Simon Mullins, founder of the Salt Yard Group, used his background in advertising, his experience as an enthusiastic customer and his knowledge as a chef with a passion for Mediterranean food to create a chain of restaurants with a definite selling point, says Neil Gerrard.
Advertising is the fine art of making you think you have longed for something all your life, when in fact you have never heard of it, or so the adage goes.
Simon Mullins opened his first restaurant, Salt Yard, in London's Goodge Street in 2005 - four years ahead of Polpo. His co-founder and former wife was Sanja Morris, who is now co-owner of Le Coq in Islington, but still very much a part of the Salt Yard Group.
At the time, Mullins and Morris were, by their own admission, "rookies". Mullins had worked in the advertising industry for several years, including a spell at industry giant WPP, both selling and buying airtime in a range of media. Despite a successful career, he left to pursue his real passion - food and hospitality.
"The advertising industry wasn't really doing it for me," he explains. "So I left and cheffed â¨for a while, and then worked at Brindisa and various other restaurants around London."
Thanks to his role at Brindisa, Mullins quickly learned about Spanish produce. He also spent time travelling to Italy, and the plan to open his own place, serving food from both countries, started to form. Initial inspiration came from Mario Batali's Bar Jamon in New York, with its simple Spanish food and wine offering.
Although Mullins originally wanted something closer to a wine bar, when he took the Salt Yard site, it came with a fully working kitchen. The idea, he says, snowballed but he stuck with the sharing plates concept, using top-quality ingredients.
Small is beautiful
And as it turned out, the idea was bang on trend and well received by the critics. "That was nearly 10 years ago now," he says. "We just thought that people would want a glass of wine and a board of charcuterie at the bar, or come in with a bunch of workmates and have tapas to share. It's a very communal and social way of eating, and the idea really kicked off and took hold. There seem to have been a lot more small plates concepts opening since then."
Ben Tish, now chef director, joined in 2006, and slowly the business grew from one restaurant to four - Salt Yard, Dehesa on Ganton Street, Opera Tavern on Catherine Street and, most recently, Ember Yard on Berwick Street.
Part of the business's success undoubtedly comes down to Mullins' advertising background, as he explains: "There is a certain commercial awareness, knowing that you need to get what you are doing right and getting your message right," he says. "We wanted to get the product and the service right to create something appealing. That is what advertisers do - create an appeal. So it has definitely helped."
For him, the ingredients required to create that appeal are food, service and ambience. "Get them right, and people will come back," he says. "Without wishing to oversimplify it, if the food is fantastic and good value, you want to go back. It is also important that the menu is varied and changes enough so it is not the same flavours over and over. The wine should be interesting and change frequently, too."
Service needs to be "informal, but informed". Mullins has no truck with the "too cool for school" approach to waitering that has emerged in recent years. "The only informality about our service is that it appears relaxed - the attention to detail is still there," he says.
"The most important thing is to get someone who is enthused about the food and wine. We like to get them quite young and green, when they are more malleable, so that we can then school them in our philosophy."
Finally, the ambience needs to suit the site; it should make diners feel at home, but be able to adapt throughout the day. "It needs to be light enough to have a business lunch and be in and out quickly, and lit dimly enough in the evening to be cosy and welcoming. And I'm all for music in restaurants, but you have to get it right. You don't want it blasting out - you need to set an atmosphere," Mullins says.
His opinions have been formed as much as a customer as they have as a restaurateur. "When you eat out a lot, you pick up on things that are good or annoying. When service is bad, it can really ruin a meal, so we really focus on a lot of training in service," he says.
The plan now is for further expansion, taking the group to six sites. "With Salt Yard, it was a case of let's get it up and running, and then it happened quite organically. Dehesa opened three years later, Opera Tavern after another three years, and Ember Yard just under three years after that. Now the plan is to accelerate expansion. We are looking to open one every 12 to 18 months, depending on the availability of good locations," says Mullins, who is majority shareholder in the business.
When it comes to choosing where to set up, Mullins and Tish have their eyes on areas of London that are on the up. "The location strategy for us is to go into what you could call fringe areas. When we moved into Ganton Street where Dehesa is, there weren't that many other restaurants, but it is right next to Carnaby Street and very central. We knew that Kingly Street would be pedestrianised and we thought there was a future in it . Then, within a couple of years, Russell [Norman] opened round the corner with Polpo; Opera Tavern is on the fringe of Covent Garden, between there and Aldwych; and we knew that Rex [Restaurants] were moving in around the corner," he says.
When it comes to Ember Yard, Mullins knows that despite the fact it is currently in a less fashionable part of Soho, Alan Yau's Duck and Rice will be opening close by.
Regardless of where they open, one thing is certain: the ex-advertising man and Tish will keep thinking about how to create appeal. â¨"I think we are trendsetters," he asserts. "That sounds a bit arrogant, but we eat out a lot and we are conscious of what is going on."
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Ben Tish joined Salt Yard in 2006 and â¨was promoted to executive chef just two years later. Since then, he has overseen the opening of Dehesa, Opera Tavern â¨and Ember Yard as chef director.
During his formative years, Tish worked alongside Jason Atherton and Stephen Terry at London restaurants Coast (owned by Oliver Peyton) and Frith Street in â¨Soho (owned by Claudio Pulze).
He also worked at One Lawn Terrace, the Ritz (under then executive chef David Nicholls) and again for Pulze at Italian restaurant Al Duca. It was during his period as head chef of the three-AA-rosette restaurant that he developed â¨his passion for Italian cookery.
Tish then upped sticks and worked on the west coast of Scotland at the Crinan Hotel in Argyll. He was there for three years, drawing both national and international acclaim, and was named best newcomer by the Good Food Guide.
In 2012, Tish (with co-authors Simon Mullins and Sanja Morris) published â¨Salt Yard: Food & Wine from Spain & Italy.
"It's a fantastic introduction to regional Spanish and Italian cooking at its best, enhanced by the benefit of the Salt Yard Group's knowledge and experience," Terry told Caterer and Hotelkeeperâ¨when reviewing the book last year.
An occasional newspaper and magazine contributor, Tish has also appeared on Saturday Kitchen, MasterChef and Radio 4's Food Programme, among other shows. â¨He is also a shareholder and consultant chef for Blanchette Soho, a modern French bistro concept on d'Arblayâ¨Street.
Former colleague Atherton says of Tish: "Not only did Ben work alongside me for many of his younger years at Coast and Frith Street, we're also from the same town, Skegness. He has the same work ethic as me - he has true Northern grit. We would get into the kitchen at 6am and get home late into the night. He had the determination to be a great chef, and when he found his calling - the Spanish and Italian niche - he engrossed himself in what made a good ham, he learnt to differentiate between pastas and so on. When he was cooking at Al Duca, the â¨food was fantastic.
"He's just a bloody good cook, and he's able to throw the food on to the plate without worrying about nice towers - and it tastes great."
Forecast group turnover for year ending March 2014: £6m
Ember Yard first week turnover: £70,000
Average spend per head: £30 including wine
The Salt Yard Group's sites
54 Goodge Street, London The first restaurant in the group. It serves modern tapas inspired by the flavours and produce of Spain and Italy. The tapas are complemented by charcuterie and cheese boards and a wide selection of wines and sherries.
25 Ganton Street, London
A charcuterie and tapas bar inspired by Spanish and Italian cuisine. Like the other Salt Yard sites, it is split over two levels and features high stools, bare wooden tables, blackboards and glass storage jars that wouldn't look out of place in Barcelona's Born district.
23 Catherine Street, London
Housed in a former 19th century pub, this 80-seat restaurant spread over two floors has a slightly different feel to the others, but again has a mixture of wooden tables and green leather banquettes. Like its sister restaurants, it serves a tapas menu inspired by the flavours of Spain and Italy, but also features a robata grill offering speciality dishes including Ibérico pork.
60-61 Berwick Street, London
An Indian restaurant and tailor's shop were knocked together to create Ember Yard. The restaurant was inspired by trips Mullins and Tish took the Basque country and Tuscany, where they saw a lot of food being cooked over charcoal and wood.
Ember Yard keeps the Italian/Spanish theme, but introduces smoked meat, fruit and vegetables. In a sign of things coming full circle, it offers large plates to share
alongside small plates.
9 D'Arblay Street, London
Alongside the Salt Yard Group's restaurants, Mullins also has a stake in French bistro Blanchette Soho. It is run by brothers Yannis Alary, a general manager at Dehesa for the past five years, and Maxim, who has worked in front of house management at Asia de Cuba, Roka, Zuma, and Massimo's at the Corinthia hotel in London. Aside from taking equity in the business, Mullins will advise on a "high-level basis", which is a model he hopes to replicate in future.
"If someone who has worked their way up with us wants to open their own business, we can take some equity and give advice on a joint venture. I think it is an interesting model for rolling things out. We're not losing people, we're just encouraging them to go on and do well, and we are benefiting from it too," he says.