In just two years, Scott Munro and James Douglas, co-founders of Red's True Barbecue, have gone from restaurant-owning newbies to the brains behind one of the hottest new chains in Britain, picking up the Newcomer Award at this year's Cateys. Tom Vaughan finds out the secret of their success
The larger-than-life pair, co-founders of burgeoning restaurant chain Red's True Barbecue, are right to be in good spirits. Not only have they recently received the Cateys Newcomer Award, sponsored by ACT Clean, but their two-year-old group is picking up the kind of traction most restaurateurs only dream about. On top of it all, they are "having the time of their lives". With sites in Manchester, Leeds and Headingley, a further opening planned in Nottingham in January 2015 and a five-year plan that aims for a further 16 sites, it's all very impressive for a pair who, before September 2012, had never worked in a restaurant before.
Back then, Douglas (pictured right) had just sold a property business and was looking for his next project, having experimented with making homemade barbecue sauces for his kids. Meanwhile Munro (pictured left), formerly a sales director at an IT firm, had gained a huge following for a barbecue food truck he'd been running with chef friend Clinton Britz (now executive chef at Red's) and had been brewing up a business plan for a bricks and mortar venture. When the pair separately approached a mutual friend and restaurateur about taking their ideas forward, he lit the touchpaper and put the two in touch.
"It was weird because he told me he had this friend called Scott who was coming to him asking the same questions as I was," says Douglas. "Although I was asking fewer questions as I knew a lot more."
"He was asking questions like, 'Where do you get money from', but I didn't need to ask that question as I had loads."
"You hear the tense there: it's no longer 'have' it's 'had'!" Munro roars with laughter. "We were both told that either we'd get on like a couple of brothers or hate each other within 10 minutes. As it worked out Scott loves me like a brother and I hate him."
The jokes fly back and forth; last words only conceded with a roar of laughter. Befitting their informal, energised restaurants, the pair look more like they've come from a barbecue pit competition - perhaps as hungry judges, beers in one hand and gleeful portions of slowcooked meat in the other. Munro, all burly hipster in a bright T-shirt, shorts and a neon cap two sizes too small, is sheer exuberance, speaking at length in a fast-paced South African accent; bursting into laughter at the first opportunity. Next to him, Leeds boy Douglas is the perfect foil - slighter, more rockstar, but as happy to talk for hours and content to let you (or a lot of the time, Munro) make the distinction between jokes and reality.
Behind it all lies two business brains that in the space of two years have grown Red's into what will shortly become the biggest specialist barbecue chain in the UK - set to overtake London-based Bodean's three sites when they launch in Nottingham. It wasn't long after first meeting that the pair agreed to, figuratively,
get into bed together, sharing the same vision for an authentic barbecue restaurant.
"When we first opened up, we knew we wanted to create a national brand," says Munro. "And not an exclusive brand. Even though there are cooler, more street elements to our restaurants, we are very much inclusive. Our demographics go from kids with their parents, through to 16-year-olds with friends, students, through to my nanna, who loves brisket and can't find it anywhere."
They found a first site in Leeds and the pair, alongside Britz, had the job of working out what needed to go in it prior to the September 2012 launch date. "We'd never developed a menu or a kitchen or a restaurant before," says Douglas. "So we built a menu, built the kitchen around the menu and built a restaurant around the kitchen. Then at the same time, we built a brand around that. We made some mistakes on the kitchen, but we've never been afraid to invest in the business, and were fortunate that the problem with the kitchen is it wasn't big enough to feed all the people who were turning up. Now we have one of the slickest operations, certainly in Leeds, maybe the country - in some weeks in summer we can serve up to 25,000 a month."
From the word go, the restaurant was swamped, and the pair were able to reinvest revenue straight back into the group. "We created a brand that would be nationally accepted, then created a head office that we knew could build a model to drive that template across multiple cities," says Munro.
"Within six months we had grown a head office to five or six people." Douglas adds: "Instead of spanking all the money on Ferraris we invested in a head
office as we knew there was an opportunity to become the barbecue chain in the UK."
A second restaurant in Manchester followed a year later, and a third in Headingley in summer 2014, with the next due early 2015. "Now we've developed a store opening strategy that is way more slick than anything we thought we'd ever have," says Munro. "It's a 422-point plan, from looking for a site and closing it off to getting a maintenance contract. We've turned into a pretty slick operation in 23 months."
With four sites a year planned for the next four years, the boys are beginning a steady march toward the capital. "In the London market you've got to be fairly aggressive, we believe," says Munro. "Not just from a price point, but from an offering perspective - you've got to be sharp. Our next site is Nottingham
and we'll start working our way down to London in the next 24 months."
Many brands these days choose to make their name in the capital before heading nationwide, so what is the advantage of starting in the provinces? "Our occupational costs including service charge are somewhere under 5%," replies Munro. "If you look at our revenue and what we pay rent-wise, it is phenomenal.
Most operators these days who start out in London will pay between 10% and 18%. That's also based on our site and location strategy, which is always to be a bit off-pitch and not slap-bang in the high-rent areas. Plus there's less competition than there is in London, especially in barbecue these days."
As the Red's bandwagon gathers pace, the pair's business acumen, ambition and sheer force of personality has seen offers of help flood in, and the boys are in an enviable position of being the new sweethearts of the chain restaurant world.
"The last few months have seen a shiftchange in our popularity," says Douglas. "In the next three months we've got some amazing people coming to work with us - a real who's who of the restaurant industry. For us that's a massive pat on the back that they want to get involved with some young-ish upstarts who had never run a restaurant. To be able to tap into this pool of knowledge is a privileged position. These guys have a lot to give and we're ready to take it… Does that sound right?" And with that, the pair dissolve into laughter.
Making a splash in a crowded market
Aside from the food, one of the instantly recognisable aspects of Red's is its strong branding and advertising. The chain boasts a tongue-in-cheek evangelical theme, labelling itself as 'The church of true barbecue worship'.
Meanwhile, an at-times provocative advertising campaign has seen Munro and Douglas's sense of mischief spill into the group's marketing. Do you need to be bold and audacious to be noticed in the restaurant sector these days? "To make a difference and to get on people's radar, yeah," answers Douglas. "To stand apart. There are a million types of restaurants, and you walk past them and think 'Why didn't I do that? Or how funny is that?' People are really using their brains even more, and we don't have a brain so we have to shock and awe. It's an extension of our personalities."
One advertising campaign in particular got nationwide attention (not all of it good), when the group ran a billboard in Leeds coinciding with vegetarian week, offering a freephone number for people afflicted by 'vegetarianism'.
"We got some stick for that," reflects Douglas. "But I stand by it and I'd run it again if I had my time over. I thought it was good fun and it was never intended to offend anyone and if you look at social media and the national press it did what it was supposed to do - it was a great lead into the fact that we were opening a new restaurant in Headingley. We've got things in the pipeline that are fairly provocative, although I'll think we'll leave the veggies alone next time. We love veggies!"
"We've even got veggie dishes on the menu," chimes Munro. "Yeah, we've got a veggie dish on the menu. We've got a back door for veggies to sneak in. We even sell vegetarians - all the animals we sell are vegetarians!"
Red's True Barbecue sites
Cloth Hall Street, Leeds LS1 2HD
Opened September 2012
22 Lloyd Street, Albert Square, Manchester M2 5WA
Opened February 2014
6a Otley Road, Leeds LS6 2AA
Opened July 2014