Search
The Caterer

Hooked On Ideas

01 May 2005
Hooked On Ideas

Celebrity chefs are different from the rest of us. Running an award-winning and financially successful restaurant would satisfy ordinary mortals. Add in a star role in a hit television series, the chairmanship of a stock market listed company, an entry in the Sunday Times Rich List and Vinnie Jones as best mate, you'd think you would be content.

But Tony Allan, whose press relations describe him as one half of the biggest kitchen double act since Fanny and Johnny Craddock, wants more. The latter-day Oliver Twist has big plans for Britain's home-grown national dish - fish and chips.

Visiting Allan at the Loco Locale in Blackheath, part of the three-strong Loco family he started with his television sparring partner Giorgio Locatelli, has all the glamour that might be expected of his status.

On entering the eaterie, he is huddled in a corner with three others. The dark red walls of the otherwise empty restaurant create a brooding tension. Or perhaps it's the known connection with Vinnie Jones, who has swapped his footballing past for acting and is already typecast as a hardman.

Allan, however, is both charming and welcoming. He had just been having a business meeting with his part-time finance director Ian Williamson. After squeezing in this interview, he'll be arranging a shoot with Vinnie Jones. And by shoot, he means the 12-bore kind rather than the television kind he indulges in with Locatelli, which has made him a household name.

How does he find time for new ventures? "I'm 100% focused on this at the moment," he says, not entirely convincingly. Apart from having celebrity chums, he is negotiating a new television contract for a second series of BBC2's Tony and Giorgio. This will see him all but disappear from his catering interests during the filming.

The last series which aired at the start of 2003, while undoubtedly boosting his personal standing, contributed to a serious dent in his business career. Despite a position as executive chairman of Fish! Restaurants, he admits that its slide in trading took place while he had his eyes on the camera.

Before he took on the filming, the then eight Fish! restaurants were serving 9,500 covers a week. When the administrators came in, there were 21 restaurants barely doing 7,500 covers a week.

"The board wanted the association with the TV programme. The only way to justify my six-figure salary was to keep me as executive chairman," he says.

Those concerned with corporate governance would not be impressed. But Allan has never been afraid of the unorthodox approach. About his current business, he says: "I leave the figures to the finance director. I say what I want to achieve and he works it out from there."

This is not what the management textbooks teach you. They also do not teach you entrepreneurialism, which is what has made Allan a business success. When pushed, he admits he did not enjoy running a public company. The role of chairman, which involves schmoozing fund managers and big investors, has lost its appeal: "I've been chairman of three plcs and I've had enough".

There is also a problem with being listed: "You can't trade as a restaurateur. You are more interested in the roll-out. You forget about the customer, you forget about the concept."

So this time around Allan is clear on how far he wants to go. In the heyday of Fish! plc he was forecasting 200 restaurants around the UK. For his latest vision, Fish! Kitchen, six to eight outlets will be enough before he believes his job is done.

Fish! Kitchen will essentially be a stripped down version of Fish! When it is launched in June, with the modest aim of transforming the fortunes of what Allan describes as "our national dish". As well as eat-in, the idea is to push the take-away aspect. Take-out is expected to realise spend of 7 per head with eat-in at about 12.50.

The idea is to offer a Pizza Express-style fish and chip takeaway, offering a slightly more upmarket version of the traditional offering but still eminently affordable. Like Pizza Express, Fish! Kitchen relies on keeping control of the supply chain. Next door to the first outlet in Kingston near London is Jarvis Fishmongers, a business that has been supplying the town since 1942 and that has been run by Allan's mum for the past decade.

The original Fish! took the same line, being based on the Cutty wholesale business that was bought by Allan's brother after administration, although it has subsequently gone out of business.

Deskilling for success

On offer will be six mains, four starters and just house wine and beer. There will be only four staff running the outlet - two by the fryer, one washing-up and one clearing plates.

"I've always been into deskilling. Barring Bank, it's what I've always tried to do," says Allan.

Once the concept reaches about eight-strong, which Allan hopes to achieve in two years, he thinks a trade sale is a likely exit. "Americans would be interested," he suggests, without specifying which company.

Rather than being backed with venture capital money, Allan has partnered Andrew Cohen, the founder of Betterware. Both have injected more than 2m to resurrect Fish! (one outlet operates in Borough Market, London) and develop Fish! Kitchen. "We won't need more equity," says Allan.
Cohen brings a hard-headed business pragmatism to the mix. "He gives me another angle. He's a businessman first and foremost," says Allan.

Reading between the lines, Cohen acts as the checks and balances that the wilder instincts of Allan clearly needs. "He looks at it logically but it's not a logical game. He lets me get on with it while he handles property matters and money," adds Allan.

Part of the control is exercised through finance man Williamson. His main job is working for Cohen's company Woodhall Securities. The vehicle is the company Allan had set up with Locatelli to launch Loco prior to Fish! going into administration. The need to act fast meant Allan grabbed what was to hand and swooped on the Fish! brand and seven of the 20 restaurants being sold-off by the administrators. Locatelli, however, had no interest in seeing Loco transformed in this way and resigned. There was no ill feeling on either side, claims Allan.

Why Fish! failed

The crown jewel in the purchase was the first Fish! located in Borough Market, the only restaurant still trading under this name. Allan estimates that net profit on this outlet alone in the current year will be 1.1m from gross sales of 3m.

Given the success of this restaurant, it is hard to see how Fish! failed so comprehensively first time around. Allan blames the same problem others have: expanding too far, too fast.

But to have ended up 9m in debt and to have collapsed so quickly, management control must have been seriously lacking. "The company doctors thought we could trade out of it. But I didn't want to have a non-exec role and I went with what the bank wanted," says Allan.

How much personal damage Allan suffered as a result of the collapse is debatable. His listing in the Sunday Times Rich List disappeared the following year, although he claims this is because he telephoned to have his name removed.

What he is taking out of the Fish! experience is the understanding of what created the initial success. "We made an expensive product affordable," he says.

The affordability did not come from trimming margins: gross profit averages between 72% and 73%. Cost-control has helped boost profit. Allan claims converting a restaurant into a Fish! or Loco costs just 100,000 compared with the 500,000-plus that, say, a Pizza Express would come to. Even with a new kitchen and extraction system, the Loco in Fulham cost just 200,000 to fit out.

Another lesson learnt is to steer clear of chairman or chief executive roles within listed companies. "I'm an innovator, I'm good at man-management," he says, suggesting by implication that his weakness is on the finance side, although he is reluctant to be so candid.

While acknowledging his weaknesses, Allan remains astonishingly ambitious. As well as the television series, Fish! Kitchen, Fish! and Loco, he is currently writing an autobiography and has plans to open a restaurant in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, he has a shoot to organise.

The Caterer Breakfast Briefing Email

Start the working day with The Caterer’s free breakfast briefing email

Sign Up and manage your preferences below

Thank you

You have successfully signed up for the Caterer Breakfast Briefing Email and will hear from us soon!