Will Ricker opened Cicada in Clerkenwell nearly 17 years ago and since then his company, Ricker Restaurants, has grown to seven sites in some of London's trendiest neighbourhoods. He spoke to Janie Manzoori-Stamford about the challenges faced by restaurateurs in an increasingly competitive marketplace
You came to the UK from Australia as a property investor. What made you move into restaurants? I still do property, and restaurants is a property-based business. When you're going into burgeoning areas you might as well own it, because the property is cheap and you're only going to enhance the area. It's just a question of time before the rents go up and the yields get tighter, so the property prices will go up. That has always been true.
Your first two sites in Soho and Chelsea were unsuccessful. What happened there? Oh god, what a disaster. We had a nightclub that closed at 11pm! We'd lost our licence [at 41 Beak Street] because I had a partner who was out of control. That was that.
Then we opened up the R Bar in Chelsea with £100,000, but we didn't see the [Sir Terence] Conran effect on restaurants. He was the guy who really showed us how to do it. You might look at them now and think they're formulaic but he really was this incredible beacon of how it should be done. There are other great operators and incredible people that have come into the market recently but it was really Conran that led the way.
So we opened R Bar, but as soon as someone opened up something that was actually good everyone left us.
You then went on to open Cicada in Clerkenwell in 1996, which is still going. What made you persevere? I'd had two disappointments so I kind of knew what to do and you can see the potential in the restaurant business, if you can get it right. It's pretty basic: buy something for £1, sell it for £2 and try to hang on to as much of it as you can on the way through.
Back then you could see the potential for it so I went East. We bought the first building for £50 a square foot. Some restaurant rents in Mayfair are over £100 a square foot, but we were buying the building. We became a cornerstone of that burgeoning area; we were giving them something - a place to go.
How did you source the necessary investment, given your track record at the time? It was difficult. You just have to force people to give you money by finding a deal that's just so obviously good people can't say no. Instead of raising lots of £50,000s or £100,000s, you have to take £5,000 here and £15,000 there, which is hard going. You've got to believe in yourself.
With that in mind, do you think you'd have been able to do it in today's economy? The entry level is so different now. Now you go to people and ask if they want to come in on a restaurant you're looking at half a million. Who's got half a million to do a restaurant? Not many people feel comfortable putting that kind of money into a restaurant because the risk is incredibly high. There are big barriers to entry but you sometimes have to go to that level to underwrite the success of a venture.
You opened Cicada with £250,000. How much does it cost to open a restaurant today? By the time you pay for the tills, the stereos, the rent while you're doing it up, the fit-out costs, the legals, the professional fees… it's between £1.5m and £2.5m. Unless you want to go mad, in which case you can spend anything you want. That's your first barrier.
The next is making the bloody thing break even so you can pay your staff, your suppliers, your rent, as well as make enough profit to justify the capital outlay.
And then on top of that you've got people criticising it, or the weather is bad, or it's the Olympics, or someone down the road pays ridiculous rents which spikes all the rents in the area… it's nuts. The level of financial commitment that's needed to get these things to work is crazy.
Is there a lot of competition for sites? There was a site in Covent Garden and I went to the landlord and offered to make him a partner. He'd have had to spend X amount on the building to prepare for any tenant to go in and I said if he gave me that money, I'd invest it in my business and give him a million a year. His reply: "I'll make more in rent." How do you compete with that?
Retail is eating into restaurant space because it's in the same use category. You don't need permission to change from a pub to a restaurant or a restaurant to a shop. There's also a diminishing supply of restaurant space.
This happened in the recession of the 1990s and now it's happening again. Yields for retailers are better so landlords prefer them.
When you open a new venture, do you take on debt? There's only debt if you want to put the family jewels in hock. That's why you have to bring partners in or take it on yourself. But you've got to be absolutely sure because if you don't get it right it's a very long way to get out of a hole.
I'm very cautious, and to my detriment. â¨I look at Arjun Waney, who's absolutely at the top of his game in his seventies, and I think I've got 20 more years of this. I really know what I'm doing now and it's where you finish that counts, as cheesy as that sounds.
I'm euphoric during the week because I think I've got a site and then I'm crestfallen for two days because it goes to someone else that I keep losing to. But you just keep going. Is there pressure on you to open new sites? You've got to keep expanding for your staff because they want to believe that theirs is a company to be involved in. You need to put yourself up as a proper operator and you need to do it well, treat everybody properly, pay your bills on time and try to create a culture that means people will want to be with you. The flipside is they want to see you expand. You're under pressure internally.
A lot of your businesses are very drinks led. How important is the bar to the restaurant? The bar is great because it creates energy, and not everyone wants to eat. In our restaurants with a bar the food/drinks split is probably 50/50. But the problem is now with cocktails being so expensive it's the same as having an entrée. I was in a hotel bar the other day. I asked for a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. It was £18. I was gobsmacked. Offer a starter at £18 and people would fall over at how expensive it is, but you've got five guys in the kitchen making it and they've been there since eight o'clock in the morning. There's a lot more labour goes into achieving that £18 than there is in a fancy cocktail, but people will pay anything for a cocktail. It's one of those elastic things, like petrol. Everyone groans but they just keep â¨buying it.
Drinks are important for us because, with all the other stuff going on that's conspiring against you, it's a good revenue stream that doesn't spike your labour costs. It's a good tonic to mix in with everything else, but â¨you've got to have skilled staff and make good drinks.
How do you market your restaurants? We don't. We did this fantastically low-tech initiative called a loyalty card. People who come and eat with us give us their eâ'mail addresses and are then given a loyalty card. When they come and eat with us they present it and on the fifth visit we give them £50 off. People really bought into it. We had a database of 10,000 names and now we've got 35,000. We don't bombard them with eâ'mail but use it as a prod to say what we're doing. If you send out the wrong stuff, though, you quickly get 300 people unsubscribing.
La Bodega Negra marked a departure from the pan-Asian cooking your restaurants are known for. Why the move to Mexican food? Why not? It was a visceral thing. I thought â¨that Mexican food here was terrible and that there must be ways of making it more delicious. What I didn't understand was the complexities of Mexican food. It involves a lot of work and a lot of product that we can't get here. Traditionally it's cooked with lard, and we don't want to do that so it was a steep learning curve.
The other interesting thing that I didn't see coming is that chefs don't see it as a step forward on their CVs. It's looked upon as a sort of fast food. Getting talented staff is the next biggest issue after finding a good site.
How has the restaurant fared since you opened last year? We had a huge turnover of staff because they just weren't good enough and we were doing incredible numbers. We were doing 500 covers a night. It's only 90 covers downstairs and 60 upstairs so were turning over three and a bit times a night. That just really grinds the kitchen because they never get on top of it. Mexican food is made up of a lot of salsas, sauces, marinades and moles, they were making this stuff so quickly that they were cutting corners and we weren't policing it well enough. We looked again at what we were trying to do and realised that if we're trying to be upmarket then we shouldn't be treating it like a fast-food place.
How did you change the dynamic? We slowed the whole thing down. We reduced the size of the menu and got rid of the cowboys in the kitchen and after a while we could slowly get people in because they were interested in what we were doing. It has taken a long time to get a stable team.
You're in the process of transforming the â¨Great Eastern Dining Room in Hoxton into another Mexican branded restaurant. â¨What prompted that?
The decision was made because La Bodega is an interesting business. I've got a less-interesting business down there in Hoxton that I've had for 14 years, so why don't we do something that's much more suited to the area? We went back to Hoxton and got a really good 2am licence, which is virtually unheard of, on both floors and we're coming back with something really exciting. La Bodega was a homage to Soho. This one is called Casa Negra. The concept is it's a traditional English house and some Mexicans moved in and opened up a restaurant inside it. The venue's a big old warehouse and we're stage-dressing it on the inside and tailoring it to Hoxton.
Will you look to roll out the brand further? I'm partnering with Serge Becker (pictured above) and Eddie Spencer Churchill and the idea is if we can really identify it as a hallmark of Mexican food and fun, we hope to take it international. Ideally we'd go to Ibiza or somewhere like that.
What is your main aim when opening a new restaurant? The idea is to make restaurants a bit more fun for us. We want to put some personality into them so that it's not always about the food but about the energy, too. Personally I don't eat in restaurants that are all about the food and have no atmosphere. I need the restaurant to do a lot of work - I get energy from it. If they're the places I go to, why would I build anything else?
I've got a few of my own that aren't quite atmospheric enough so we've made a decision to go after them.