As Giggling Squid gears up to open its 13th restaurant, in Billericay in Essex, co-founder Andrew Laurillard talks to Neil Gerrard about his plans for the business and why there aren't more Thai restaurant groups like his
Despite having opened your first restaurant with your wife Pranee in 2002, you haven't always worked in the hospitality sector. What is your background?
I spent 15 years in blue-chip marketing. I did the graduate programme at Unilever, which was good training on brand strategy and brand positioning, and I ended up doing quite a lotof Unilever's innovation in the UK. Unilever had an excellent training programme, so I trained in IT and I am a qualified accountant.
After that, I worked for Coca-Cola Great Britain & Ireland, based in Hammersmith, where I ran the Dr Pepper and Sprite brands for the UK and territories. In 2002 we set up a Thai restaurant with a generic name in Brighton and, after our first child, I got a job running the combined marketing for Thomas Cook and First Choice with a £40m budget.
We then opened the first Giggling Squid in Hove. I was doing a six-hour commute to Luton every day and we had two restaurants and kids and, for me, that wasn't really sustainable. After a bit I managed to get redundancy sorted out and I never looked back, really. My wife is the entrepreneur and she is the one who took the risks and set the proposition up. I took over four years ago to grow the business.
Andrew with his wife and business partner Pranee
Where did the name Giggling Squid come from?
When we were looking for a name we had this generic one, but we knew we wanted something that was more accessible. We have three children and we were fishing with them on the beach one day and there were some fishwriggling around in the bucket. We thought "wriggling fish", and just picked up on that as a good idea and moved on from that. When we opened the original restaurant, it was the same tapas structure as we have now and it really took off. But when we opened Giggling Squid in Hove seven years later, it stepped up again. The name is worth an awful lot, so we rebranded the original one.
Was it always the plan to grow it into a group of branded restaurants?
So we decided to just roll one brand out. There can be a drawback of having multiple sites, because people say "Oh, it's a chain", but that is outweighed 10 times by people saying "Oh great, I like that and I can get it in this town now". There are lots of shit chains that gives chains a bad name, but actually I would much rather eat in a good-quality chain restaurant than an independent.
Giggling Squid Reigate
Why do you think there haven't been any Thai restaurant groups before?
You're right - or Indian or Chinese. In terms of brand proposition they are all the same - they just happen to be called different things. And why aren't there any single-branded propositions nationally? The real answer is that a lot of them don't pay their taxes, so they are not scalable. The likes of Busaba Eathai pay properly, but often the guy down the road doesn't.
If you think you have a scalable proposition, then you have to comply with the rules. You have got to have proper health and safety. If you have a couple of restaurants and they are doing well but you are accustomed to not paying your taxes, then you are making an awful lot of money, which is hard to forgo.
Are there any other reasons?
Yes. My kids play chess, so I know a few chess dads. A lot of the chess-playing kids are Asian because their parents like them to do that rather than run around a rugby pitch, and a lot of the chess dads are doctors, lawyers, City finance types, IT directors and so on. I spoke to one guy who had lost his job and was an IT director for an investment bank and it turned out his parents run a Chinese restaurant.
"There are no national Chinese restaurant chains," I said. "You could make millions by being the first guy to set it up. All your generic management skills, your IT, your financial understanding, your planning and your historical background -it's all there for the taking." But as far as he was concerned, he is a professional and restaurants are what his peasant parents did. There are lots of opportunities people don't take because their education forces them into working for a big institution.
Giggling Squid Henley
What's it like working as a husband and wife team?
It is pretty intense. Pranee is the foodie. She is actually really slim because she won't eat anything unless it is nice. She designed the menu and makes sure the quality is there; she meets the suppliers and trains the chefs.
We now have a full-time operations director, who has some good experience from working for Prezzo, and I do the property and finance processes and IT development. We make property decisions jointly, but as we have grown there has been a narrowing of roles.
What do you look for in a specific site?
In small, provincial towns it's not like London, where there's a million restaurants and new ones are opening all the time. When you go to Reigate and you stop someone and tell them to close their eyes and name all the restaurants on the street, they will name them all. So you have this massive word-of-mouth benefit when you open in a town like that - you don't need to do a lot of work. Get the word of mouth started and if you are good, it will come.
I like sites that are quite quirky - I don't like the big 3,500 sq ft boxes. Look at the placeswe have in Henley and Marlow - quirky,timber-framed buildings with low ceilings. Most of our sites are listed.
Salt and pepper squid
A lot of people would try and avoid a site like that because of the complications it brings. Do you worry about that?
I think people have got a rigid view of what a restaurant should look like. When the chief executive signs off an expensive design that has been purchased from a London agency, the guy three levels below him isn't goingto say, "Actually, I think you are wrong, we need to do this instead". So they have a kind of fixed idea of what a site should be.
We come along, see a building and say to ourselves, "Yup, we can see that working, let's do it". I think if your concept is good, then it's a lack of confidence that makes you think that people won't go upstairs or downstairs. But I have been told that if I get a site on four levels again I am going to get shot.
You have taken a lot of sites on during the recession. Why did you decide to do that?
I saw the recession as a major opportunity. We had tried to expand before the recession, because between 2002 to 2004 things were going very well, but the economics were just insane and the rents were just in the process of bubbling. I thought, I just can't see how this makes sense, so we didn't do it.
We had just one restaurant for years and years, then the recession came along and the banks started pulling the rug out from under a lot of people. We spoke to our accountant and one of his clients was breaching their bank covenants. One of their three Brighton sites was a disaster and it was pulling the whole business down. They needed to get rid of it quickly and had just spent £250,000 fitting it out. They asked if we would take it over - they just wanted it off the books - so we got thisrestaurant for nothing.
You are spending about £200,000 on your new Berkhamstead site. Is that typical?
I think we have been spending significantly less than that. Horsham was about £180,000. Reigate's fit-out was cheap, although we spent a lot on the kitchen - if a restaurant has not been profitable, it has usually not been maintained, so we have to spend a bit kitting it out.
Do you have set ambitions about what size you would like to see the group grow to?
We could pull some numbers out of the hat to make a headline, but the reality is we don't know. We are going through a bit of a corporate finance process. We have had some feedback over the years and Piper Private Equity suggested we could have 150 sites in the UK. We had another trade buyer from Thailand who had done their global view of Thai food and they identified 20,000 Thai businesses that were one-offs and that global consolidation was needed. Right now we are happy to do a few more in Surrey and see where we get.
How competitive does the casual-dining market feel at the moment?
In London it is competitive, but I don't think we have felt it so much in the places we operate in. A lot of capacity opened up in Horsham over the past six months, but other places are a bit sleepier. If you get it right in London, you make a lot of money - but it is high-risk, both in terms of the competition and the fact that the economics aren't so favourable. I thinka lot of people are realising that now and looking outside the capital, and we have quite a few exciting concepts coming through. There is definitely a sense that financing is more available now than it was four or five years ago.
As you get ready to open your 13th site, what lessons have you learned along the way?
I could write a book. Be nice to your staff and look after them. If you can win in the labour market, whatever sector you are in, you are going to have a good business. Good quality staff do make a difference.
But my main advice is just go for it. Loads of people in corporate life should have a go at running their own business. Restaurants offer a huge amount of opportunity and the people who are worried about it not looking good on their CV should just get a life.
Giggling Squid in numbers
Average spend per head £12-15 for lunch; £22-29 in the evening, including drinks
Best-performing site Salisbury, at £35,000-£40,000 gross revenue a week
Group turnover (to 31 March 2015) £7.6m
Group pre-tax profit (to 31 March 2015) £356,500
Giggling Squid restaurants
Stratford upon Avon