Caterer and Hotelkeeper 100: Russell Norman, Polpo

06 December 2012
Caterer and Hotelkeeper 100: Russell Norman, Polpo

Overall ranking: 49 (ranked 100 in 2011)
Restaurateur ranking: 14 (ranked 23 in 2011)

Russell Norman - Snapshot
Russell Norman is co-owner of the Polpo group of restaurants. He and partner Richard Beatty successfully captured the recession zeitgeist with their six-strong burgeoning London restaurant group, Polpo (2009) and Polpetto

Russell Norman- Career guide
As a restaurant manager, Norman proved himself at iconic London landmarks such as the Blue Print Café, Circus, Joe Allen and Zuma. From there, he went on to become operations director of Caprice Holdings, where he launched the new oyster bar at Sheekey's in London and planned openings in Dubai and New York.

Norman decided to go it alone in 2008, just as the recession bit. Undaunted, by September 2009 he had launched self-styled Venetian bacaro Polpo alongside business partner, entrepreneur and friend Richard Beatty.

Some sceptics voiced concerns about its no reservations policy at dinner, but cash-strapped diners loved the laid-back vibe and inexpensive menu. Signature dishes such as pork belly, radicchio and hazelnut, and mackerel tartare have been well received by critics, such as AA Gill, who wrote in the Sunday Times: "The manager tells me the average spend is £24. This is simply the best value in the West End, in a charming room."

Polpetto, a bijou version of Polpo, followed in August 2010, opening above the French House pub in Soho. Spuntino opened in Soho in March 2011, followed in June by da Polpo in Covent Garden (now renamed Polpo Covent Garden) and most recently Polpo Smithfield (July 2012). Unlike the others, Spuntino draws its heritage from New York's diner scene, with just 26 covers around a central bar and a menu that references Italy via New York, while Mishkins is an homage to classic Jewish/American food - or as he describes it: "A Jewish deli with cocktails."

Russell Norman - What we think
Norman branched out during tough economic times, but at least he brought one invaluable commodity to the table; years of experience at the top of Caprice Holdings.

"It was absolutely invaluable," he explains. "It taught me discipline, that these places are businesses. It taught me you have a responsibility both to yourself and your customer, but also everyone you employ. It taught me all the back-of-house stuff: profit margins, payroll, percentages. It taught me how important it is to be on the top of each of your departments - doing daily menu tastings with the chefs, for example."

Undoubtedly, his ability to capture the mood of diners during a recession clinched his success. As he told Caterer and Hotelkeeper in June 2011: "We saw how all the places who were still busy were the cool, buzzy ones. I knew it was the right time for the kind of restaurant I wanted to do - low average spend per head, added value and relaxed service. It was a recession idea, really."

It's a discipline that's reflected in Norman and Beatty's decision not to take anything out of the business in the first year. Even now they only take out a modest salary each that just covers cost. "And we'll continue to work like that, 80 hours a week," says Norman.

Norman is upfront about his admiration for the New York dining scene: "I think it is six to 10 years ahead of ours. We suffer from the fact that our restaurants evolved from hotel dining rooms. The origin of restaurants in New York is the diner. It's a lot more casual and fun, with no emphasis on taking reservations."

His idiosyncratic staffing policy, placing more emphasis on attitude than experience, has paid off. By attracting a younger, more creative breed of waiter, he now has people queuing up to work in his restaurants.

And perhaps what makes Norman's restaurants all the more remarkable is that he has done the interior designs himself. In fact, the phrase ‘the Polpo school of design' has been coined in the press.
Three years on, and with six sites under his belt and expansion plans afoot, Norman has clearly caught the wave, but he insists he doesn't have an exit strategy or long-term plan.

Russell Norman's ranking in the 2011 Caterer and Hotelkeeper 100 >>

Norman opens 6th site and set to expand >>

Polpo opens fifth site Mishkins >>

Polpo - A Venetian cookbook of sorts: book review >>

The secret of Russell Norman's restaurants >>Ex-Caprice director to launch Venetian restaurant in London >>

From glamour to grit - Russell Norman's journey to the opening of Polpo >>

Q&A with Polpetto's Russell Norman >>

Polpo website >>

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