Nestled between trend-setting fashion outlets from Dolce & Gabbana and Stella McCartney, the newly launched Obika appears totally at home in Selfridges' flagship London store. Obika is a sleek, stylish mozzarella bar that has been launched into the UK market by renowned restaurant operators Dominic Ford and Pat McDonald.
Although Ford and McDonald joined forces 18 months ago as restaurant consultants, their involvement in Obika marks their first joint venture as operators. And it will not be their last - next month, they will be opening Tamesa, a 90-seat restaurant on a site which has previously been something of a poisoned chalice: the second floor of the Oxo Tower building, on London's South Bank. Previous restaurants here have included River Walk, headed by executive chef Richard Sawyer; Richard Neat's eponymous restaurant; and Bistro 2, owned by Simpson's of Cornhill.
But, back to Obika: what was it about the concept that made them decide to invest in and take on the running of the business, as opposed to simply getting it up and running, as they have been doing with other restaurants since launching the Ford McDonald Consultancy in 2004?
Loved the simplicity
"We just really loved the simplicity of the offering," Ford says, "which is based around hand-made buffalo mozzarella, carefully sourced for its quality from specific farms in southern Italy, and served with a selection of Italian meats such as mortadella, prosciutto and salamis." It was Ford who, in his previous position as Harvey Nichols's restaurant and food retail director, firmly established the luxury store as a major restaurant player.
Certainly, the setting of Obika (meaning "here it is!" in Italian) is spot-on. The clientele, taking a break from scooping up the latest couture brands, are likely to be totally in tune with the menu that is based on light, natural ingredients with a fully traceable provenance.
Obika in Selfridges, however, will not be a one-off for the UK. Italian entrepreneur Silvio Ursini, the founder of the brand, who opened the first two Obikas in Rome and Milan, had been looking for partners to develop the concept outside Italy when he met up with Ford and McDonald.
Now the plan is to open at least five British outlets within 10 years. "Actually, we expect to move much quicker than that, but we've got to establish how well the business is running at Selfridges first - and the signs, so far, are good," says McDonald, who made his name as the Michelin-starred chef of his own restaurant, Epicurean, before turning to consultancy.
In Selfridges, Obika is serving about 220 customers per day, with an average spend of £12.50 per head. Future sites, though, could be in a stand-alone unit in London's Knightsbridge or maybe within an airport. The cost of expansion will depend on the location of sites - a department store location will cost about £300,000, while a stand-alone site may run to about £500,000. Funding will be through cash-flow and investment from the three partners.
There is also the possibility of expanding Obika beyond Italy and the UK, with franchise agreements in Barcelona, the Middle East and Japan being considered.
Meanwhile, the Ford McDonald Consultancy continues to grow apace. The partnership was officially formed in 2004 over a lunch at which Ford explained to McDonald that he was considering consultancy work after leaving Harvey Nichols. The pair had first met several years before, when Dickson Poon, the Harvey Nichols chairman, had wanted to open an ultra-fine-dining restaurant in London, at which dinner would have cost £200 per head. McDonald had been brought on board as a consultant and, although the concept never saw the light of day, McDonald did stay to do other consultancy work (see above).
"As we talked over lunch, the penny suddenly dropped that we should work together," McDonald says. "We both have something very different to bring to the partnership. Dominic brings all his front-of-house and food retail experience, while my knowledge is focused on the menu and the kitchen."
While their working backgrounds and expertise are in different fields, the way they approach their work is also diverse.
Ford is very thorough - astrologically, he describes himself as a typical Virgo - and will not proceed on any project without drawing up a 10-page action plan, detailing who will be doing what at every juncture.
McDonald, on the other hand, is a man bursting with ideas, constantly jumping from one venture to another - and he readily admits that he never writes anything down.
In his typically methodical approach to business, Ford drew up a list of 100 questions for them both to answer prior to setting up the consultancy - 78 of their answers were identical. A review of the partnership six months after its launch confirmed that, though they have their differences, they are complementary ones that have probably helped propel the business forward.
Setting up businesses
They certainly have no shortage of work - all the consultancy projects they've worked on have come to them.
Some of their work revolves around assessing existing food and beverage operations and offering advice for improvements, while the rest of their time is spent on setting up new businesses, be it a restaurant, hotel or food store. They will undertake every aspect of the job, if required, including finding the site, refining the concept, finding financing, licensing, design, staffing, marketing and PR, and overseeing the launch period.
Ford says: "We often hold the client's hand for two or three months after opening, but by then they should no longer need us. If they do, we haven't done our job properly."
What the consultancy does not do is simply rewrite menus, which McDonald indicates is what many restaurant consultants offer to do. "That's a nonsense," he says. "You can't just rewrite a menu and expect a restaurant suddenly to improve its turnover. You've got to look at the whole dynamics of the business and, perhaps, totally reconfigure the operation from the training of the staff to rethinking the concept to fit in with the marketplace."
Clients list Clients for the Ford McDonald Consultancy, so far, have included the new Riverbank Park Plaza on London's Albert Embankment, where the Chino Latino brasserie and bar has been created; and the Lane Crawford Group, which was looking for help in developing a food hall, restaurants and bars for a new lifestyle store in Hong Kong.
As well as setting up Obika for Selfridges, McDonald and Ford have also completed an audit for the store, assessing all 18 in-house food and beverage outlets, as well as drawing up a proposal for a new food hall and an own-label range of foods. As Selfridges' newly appointed director of food and catering, Ewan Ventners, settles into his position, future developments at the store involving Ford's and McDonald's suggestions are currently under consideration.
Among the new openings this year, driven by the Ford-McDonald expertise, is the innovative Dans
Le Noir, which opened earlier this week in London's Clerkenwell Green. The 70-seat restaurant will serve diners in complete darkness,
guided by blind or visually impaired waiters.
The concept was launched two years ago in Paris by Edouard de Broglie, a communications and new technology entrepreneur, and marketing specialist Etienne Boisrond. "It certainly makes for an unusual eating experience," McDonald says. "The idea is that, by not being able to see anything, your other senses are heightened."
Other projects include a new in-house café for the Mamas and Papas flagship store in Regent Street, London (due to open in May 2006); a new café for Derby House's equestrian centre and retail store in Lancashire; food and beverage outlets at Hartham House, an office and function venue in Wiltshire; and the development of a food hall and restaurants for retail store La Rinascente in Milan.
And then, of course, there is Ford's and McDonald's second project as operators - Tamesa. The landlord of the space, Coin Street Community Services, was no doubt keen to get Ford on board, given his success in launching Harvey Nichols's Oxo Tower restaurant, bar and brasserie, on the eighth floor of the building where Tamesa will open on the second.
Ford hopes that he and McDonald will be successful where others have failed, by "offering a very affordable and approachable menu and wine list, targeting local business workers, families and visitors to the South Bank. The pre-opening and operating costs will be very tightly controlled, with expectations set at reasonable levels."
The simple and eclectic food will include the likes of Thai broths alongside steak and chips, with prices ranging from £20 per head at lunch to £30 for dinner, including drinks.
The concept of Tamesa is one that Ford and McDonald believe we will be seeing a lot more of in new restaurants opening throughout the year. "The likes of Gordon Ramsay will be around at the top end of the market for some time," says Ford, "but gone are the days when you will be getting lots of new openings that are competing on that level."
With him and McDonald involved in so many projects, together and individually, their thoughts are probably worth listening to.
Spotlight on Patrick McDonald Pat McDonald's career began as a chef de partie at the Granby hotel, Northumberland. He later went on to work as a sous chef under Anton Mosimann at the Dorchester hotel in London, from 1980 to 1982.
In 1989, he and his wife, Claire, opened the Epicurean restaurant in the first of several locations - Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire. The Michelin-starred outlet later transferred to Cheltenham, and finally Pershore, Worcestershire, until its closure in 2002. McDonald plans to oversee the fourth version of Epicurean and is looking for a partner and a location.
McDonald's first experience of restaurant consultancy came in 1996 when he advised Ford on the opening of the Oxo Tower and the Fourth Floor restaurant at Harvey Nichols in Leeds. He went on to help launch Mezzo for Sir Terence Conran, and advised Sir Rocco Forte on the restaurants at the Balmoral hotel, Edinburgh, as he set up RF Hotels.
Other restaurant consultancy clients over the years have included Newcastle United Football Club, Worcester Rugby Football Club and the Burj Al Arab hotel, Dubai.
As food and beverage director of Birmingham's upmarket shopping mall, the Mailbox, from 2002 to 2006, McDonald has held the management contract for the Denial restaurant and the Fino café and delicatessen. He advises on the operational mix of units, and operates the fine-dining restaurant Paris, as a joint venture with the landlord.
In 2002, McDonald launched the first of what he intends to be a chain of informal eateries throughout the country, called Epic. Although there is now only one Epic, in Worcester (there were three at one time), McDonald would like to open 10 to 12 around the country over the next five years.
Spotlight on Dominic Ford Dominic Ford started his career in food and beverage in the wine trade in 1982.
Following stints working at London restaurants L'Escargot and Hilaire, he took up a position as assistant food and beverage manager of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong, where he was responsible for 14 restaurants.
Ford returned to London in 1991 to take on the role of restaurants and food retail director of Harvey Nichols, where he went on to create a business with 650 staff and revenues in excess of £38m.
His achievements with the company include the setting up of the Fifth Floor restaurant, bar and café, alongside the food market and wine shop in the London store, plus two stand-alone London restaurants (the Oxo Tower and Prism, in the City), and restaurants and food markets in Harvey Nichols's stores in Leeds, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Manchester.
Ford left Harvey Nichols in 2004. Alongside his work with the Ford-McDonald Consultancy, he is developing two separate restaurant projects.
The first is the Butcher and Grill, a retail and wholesale butcher's shop being set up alongside a 65-seat restaurant and 40-seat café-bar in Battersea.
Ford's partner in the business, which is due to open in April, is Simon Tindall, chairman of the Haymarket Publishing Group, who owns a farm in Sussex, from which much of the meat for the butcher's shop will be sourced.
The short and simple bistro-style menu will, unsurprisingly, major on meat, ranging from burgers at £8 to 14oz
T-bone steaks at £20.
Also on the horizon for Ford - later this year, he hopes - is a yakatori bar to be called Bincho. Although the money is in place, and a chef and manager from Tokyo have been lined up for the operation, a site for the business has yet to be found.
Contact The Ford McDonald Consultancy
020 8687 5288