "Put Customers as well as Staff as the centre of everything you do."
Spotlight on expanding and finding good sites
Lee has been tasked with doubling the business within five years. Because she and her team have already opened Suda which has 160 seats, that means she "only" has three more to find. Fortunately, she is also a chartered surveyor, so she is more prepared than most restaurateurs to deal with the challenges of finding a new site. On top of that, she has the help and advice of a friend who has a knack for locating sites.
"Location is the most important thing," she says. "London is hot and there is still room to grow. For our business we have got to have a lunch trade. Evening trade is the most important but we need a lunch trade otherwise it is not justified."
Lee is keen to make sure the company does not end up with too many restaurants branded Patara, for fear of making the group look too much like a chain. But she believes that another Patara could be opened north of Oxford Street without diluting the brand, and feels it offers a good opportunity to help revitalise the Patara name. "The next venue could be a good opportunity to do that," she says.
Patara Soho Head Chef Payom Phimkrua
Patara Maddox Head Chef Sombat Sonwiang
Patara Beauchamp Head Chef Pitsanu La-on
Patara Fulham Head Chef Samran Preepoon (Lady chef)
Suda Covent Garden Specialist Chef Sumaree Inseng (Lady chef)
FACTS AND STATSRegional manager Saipin Lee
Group op manager Boonyarit Khaokong
UK branches Five
Average spend per head (including drink) £35-£38
Covers a week (across five restaurants) 4,800
Full-time staff 60 (plus 60-70 part-time staff)