Côte – The French Connection

25 April 2014 by
Côte – The French Connection

Neil Gerrard how they plan to maintain quality when opening 10 new sites every year

Don't ask Alex Scrimgeour what he thinks about Strada since he and Harald Samuelsson left and Tragus took over in 
2007. Strada was the business that tempted Scrimgeour, a classically trained chef then working for Chris Corbin and Jeremy King in a top role at the Wolseley, into the world of casual dining, and he clearly retains a soft spot for the brand.

"Strada really opened my eyes, because I had always been slightly disparaging of branded restaurants," he says. "I always thought that chain restaurants were synonymous with poor-quality food, average service and unloved environments. But Strada in those days was a very different proposition. I remember going in - and this was when there were 28 branches, so Harald had already been there a long time - and just being blown away at how good simple, fresh Italian cooking was."

And what do they think about it since it was sold? "Well, people make choices, and…" says Samuelsson, ever the diplomat.

"What I would like to say," continues Scrimgeour, "is that I would like people to remember Strada from when we were there."

Even if people don't remember the pair's contribution to Strada - and it was a considerable one - then there will be no mistaking their pivotal role in the growth of Côte as joint managing directors. The French brasserie group may have been the brainchild of Strada founders Chris Benians and Andy Bassadone (who won the Restaurateur of the Year - Group Catey in 2013), but it has been Samuelsson and Scrimgeour who acted as their generals, effected the growth of the business and 
jealously guarded its reputation for service and quality at a reasonable price.

Now at 50 sites (with the latest opening in Manchester in April), it is just over six months since the business was acquired for the handsome sum of £100m by private equity firm CBPE. And it is telling that Scrimgeour and Samuelsson, who have both been there pretty much from the start, remain on board.

Sharing responsibility

Their respective backgrounds, in front- and back-of-house, are clearly complementary when it comes to sharing the managing director role, although as Scrimgeour points out, "it's not like it's the Berlin Wall".

Samuelsson says: "The main components of the business are the food and the service, so for us it is really looking at where can we provide the best service and the best-quality food possible and to see where we can exceed expectations on both fronts. With Alex coming from a back-of-house background and myself 
from a front-of-house background, that is how we come together as the joint MDs."

Scrimgeour adds: "What works really well - and this has been really powerful in the development of both Strada and Côte - is that Harald and I see each other very much as equal partners, and that is mirrored all the way through the business at all levels. So we have a structure, of area managers and area chefs and general managers and head chefs, and while at restaurant level the GM is the boss, here it is very much a partnership. That is not the traditional format in certain branded restaurants."

Price versus quality

Much has been made in recent months of the gradual convergence of fine dining and casual dining. Côte, which describes itself as serving authentic, classic French brasserie dishes with a modern twist, is a prime example of a business that has managed the shift well, occupying a category that Samuelsson and Scrimgeour refer to as "fine casual".

In fact, Scrimgeour says he wants the business to be seen as the Waitrose of the branded restaurant world, and it is clear that the pair are very proud of the balance they have 
managed to achieve between quality and price. "If you have a great meal at a great price, you will always get people walking through
the door," he says. "Eating out has become much more part and parcel of people's lives."

But don't expect them to give too much away when it comes to explaining how to strike that balance. "We can't tell you that - it is a trade secret," says Scrimgeour, only half-joking. "It is very important to us. We have to work hard commercially. We make no bones about it."

Certainly, the rapid growth of the business appears to give them an amount of leverage to secure the best prices, as Samuelsson says: "It is about having a strong relationship with our suppliers. They know that when they join us we will be opening a minimum of 10 restaurants a year, so every year they will get an extra 10 restaurants thrown in."

Managing growth

Despite the involvement of CBPE, which is the driving force behind that expansion, Samuelsson and Scrimgeour insist that customers won't see shrinking portion sizes and rising prices - tactics stereotypically attributed to
private equity owners. Certainly, the fact that the pair have been retained by the new owners 
suggests there is no desire to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Nonetheless, 10 sites a year is growth at quite a rate of knots. How many restaurants might the business end up with? And can Côte's much-vaunted reputation for quality remain intact? To answer the first question, Scrimgeour says: "We don't really know.
We would be very confident to say we'll end up with 150. I am sure that, 20 years ago, if you had told PizzaExpress they were going to open 350 sites, they would have said you were mad. We think it is an expanding market and we are really well-placed to grow."

Samuelsson says: "I think growth has concerned us from the day we started. Growing from five to 10 restaurants is a big leap - it is an increase of 100% - and then from 10 to 20 and 20 to 40. That consistency is a constant challenge. That is why it is so important we recruit the right people and train them, because we own the standards we exceed. We are very strict on the standards we expect from our staff."

Scrimgeour agrees it is not enough to simply "maintain" standards. "Harald is absolutely right that training is an area of major focus. The truth is, that in branded restaurants if all you want to do is maintain quality, then standards go down."

Only time will tell if their stated ambitions and the reality of a rapidly expanding business will match up, but given Scrimgeour's apparent opinions on Strada, letting standards slip seems to be an unlikely option.

Changing landscapes: the unification of fine and casual dining

On more than one occasion, Alex Scrimgeour and Harald Samuelsson refer to Côte as being in the "fine casual" bracket. It's a useful shorthand for the slow convergence of casual dining and fine dining, but what does it mean? Which elements should be "fine" and which should be "casual"?

"It depends," says Scrimgeour, "but you have to categorise atmosphere, food and service separately."

For him, the food needs to be simply prepared, using fresh products at value-formoney prices. "That is definitely hard to compete with, and I think we are seeing high-end restaurants paring back and mirroring that," he says.

In terms of the service, it needs to be impeccable and attentive, but not condescending - which explains why the Heston Blumenthals and Marcus Wareings at the top end of the market are simplifying their dining rooms and losing the tablecloths.

"It is an interesting time in the restaurant industry, because I see polar opposites starting to come together," he says. "It is rather like politics - most people want to
be in the middle ground."

New sites: What are the requirements?

The normal requirement for a new Côte site is at least 3,000 sq ft, which typically give the restaurant the volume it needs at the price point it offers. The group already spreads as far west as Cardiff, as far north as York and as far south as Brighton, but has the majority of its sites in London and the South East.

However, there will be many more Côtes opening across the rest of the country soon, with cities like Leeds, Glasgow and Edinburgh all on the target list.

"We started in London and the South East, creating hubs, and then moved out, making sure the supply chain could come with us," says Harald Samuelsson.

"We are going up to Manchester and, if that is successful, we will look around Manchester - places like Didsbury, Alderley Edge - and work from there."

Although there is a core design, they recognise the need for individuality in each site to keep the look fresh.

Investment in a new site is typically considerable. One of Côte's most recent openings, in London's Blackheath, for example, represented a total investment of £1m.

A selection from the menu

  • Goat's cheese tartine (chargrilled sourdough bread with soft goat's cheese, roasted baby artichokes and black olive tapenade), £5.45
  • Charcuterie board (jambon de Savoie, smoked duck breast, saucisson sec and duck rillettes with baby gem salad and chargrilled pain de campagne), £6.50
  • Roast sea bass (pan-roasted fillet, braised fennel and a Champagne beurre blanc with chives and tomato concasse), £13.95
  • Pan-roasted pork belly (with a potato, crème fraÁ®che and chive purée, caramelised apples and Calvados jus), £12.95
  • Tarte fine aux pommes, £5.45
  • Praline crÁªpe, £5.45

Profile: Alex Scrimgeour

Alex Scrimgeour's love of food, somewhat unusually, comes from the herd of pedigree Limousin cows his family kept on their Derbyshire farm. Because his knowledge of the French language was the best among his family, he would travel to France with the farm manager to buy Limousin calves, which opened his eyes to the joys of French food.

Like Samuelsson, he did not plan a career in catering, but a ski season as a chalet chef led to his studying at Le Cordon Bleu in London and Paris, where he graduated top of his class. He then went to work under Jeremiah Towers at Stars restaurant in San Francisco, before becoming sous chef at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, where a highlight was orchestrating Bill Clinton's inauguration dinner for 2,000 guests.

He then moved back to the west coast of the US, via the Aspen Grill at the St Regis hotel in Colorado for a ski season, where he held his first head chef post at the age of 26. In California, he became executive chef of the Saddle Peak Lodge in Malibu, and three years later opened his own restaurant in Hollywood.

There he won a Best New Restaurant Award, was voted one of the top 10 young chefs in America by Esquire magazine and became the Los Angeles Chef of the Year in 2003.

After his English wife became pregnant, they decided to move back to the UK. He took a role at the Wolseley as executive chef before getting an introduction to the founders of Strada, Chris Benians and Andy Bassadone, and joined the company when it had 28 sites.

When Strada was sold and Côte was founded, there was not enough room for him in the fledgling business alongside Benians, Bassadone and Harald Samuelsson, so he went to Gondola and became head of food for Zizzi. When Côte hit three restaurants, he and Samuelsson were invited by Benians and Bassadone to run the business.

"It was a huge leap of faith from Andy and Chris, and we would like to think we repaid their faith in building a very successful business," he says.

Profile: Harald Samuelsson

Harald Samuelsson grew up in the Netherlands and studied international business administration. Like so many successful entrepreneurs in hospitality, he fell into the industry almost by accident after getting a part-time job in a local bar and restaurant.

When the owner of the business had to go away for a few months during the summer holidays, Samuelsson found himself taking the reins.

"The owner was really happy and asked me if I would become general manager, so I sort of rolled into catering," he says.

It was at this point that he knew a career in the sector was for him. He moved to the UK in 1998 and worked first at a bar and restaurant in Fulham before starting at a small restaurant group called Strada when it had just four sites.

He progressed from the role of general manager to a senior operations role, helping Strada grow to 60 sites, until owner Richard Caring sold it to Tragus in 2007 for £140m.

It was then that Chris Benians and Andy Bassadone, for whom Samuelsson and Alex Scrimgeour acted for as "generals" at Strada, left to form Côte and offered Samuelsson the role of operations director.

He has been with Côte ever since, staying on board with Scrimgeour as joint managing director after the business was sold to CBPE Capital for £100m last year.

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