Richard, Earl of Bradford, explains to Mark Lewis how his Covent Garden restaurant Porters has remained so successful for three decades.
Porters owner Richard, Earl of Bradford, attributes the restaurant's longevity to "always trying to price fairly and keeping the place looking like it's just opened"
Friday lunchtime, busy Covent Garden, and Richard, seventh Earl of Bradford, is on fine form. The titled restaurateur has barely shaken the confetti from his hair after his recent remarriage, the sun is out and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc is chilling. Added to this, Richard has just reached a milestone. His Covent Garden venue, Porters English Restaurant, last month celebrated 30 years of trading - no mean feat in the faddy London dining scene.
Even while schooling at Harrow and studying up at Cambridge, Richard loved to cook and entertain. Post-university, a year's globetrotting was brought to an abrupt halt by a serious car accident that broke his back. The silver lining to this dark cloud was a journey home that took him via West Coast America, where he witnessed first-hand a relaxed, reasonably-priced dining scene that had yet to reach these shores. Richard had found his calling.
A string of restaurant openings in Brighton and London followed before Richard secured a warehouse site in Covent Garden, in 1979. Today, 30 years on, we are lunching at a busy Porters to analyse its success.
During that time Richard has paid his dues to the hospitality industry he loves. A past President of the Master Chefs of Great Britain, he has been a committee member of the Restaurant Association since 1977 and is now its vice-chairman. In 2005, his sphere of influence expanded across the Atlantic, when he became the first British representative on the Board of the US National Restaurant Association. Cookery book writer, restaurant critic and member of the Guild of Food Writers, he became an internet entrepreneur, when the success of the Porters website spawned a string of successful hospitality websites, including www.london-restaurants.com and www.restaurant-guide.com - which alone draws approaching a million monthly visits.
Beard trimmed immaculately, and sporting a tan from recent trips to India and Chicago, Richard begins to reminisce about three decades in Covent Garden.
How did you become a restaurateur?
"My first venture was a hamburger restaurant, Leadbelly, in Brighton. I returned from Australia in 1972 via America. I thought, ‘the restaurants here have got something. They're fun and lively, there's decent food and happy service. Why haven't we got anywhere like that?' We had Wimpys in those days: horrendous, but the best we had at that end of the market. I got back to London and discovered that the Great American Disaster and Hard Rock had started up, so I looked at university towns outside London and the first good site that came up was in Brighton. Looking back, it was a horrible site, an old gun shop. When they dug up the floorboards they were forever finding cartridges. When I was bought out, I used the funds to open Paupers on the Kings Road in London."
How did you end up in Covent Garden?
"By 1978, I owned a restaurant in Walton Street called Bewicks. It gained a star in the Egon Ronay Guide in 1977, but had too few covers. I sold it and looked for another site. An agent called Angus Gordon at PJ Williams in Stratton Street said he had the most amazing site in Covent Garden. It had been a fruit and veg warehouse. The frontage looked superb; it had beautiful tiles, all original. I fell in love with it."
What was it like when you bought it?
"There was a ground floor with a hole in it and a ladder to a floor downstairs. I thought ‘where the hell do we put the kitchen?' Then our restaurant manager, Alan Lorrimer said ‘ceiling heights are so high, why don't we put it between the two floors?' It worked by six inches. The guys who did the original design forgot some rather important things - like drains. The kitchen was put in, the equipment was all there, but there was nowhere to run the waste so they dug a manhole and connect that to the drains."
What was the idea behind the restaurant?
"I had the concept of English pies and puddings as an answer to the Italian pizza or American hamburger. I was surprised that in England's capital, you didn't have restaurants selling reasonably-priced English food. The idea was not to do what Rules and Simpsons were doing, but something that was a third of the price and popularised English food. And I didn't want to serve more pastry than filling, like the pies at football matches."
What was Covent Garden like then?
"There was nobody around. We opened in June 1979, one year to the day before the market reopened. I was convinced the market had everything to pull the people in. They wouldn't accept chains, only individual businesses; they were trying to protect the area, which they did very well.
How did you go about building a customer base before the market opened?
"We had our menu and our place, but we needed to promote it. Some ad guys came up with a lovely concept: the paper ads had a picture of a hot steaming pie and simply said ‘a stately plateful'. It intrigued people. For the radio, they came up with ideas based on Noel Coward's songs but we couldn't get permission to use them, so we ended up with me doing ads with Miriam Margoyles as the ‘Porters reporter outside Porters Restaurant in Covent Garden'."
And then the market opened
"Yes! I'd got it right, but I didn't know it until a year later. People poured into the area and we stood out as something a little different. We were running queues at 11 at night and doing 1,000 covers a day some days, on 200 seats. In the first year we only lost a little, maybe £50,000 to £60,000, but we were turning over decent money. In the second year trade rocketed and we made a shed load. Trade doubled in a month. In the first week it was up 60% on the previous week.
"We'd done some market research. It told us you can't just do pies. For a year, we offered starters and non-pie mains but they didn't sell, so one year later we said ‘Let's go all pies and puddings' and never looked back. It just shows the value of research!"
How did you cope with the footfall?
"It was all about throughput. We had a tiered pie-holding machine designed and built so we could build up a stock. Within 30 seconds customers were served. We had bleepers for waiters. We ran a wire right round the restaurant that they worked on and we bleeped staff when they needed to pick up food. It was revolutionary! And we had these big vats we put the wine into and used to draw off carafes from. We'd buy two-litre bottles and spend hours emptying them into the barrels. We weren't terribly proud of our house wine then."
Those numbers must have stretched the kitchen?
"We were making everything on-site but I realised we couldn't cope. First, we contracted out to a food preparation business. But they were so haphazard; one pie would be all meat and no gravy, the next all gravy and no meat. So I took a railway arch in Waterloo and set up a prep kitchen there. I beat Gordon to it by about 28 years! Poor devil, he only prepares the food for his pubs at his. Stews and pie mixes are better prepared in advance - you can't do them to order. You get consistency from a bigger mix and it benefits from sitting for a couple of days. We had to move when the Jubilee Line came through, so we took arches in Elephant and Castle."
How has the Porters' offering changed?
After eight years, as competition increased we became a bit more varied. I reckon there's 15 to 20 times the number of seats in Covent Garden compared with when we opened. All pies and puddings was great for a long time; then gradually, when people were thinking of eating out, somebody would say ‘Shall we go to Porters?' and another would say, ‘I don't really like pies'. Bang, you'd lost the table. That's when we brought back starters and non-pie dishes."
What changes has the market seen?
"Covent Garden has lost much of its individuality. When it first opened no chains were allowed. The rent has become horrendous; lots of small businesses got forced out. It has lost lots of its character. Few classy restaurants are left."
How has Porters weathered previous recessions?
"We've never really been affected by recessions. For every person trading out of our market there's another trading into it. We've always tried to price fairly and I've always kept the place looking like it has just opened. Mid-November 2008 I was worried we were even going to be in business come this June. But May has been stunning and April was good, too.
What is the secret of building a business with longevity?
"Simple: never think what you are doing today is the best you can do. You've got to do better tomorrow. We've always trained, and that was very unusual 30 years ago. And we review what we are doing all the time. Lots of people coast along. We constantly monitor sales. If dishes aren't selling, we ask why."
And what advice would you give to a nascent restaurant business?
"There are too many amateurs around. They need to get experience of how to run a business. I worked as a waiter at Leadbelly and as assistant manager in Paupers - I used to get bloody good tips! You used to be able to open and build up slowly. Now, it's more difficult. Reviewers come in the first week - sometimes you see three in a night. But restaurants take time to develop a rhythm. Limit the number of covers, but not the atmosphere - or overstaff to begin with."
You've blazed a marketing trail on the internet.
"Porters' website has been online for 12 years. One of the most foresighted things I ever did was to register ‘Porters English Restaurant'. Google ‘English restaurants', and you'll see how it has benefited the restaurant. PR is expensive and people need to be reminded that a restaurant exists."
Do you value the critics' opinions?
"I always contrast the Sunday Times style of reviewing with the Telegraph's, which I like. They've had one good reviewer after another, and you always learn about the restaurant. Reviewers shouldn't write for themselves but for the people who read them. Once, I became so incensed about Michael Winner's thoughtless and uninformed criticism (after all, his favourite dish is sole Capri - sole with fried banana), that I felt we had to strike back. I printed 100 stickers, which read, ‘This is a Michael Winner-free zone'. We guarantee that your enjoyment of this establishment will not be spoiled by loudly complaining, staff harassing, ex-cigar smoking film producers'. We gave them out to his many victims. They quickly ran out."
What has been your most positive review?
"One time the Big Issue said we were ‘bland'. I suggested they sent their reviewer down again so we could pull people off the street to sit down with them, eat the food and tell them what they thought of it. It was the most inspired PR idea I ever had. When we offered people a free lunch they thought we were selling life insurance. Eventually we got four people in and got the most incredible review."
How have cheffing and service changed in three decades?
"Service has improved enormously in London. The restaurant business is about food and service, but also about atmosphere. If people are enjoying themselves, they'll come back. We're part of the entertainment industry. Many people, particularly chefs, lose sight of that. Albert Roux and I once talked about celebrity chefs. He said that for the first 25 years after Le Gavroche opened he never came out of the kitchen. Today, chefs get instant fame. Thirty years ago it was unusual to find British head chefs and brigades. That has changed enormously. People like Jamie Oliver have done enormous amounts to make cooking sexy. It's wonderful: you're getting kids with no experience of eating good food with the family inspired to become chefs."
How easy is it to trade now, compared with 30 years ago?
"All the rules and regulations have made it vastly more difficult now. VAT is vastly higher, so is holiday entitlement, and there's the huge cost of business rates. I'm on the board of the NRA so I go to the USA three times a year. I love the fact that practically everyone there is on a turnover rent, landlords have an interest in a business succeeding and tenants know what it's going to cost them. There are so many things that are pro-business in America. Here, everything is adversarial; there are so many things that cost you time and money. Meanwhile, has eating out actually become safer? I don't know."