A triumphant return to his old stomping ground has seen Roger Hickman scoop the regional Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year award only a year after opening Roger Hickman's Restaurant for business. Eleanor Earls discovers the secrets behind his success
Need to know When he opened Roger Hickman's Restaurant in February 2010, owner, head chef and manager Roger Hickman had a bit of a head start - he used to work on the same premises as head chef when it housed Adlard's restaurant. After a spell at the Victoria, Holkham, and two unsuccessful years of trying to set up a restaurant, he decided it was now or never and headed back to the familiar but now empty building on Norwich's Upper Giles Street to give it another go.
"I thought it would be good to come back to the restaurant people associated with me; I've got a reputation in Norfolk," he explains. "I also had an outline of everything, more or less, and I knew what I needed to do."
A refurb and a couple of delays later, Hickman has never looked back and still can't believe the success he enjoyed during his first year as a restaurant owner. "The first year was unbelievable," he says. "And this year's even busier!"
Target market Roger Hickman's restaurant, which serves modern British food, stands out in Norwich, a city full to bursting with middle market and chain restaurants. "Part of the reason I've done so well is because I haven't got much competition," Hickman explains.
Yet he's also made sure not to alienate any potential customers with sky-high prices. "It's affordable for everyone and is aimed at anyone that appreciates good food," he emphasises. "Lunch is £20 for three courses and dinner's £30 for two; my prices are quite low for what you get."
Having already tried and failed to set up a restaurant during the recession, Hickman is keen to stress that you must be mindful of what is going on: "I've put the prices up once since I've been open and all I did was put a pound on everything. People still want to go out, but if they're trying a new restaurant, they don't want to be disappointed; you have to get it right from the start or they won't come back."
Marketing For Hickman, word of mouth is much stronger than an advertisement in a newspaper. "A lot of people come on a recommendation," he remarks. "The power of that is unbelievable."
He also attributes much of the restaurant's success to its significant online presence. "The website's very good and I promote special offers and events through the website," he notes. "Last January, I put up an offer advertising free Prosecco for everybody that comes for lunch; we were fully booked all month at lunchtime. We also do wine dinners once a month on a Wednesday, which are always fully booked and fill a quieter night. Mid-week is difficult and you're not going to be busy unless you do something different."
One of his latest offers, the "Oz Wine Dinner", could have been filled three times over, he recalls, adding: "Adlard's was a good restaurant, but it wasn't as busy as this."
Favourite suppliers Keenly aware of the environmental impact of food miles, Hickman endeavours to source locally as much as he can and has developed quite a knack for sniffing out good-quality local suppliers.
"I found David Morris [a one-man operation who grows micro salads and baby veg] at a farmers' market, loved his salad and since then we have worked together growing salad to my specifications," he says.
His wine supplier, Premium Wines Collection, is also local, perfect for an establishment with very limited storage space. "I can get a delivery every day, which helps control my stock levels," he explains. "They've also helped me from the very beginning with putting together the list and taught me a lot about wine."
Business advice A rookie restaurant owner, Hickman wasn't afraid to ask for help when he was starting out. "It was all new ground for me," he admits. "I'm a chef at the end of the day and had to ask a lot of people about things like leases and accounting. So if you're not sure about something, ask someone with more experience for advice."
It's certainly worked for Hickman who now confesses to quite enjoying that side of things. "I'm from Yorkshire, so I'm naturally tight," he can't resist adding.
Future plans Despite the few inevitable scary moments when the restaurant first opened, Roger Hickman's restaurant has been incredibly successful in its first year of operation. But not quite satisfied yet, the now-established restaurant owner can't wait to build on this and take his business to the next level.
"It was all about coming here, building my reputation and seeing where that takes me," he says. "The ideal step forward for me would be to get a restaurant with rooms. We're looking for a bigger place at the moment but we're not in a rush; I hope to find the right building in the next 18 months." His regular customers needn't panic; the next incarnation of Roger Hickman's restaurant will be staying firmly in Norwich.
Roger Hickman's revelations
Favourite restaurant Hakkasan, Mayfair
Favourite hotel Hotel du Vin
Book that inspired you White Heat, Marco Pierre White
If you hadn't been a chef, what would you have been? Professional footballer or golfer
Motto Wiggle, wiggle
Describe your restaurant in five words Award-winning, elegant yet relaxed
Spotlight on the walls
A great believer in keeping things fresh, Hickman changes the pictures on the walls of his restaurant, or "keeps the walls moving", every few months to showcase the work of leading local artists and photographers. Customers are then able to purchase the pieces from the artists themselves. "Sometimes after a few bottles of wine, they end up buying the pictures," he says. "It does happen."
So far the restaurateur has displayed the work of four local artists and already has another one lined up. "They have to be right," he adds. "At the moment we have landscapes of north Norfolk, but I did have someone who tried to put dogs and cats on my wall - that wasn't going to work!"
Facts and stats
Owner/head chef Roger Hickman
Managers Roger and Penny Hickman
Staff 105 full-time, 5 part-time
Average spend at lunch £25
Average spend at dinner £50