Located on top of the Kensington Roof Gardens in London, Babylon restaurant appeals to a wide range of customers. Restaurant manager Peter Avis tells Neil Gerrard the advantages and challenges of working in such an unusual location
â- Restaurant manager Peter Avis named Restaurant Manager of the Year 2009
â- Assistant restaurant manager â¨Luigi Ferrara commended in the â¨2012 AFWS Food Service Awards
Need to know
The Roof Gardens, 100ft above High Street Kensington has been one of the more unusual features of London for a long time. In fact, the gardens - which are split into three themed areas over 1.5 acres including fully grown oaks and fruit trees and a flowing stream stocked with fish and wildlife - are approaching their 75th anniversary.
On the sixth floor of the building is a private members' club, bought by Sir Richard Branson in 1982, reputedly after he was refused entry. Meanwhile, Babylon, the restaurant on top of the Roof Gardens, is a rather more recent addition, having been opened in 2001. Peter Avis, now restaurant manager, has worked at Babylon ever since it was launched, having initially occupied the position of restaurant supervisor.
"It has always been challenging and I think that is why I have enjoyed my role so much here," he says.
Target market Babylon has a broad demographic when it comes to its customers, but Avis estimates that more than 50% of guests come for a special occasion. That said, he also stresses that the restaurant is open to local businesses, local residents, travellers and tourists.
To help bring customers like that in, Babylon has concentrated on making sure it has a flexible, value-for-money offering, with a £20, two-course lunch menu available from Monday to Friday.
Olympics The Olympics was not a happy time for many central London restaurants, with many complaining that fear of Olympic congestion was keeping customers away, particularly during the early stages of the Games. But it was a different story at Babylon, which enjoyed a busier summer than it usually would. This wasn't down to chance, according to Avis, who learned plenty of useful lessons from the former general manager of the Roof Gardens, Jason Goddard, who had worked in Sydney during the Olympics there.
"I remember him saying to me, 'Peter, â¨don't expect business to just flow in'," explains Avis. "We had strategies in place a year ahead of the Olympic Games to find out who the sponsors were."
It wasn't an approach that many of his peers considered. "I sit as the chairman of the Guild of UK restaurants at the Academy of Food â¨and Wine, so I get to speak to a lot of industry restaurant managers and colleagues," he explains. "The consensus back then was 'we're going to be so busy, we just need to worry about the training'. My tack was, we need to secure business and get out there. In a nutshell we had an amazing Olympic period."
That focus is continuing to pay dividends, with parties who visited during the summer already coming back as repeat customers.
"It was an amazing achievement for the team. We played it like the Games - we rehearsed, we trained, we had incentives, we had a fantastic experience," says Avis.
Marketing Avis is never complacent when it comes to marketing and keeps a close eye on where the business is coming from. Every month he will check to see whether there has been any drop-off in custom from regular clients, and if there has, he speaks to his sales manager to let them know what is coming up at the restaurant and inviting them to come back.
The restaurant also does plenty of advertising and promotional work with third party websites such as Livebookings.com.
The weather There might have been a risk that one of â¨Babylon's great virtues - its location on top of the Roof Gardens - might also have been a curse in the colder, drabber winter months. But Avis and his team have worked hard to make sure that the restaurant continues to draw customers in, even when the weather isn't so enticing. Recently, one of the waiters came up with the idea of using the seafood bar that sits on the terrace at the restaurant during the winter, eschewing fish dishes for roasted chestnuts and marshmallows.
"We are implementing that plan in December along with our head chef Ian," explains Avis. "So that gives us a big tool to go to market with and say 'come to Babylon's winter terrace with heaters and roasted chestnuts'. It gives us another option for the guests. You have got to keep thinking outside the box. Whether you are a fine dining restaurant or a high street restaurant, you've got to involve your team and find different activities to hit the market with."
Peter Avis's Revelations
Favourite restaurant Reef, Chiswick
Last hotel you stayed in EDGE Hotel School (Wivenhoe House)
Motto "It's ballet, not football"
Who do you most admire? Sir Richard â¨Branson
Facts and stats
- Head chef Ian Howard
- 150 covers â¨(capacity)
- 1,500 covers per week
- Staff 70
- â¨Average spend for lunch/dinner (excluding drinks) £22/£35