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The Caterer

Life above the shop

12 January 2006
Life above the shop

Steven Doherty is well into the third, and perhaps most surprising, phase of a highly successful career as one of Britain's trailblazing chefs.

Following inspirational years working for the Roux brothers, including a stint as head chef of Le Gavroche when it held three Michelin stars, he was in the vanguard of the culinary revolution in pubs - earning, alongside wife and business partner Marjorie, a Catey as Pub Operator of the Year in 1997.

Earlier this year, after selling the last of three pubs the couple have owned over the years (the Punch Bowl Inn in Crosthwaite, Cumbria), Doherty turned his attention full-time to running the 100-seat First Floor Café at the Windermere headquarters and flagship store of kitchen and homeware retailer Lakeland.

Doherty had taken over the café-restaurant in the summer of 2004, but retained ownership of the Punch Bowl - a career move that's hardly unusual among his peers in the industry. However, many people in the sector were surprised when he announced his decision to hang up his independent pub operator's whites. For Doherty, though, Lakeland is where he wants to be at this stage of his career.

"It was absolutely the right decision to make and it is one that I see as being very long-term," he says from his office adjacent to the light and airy, bustling restaurant in Lakeland's stunning glass and steel, granite-clad building. Today it is overcast and misty, but the all-around views of Lake Windermere and its dramatic setting usually make for an inspirational shopping and eating experience.

The venue and location are certainly impressive, but can the task of feeding hundreds of shoppers a day be as exciting as serving customers in Michelin-starred restaurants or award-winning pubs?

"Absolutely," enthuses Doherty. "I'm still applying the same philosophy to my cooking that I learnt from the Roux brothers and then used in the pubs - buying the best seasonal and local produce I can and using it to cook great food. The only difference now is that I am cooking for much greater numbers."

On the restaurant's busiest day so far, Doherty and his team catered for 870 customers. A more usual day will see between 500 and 600 people passing through the restaurant, each spending an average of £5.50. While many transactions may involve no more than a pot of tea and a slice of cake, more and more customers are choosing to order two or three courses. In fact, people are increasingly heading to Lakeland for a gastronomic and not just a retail experience.

In order to handle the numbers who want to visit the restaurant, bookings are taken only from personal visitors to Lakeland and not by telephone. Customers are told how long their wait for a table will be - a figure which is displayed electronically at the entrance to the restaurant - and given a pager so that they can be called from the ground-floor shop up to the First Floor Café when space is available. At the busiest times, there can be a wait of about one-and-a-half hours.

Doherty did not have any major game plan to move away from pubs. He was approached, out of the blue, by the Rayner family - the owners of Lakeland - to submit a tender for a restaurant at their company's new headquarters in Windermere. The family wanted a template for a food operation that could then be incorporated into any future new Lakeland store, if space permitted.

"I was given a completely blank piece of paper and given the opportunity to design the restaurant and kitchen, as well as make suggestions for the furnishings, crockery, glasses and cutlery," says Doherty. "It was very satisfying to have so much input."

When the First Floor Café opened in April 2004, Doherty continued to run the Punch Bowl Inn with Marjorie, alongside his new responsibility. But by early 2005 he felt the time was right to sell.

"So much had changed in terms of pub food since we arrived here from London in 1993," he says. "When we took on our first business [the Brown Horse in Winster], there were no other pubs in the area doing the kind of gastronomic food we were doing. I was looking to people like Denis Watkins at the Angel Inn [Hetton, North Yorkshire] and Franco Taruschio at the Walnut Tree [near Abergavenny, Monmouthshire] for inspiration.

"Gradually more and more pubs around us followed in our footsteps and, as a result, the market become somewhat diluted in an area where the customer base has not increased in the past five years. We needed to decide either to reinvest in the business, by adding extra bedrooms to the three we already had, in order to increase turnover, or sell."

The Dohertys did not want to be locked into running the Punch Bowl for another 10 years or so, which is what would have happened if they had decided to expand, so they took the decision to sell the Punch Bowl to the owners of the nearby Drunken Duck in Ambleside - Richard Rose, Amanda Robinson, Paul Spencer and Steph Barton. They have gone on to add six bedrooms and extensively refurbish the property.

Catering for large numbers is not an alien concept to Doherty. As group executive chef for Roux Restaurants, a position he held after leaving Le Gavroche, he was involved in many food service contracts, including those at Bafta and financial institutions such as Kleinwort Benson and Credit Lyonnais.

"I learnt a lot from working alongside Sue Harrison [now director of catering at the House of Commons] and retained that knowledge, which has proved invaluable for what I'm doing here at Lakeland," says Doherty.

"I might no longer be my own boss," he adds, "but Lakeland has given me a great opportunity to run the restaurant in my own way within a wonderful working environment. The culture of the company is all about offering the best customer service through buying and selling the best products - it is enormously inspiring and something that we embrace in the restaurant, too."

Everything to refuel the hungry shopper - from soups and sandwiches to main-course dishes and a wide selection of cakes, toasted tea cakes and freshly baked scones - is available in the First Floor Caf. All items, except for some of the cakes, are made by Doherty and his team of eight chefs. "I've always believed in Albert Roux's advice that if you can find something made by someone else that is better than you can make it, then buy it," he says. "We sell such a high quantity of cakes that we could never be able to make them all ourselves, and we've found some great cakes made by Andrew and Nicola Bowker of Cater4."

The special dishes of the day are generally hearty in character and designed to appeal to the largely Northern clientele. "They are all familiar dishes; there is nothing off-the-wall," says Doherty.

So, a starter of a warm duck salad, incorporating duck confit and locally made duck sausage, noodles, green beans, cucumber and sunblush tomatoes (£4.95) may be followed by baked fillet of hot smoked salmon served with pesto, crushed new potatoes and rocket salad (£8.95), or baked ham on mashed potato with a creamy wild mushroom and tarragon sauce (£7.95). Dessert could be meringue with poached local Lyth Valley damsons, vanilla ice-cream and cream (£4.25), or warm chocolate brownie with apricot sauce, poached apricots and brandy apricot ice-cream (£4.25).

When it comes to inspiration for running an in-store restaurant, Doherty says that he has taken a leaf out of the Harvey Nichols book. "I'd like to think that we've captured some of their quality, but we couldn't do their diversity here," he says. "There have always been restaurants in shops, but what Harvey Nichols has done has been to elevate it to a new level."

Doherty is frustrated that his philosophy of serving simple food to an extremely high quality is not replicated in other retail outlets - most notably in cafs and restaurants run by the supermarkets.

"Booths have done a wonderful job in the North of England with their championing of local foods in their Artisan restaurant in Kendal," he says, "but the food served in cafs run by the major chains is disgraceful and largely mirrors the crap that they sell in their stores. The reason why the quality is generally so poor is all down to finances - the big companies are just not prepared to spend the money on quality ingredients to serve to customers."

Doherty runs the First Floor Caf on a franchise arrangement, alongside Marjorie, who's involved in the management of the business. They have 32 staff (eight in the kitchen and 24 front-of-house). He is also employed as a consultant in setting up other First Floor Cafés in new Lakeland stores. He has already overseen the opening of one outlet at the Handforth store in south Manchester and is now involved in setting up the café at the new Brent Cross store in north London, which is scheduled to open in April this year.

As well as enjoying the challenge of running a very different kind of catering operation, Doherty is also learning to explore new avenues outside of work.

"I'm 47 and not a spring chicken any more," he says. "I've worked bloody hard, doing long hours for many years now and, although I still do 10- to 12-hour days, I'm not doing the late nights any more - the caf closes at 6pm during the week and at 5pm on Saturday and 4pm on Sunday. I'm looking forward to playing a bit of golf and finally being able to have the time to join one of the local clubs."

For someone who has already given so much to the industry, he deserves nothing less.

Lakeland Limited - a history

The company, which today has an annual turnover of £110m, a range of more than 4,000 products and 30 stores across the UK, and which despatches 6,000 mail-order parcels daily, remains a family business.

In 1963 Alan Rayner, an agricultural feed salesman, started supplying local farmers in the Lake District with polythene bags for packing poultry. He and his wife, Dorothy, then set up a mail-order business from the garage of their home by Lake Windermere and rapidly found themselves supplying agricultural plastics and home freezer accessories.

Lakeland Plastics, as the company was named, passed in 1974 from Alan to his three sons - Martin, Sam and Julian. Over the years, the business developed from selling just plastic-related products to selling a growing range of wooden, glass, ceramic and stainless-steel kitchenware, as well as specialist food items and household cleaning and storage products. As a result, the company's name was changed to Lakeland Ltd in 1997.

Today, Lakeland is run by the Rayner brothers from a state-of-the-art £8m steel-and-glass building in Windermere, clad with granite and Lakeland stone, housing the company's headquarters, a 12,000sq ft flagship store and the 100-seat First Floor Café

Steven Doherty's tips for running an in-store restaurant

  • Make sure you understand the client's requirements.
  • Understand the customers' needs in relation to the retail operation.
  • Have an outstanding relationship with the client.
  • Be flexible to both the client's and customers' needs, which will probably be linked to the customer base.
  • Have an F&B operation which is based around the peak times of the retail business - for example, increase staffing levels at the busiest shopping hours.
  • Understand the client's business ethos and be prepared to work with it - for example, Lakeland excels at customer care and service.
  • Build bridges with the client - be generous, offer staff discounts and cater for special events at discounted rates.
  • Use local suppliers which can respond quickly to the peaks and troughs of a business that can be greatly affected by the weather.
  • Always be prepared to be flexible in negotiations - it's not always black and white.
  • Don't be greedy.
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