Former TV journalist Jon Wise took over his favourite neighbourhood restaurant, the Laughing Gravy, last year after it had deteriorated under its former ownership. He tells Kerstin Kühn how he brought it back to life
Need to know The Laughing Gravy first opened in 2000 as a restaurant owned by an actress and her husband. Named after a short film by Laurel and Hardy and also the slang for alcohol during the prohibition, it was a successful local eaterie for several years. However, after new owners took over in 2008, the business faltered and deteriorated rapidly.
In 2010, former regular Jon Wise quit his career as a TV journalist to bring his favourite local restaurant back to life. Having previously run bars and restaurants in his early 20s, he revamped the restaurant on a shoestring over seven weeks and reopened it last August. A year on, the Laughing Gravy is rated number six in London out of more than 8,000 restaurants by TripAdvisor.
Winning back the locals As a local resident, Wise knew that the people in the area had fond memories of the restaurant and that they wanted it back to how it was before. "When I took over I tried to maintain as many of the original features and elements as possible," he recalls. "The aim was to make it more modern and clean, show that it had been given a bit of love but without changing it too much."
Once reopened, he actively engaged with the community in the local internet forum, SE1, went out speaking to residents and handed out fliers to get the people in the neighbourhood back into their former local. "For the first month we also ran special offers for local residents and office workers to get people through the doors," Wise adds.
Target audience Situated near the theatres around Waterloo, the Laughing Gravy attracts tourists and theatre-goers as well as residents in the surrounding areas. "I really wanted the place to be somewhere locals could hang out and spend time, but also hold enough appeal to attract custom from all over London," Wise explains. "We are also close enough to the City to attract business clientele."
Thanks to its high ranking on TripAdvisor, the Laughing Gravy now attracts diners from far beyond its local postcode, including visitors from abroad.
Future growth Wise says that although opening in the midst of a recession wasn't easy, the Laughing Gravy's first 12 months of trading have been "fantastic" and business has continued to grow steadily over the year. Initially the restaurant opened on weekdays for lunch and dinner and Saturday evening for dinner.
"In March, we took the plunge and started opening on Sundays for our roast service between 12-4pm with the bar staying open until 6pm. It has proved to be a great success and one which we hope to build on," says Wise. "We have to perfect what we are doing already at the Laughing Gravy but eventually we want to look to opening a second place in central London."
Favourite supplier and why
Best business advice To Wise, the most important aspect when running a business is perspective - being able to remove yourself and look at your business from a distance. "It's so easy to be all-consumed and bury your head in your restaurant," he explains. "I spent years researching my ideas and the only way to do that was to get out and eat at other restaurants to see what worked and didn't work. As hard as it can be to get away, it is so important to get out and be a customer from time to time."
Spotlight on the food
The Laughing Gravy's head chef, Michael Facey (pictured), has created a menu that aims to make the most of seasonal British produce.
Facey, who previously worked alongside chefs including John Torode, Garry Hollihead and Mark Hix, describes his food as modern British. "I take classic dishes and give them a bit of a twist," he explains. Instead of brandy he uses whisky in his chicken liver parfait, for instance, while his shepherd's pie is not made with minced meat but with a braised lamb shank or shoulder.
"My menu offers something for everyone," adds Facey. Indeed dishes range from the popular burger and chips to the more sophisticated pan-fried brill served with samphire and a truffle broth.
jon wise's revelations
Favourite hotel Great John Street hotel, Manchester
Favourite restaurant Caravan, Exmouth Market, London
What book has inspired you Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Motto You learn something every day if you pay attention
If you weren't a restaurateur, what would you have been TV critic
Which restaurateur do you most admire Polpo owner Russell Norman
Describe your business in five words Adaptable, energetic, customer focused, evolving
Facts and stats
Head chef Michael Facey
Owner/manager Jon Wise
Capacity 46 (plus 16 in the bar)
Average weekly covers 600
Average spend per head £30
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