Turn into Little East Street, a pretty little road just off Brighton's main shopping strip that leads to Momma Cherri's Soulfood Shack, and you'll first have to pass a large monument to Charita Jones's recent success. A couple of months ago she opened Momma Cherri's Big House. Just a few paces away from the original Shack, it has 110 covers (as opposed to the Shack's 45). And the Shack itself is still going strong - at the weekend both restaurants are open to satisfy the almost limitless demand. The past 18 months have been remarkably good for Jones, all the more remarkable when she thinks back to the winter of 2004 and reflects on how close she came to seeing the bleak prospect of failure become a reality.
Jones is not someone who goes down without a fight. Born in Philadelphia in the mid-1950s, she had a battle on her hands from the start. She struggled to make her way through college and, following her childhood dreams, she joined a black theatre company as stage manager for a gospel show that went on to open in the West End. That was back in 1978 - and since then Jones has remained in England with her English husband, Phil. She's a mother of two, grandmother of one, and has been a foster carer to more than 40 teenagers and their children. She has also been a drama teacher, soul singer (she has backed the likes of Alabama 3 and Peter Green), children's entertainer, DJ and eventually, believing she had spotted a gap in the market, a chef-restaurateur, turning her much-praised home cooking into a commercial business with Momma Cherri's Soulfood Shack.
Four years after opening, the Shack was in a perilous state. "I was ready to close the business. We had been sent to the intensive care department of the bank," laughs Jones. "Overnight they stopped our overdraft and our credit cards. It was like they suddenly realised ‘hey this business is in trouble. We aren't going to get our money back if we continue to let them borrow' so they cut everything. Bang, just like that."
As it turned out these were disciplines that probably helped sustain the business longer than otherwise would have been the case. Jones and husband Phil learnt that they could just about keep things ticking over by carefully manipulating the credit they got from suppliers and making cutbacks wherever they could. The problem was, they still didn't really know what was wrong with the business. They had survived four years of trading on a mixture of raw enthusiasm, dogged determination and sheer hard work. Necessary ingredients as any restaurateur will tell you, but not enough if you're not sure of which direction to take.
"We went into the business with our eyes wide shut," Jones says. They got themselves an accountant, but first chose one with no knowledge of the specifics of the restaurant trade. Later they moved on to another London-based accountant who had clients in the industry, but he was costly and his existing clients were large, high-turnover businesses, quite different from a small Brighton soulfood restaurant. Most of their finance came from the bank - but the bank, too, had no real concept of the financial mechanics of the restaurant business. "I look at that business plan (the one they presented to the bank) now and it was the most amateurish rubbish, high hopes and pie-in-the-sky figures and the thing was, nobody challenged us on it. Nobody said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, guys, this doesn't stack up.' We didn't even know how much a piece of chicken cost."
In many respects it's a wonder they lasted as long as they did before reaching crunch time. Determined to grab at any straw, Jones applied to take part in a TV programme - Wife Swap. She reckoned that the show might just bring her the PR boost she needed. She was considered but didn't get to take part. Instead it was to be another TV show that would begin the turnaround in her fortunes.
The producers of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares were looking for candidates for the second series of the Channel 4 show. Jones got a random letter to that effect, applied, and within days was being visited by researchers from the show. Naturally it's not just a case of Gordon Ramsay and a few crew strolling into the place on a Monday morning and setting about trying to conjure up some kind of magical transformation. The business has to be looked at in some detail, the staff observed at work and interviewed, the figures (when there are any) have to be examined in some depth. The competition has to be sussed, the profile of the likely market ascertained. Only when that's all done is it clear whether there's the remotest hope of being able to make a difference - to give some advice that if acted upon just might resuscitate the business. In this case it was obvious Momma Cherri's was in serious trouble but it also possessed some very real strengths - not least the personality and sheer presence of Jones.
Anyone who saw the show will have been in little doubt as to the central problems with the business. First, staff costs were unsustainably high (about 50% of turnover) and in large part this was down to the good nature of the earth momma herself, who was running a happy but mostly chaotic ship that resembled a youth club as much as a restaurant. The team were treated well but weren't fulfilling their part of the bargain - and in truth you couldn't really blame them as it wasn't clear what their responsibilities were anyway.
Second, prices were far too high for the kind of product on offer and for the target market. Responsibility for this lay partly with the bank manager, whose response to the parlous state of the business was to advise an increase in prices - naturally this simply led to a further downturn in demand and a perception that the Soulfood Shack was expensive.
Third, spending on advertising had spiralled out of control in an effort to chase business and through Jones's typically charitable willingness to help out any worthy organisation that asked her to take out an ad in their publication. In the year of trading before Nightmares, the advertising budget measured up to almost half of the annual loss.
The advice was to slash it and instead work on using the priceless asset of Jones's personality to generate much cheaper and more effective PR opportunities. As for the pricing, that was slashed, too - but that in itself wasn't enough. Perceptions needed changing quickly, hence the set-priced "soul in a bowl" gimmick that Ramsay dreamed up with Jones. The biggest issue, though, was the salary costs: the team simply had to start pulling their weight and Jones had to stop propping them up through her own labours.
"To be honest, I just needed to be told," Jones reflects. "From that point onwards it changed. I am nowhere near as familiar with the staff as I was. I'm still close to chefs Brian Paul Moyo and Adrian Sullivan but they run my kitchen now. I don't go around behind them." She also has stuck with and enhanced Momma Cherri's Rules, a handbook for the staff, outlining their responsibilities, that was introduced during the filming of Nightmares.
The outcome has been better than hoped for. Once a show is aired it's clear that there may be a short-term boost in trade, even if it is only to satisfy the curious, but longer-term success demands that the quality of the product matches expectations and is strong enough to ensure that customers return. Perhaps the most interesting period is the gap between filming and the show going on air - that's the crucial time when there has been no significant PR boost but the challenge is to continue down the path in the meantime.
"There was no way I was going to let go of what I'd learnt from Gordon in terms of the staff or the business. Everywhere I went I talked about Soul in a Bowl to try and bring that brand and that price change to the public," Jones says.
And where does she reckon she'd be if the programme had been filmed, the advice had been given but the show never aired? "The business had already picked-up to the level where we would have worked our way out of that debt - hand on heart, I might well have sold-up then, because I could have then sold-up not as a failure but as a sustainable business and then I would have moved on to something else. You see there was one other thing that Nightmares taught me - I was missing the limelight again."
Simon Wright is restaurant consultant to Optomen Television on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. A new series is currently in production and those interested in taking part should contact Lauren Abery on 020 7967 1234.
- Be prepared to seek advice from someone with real knowledge of the industry. This might have a cost attached to it, but a little extra investment here can avoid a lot of pain later.
- Be realistic about the markets available to you. What kind of product will it be receptive to? What kind of price structure can it bear?
- Make sure your business plan is not just a tool to secure finance but is a real template for the future of your enterprise. Be prepared to amend it in the light of experience but make sure it remains the road map for your business.
- Allow yourself time for the proper financial management of the business. It's far too easy to be a busy fool in the restaurant trade. Regularly monitor your performance, set realistic targets for turnover and costs so that you can be confident that if you meet them the business will remain healthy.
- Ensure you are getting the most from your staff. Even in a small business they need to know their roles and responsibilities. A lack of efficiency in this area does nobody any favours in the long run if the business fails and they lose their jobs.