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The Caterer Interview – Martin Kuczmarski

18 July 2014 by
The Caterer Interview – Martin Kuczmarski

The chief operating officer at private members' club group Soho House tells Rosalind Mullen about the company's plans for its non-member restaurants following the launch of its latest outlet, Chicken Shop and Dirty Burger in London's Whitechapel

It's 9.30am the day after you launched Chicken Shop and Dirty Burger Whitechapel, but it's already got a vibe. What's the secret?

Do the non-member restaurants attract your club members?
When we opened our third Pizza East in Kentish Town in 2012 it was because club members live there and they asked us to. A lot of members also live near our other restaurants - Tooting, Shoreditch and Whitechapel.

How else do you decide on a site?
We look at the building first. We see a site, stay on the street for 10-15 minutes, check the rent and go for it. We walked into the Whitechapel site and thought 'wow' - it's an amazing space.

If you've got great staff, food and drink, then people will come.

The concept we choose depends on the size of the site - for instance, Dirty Burger lends itself to smaller sites. We want to create fun, different brands. Electric Diner in Portobello Road is different to Little House Mayfair and they get different customers, but they 'smell' the same.

Dirty Burger, Chicken Shop, Pizza East… they seem a big departure from the members' clubs. How do you identify a trend?
Soho House is unashamedly young at heart. Pizza East was all about attracting younger clientele - a café for the masses - and chicken is equally popular.
We're not a company that sits around in the office; we grow organically. The Chicken Shop idea came about when I was on a flight to Berlin with Nick Jones [Soho House founder].

Nick loves chicken, and he's obsessed by food. There was a lot of turbulence on the flight and at one point he asked me what I would want to eat for my last meal - and then he started asking the people around us. Everyone said chicken. The idea was conceived there and then. Nick said it would be great to open a restaurant that served just chicken - but not any chicken, amazing chicken. By the time we'd landed we had the name and had pretty much registered the website. But it took another 12 months to get it right.

We trialled the first Chicken Shop in Kentish Town with just 40 covers in 2012. People love it, so why not do more? We're not corporate, not driven by standards and format. We do what we feel. So at Whitechapel we did Chicken Shop and Dirty Burger rather than choose.

How do you develop a concept like this?
Initially, we singled out some of the best Michelin-starred chefs - Thomas Keller, Alain Ducasse and Heston Blumenthal - and looked at their recipes. Then we researched the technology of cooking chicken - the pros and cons of rotisserie, grilling, barbecue or tandoori.

The result is a specially designed rotisserie that uses charcoal to keep in the heat and smokiness.

Whereas in a traditional rotisserie the chicken is turning in and out of the heat, ours cooks the chicken at an angle so it maintains the same level of heat across its whole surface.

The skin gets crispy, but the meat stays moist. Before the chicken gets anywhere near the rotisserie, however, it is marinated and then steamed so it is 90% cooked. This is done in a prep kitchen as the labour is too intense to do in the small open restaurant kitchen. And once it is ordered we have to cook it fast. The
chicken usually gets to the table within four and-a-half minutes. When the chicken is finished in the restaurant it becomes fun. We researched how to chop chicken. We went to Chinatown and asked the chefs at Hakkasan to train us in the same techniques they use to chop duck. Our chicken can be served whole, or cut into four or eight pieces so there is a bit of each part of the chicken to share - leg, breast and so on - between three or four people.

Our focus is on the quality of product. I was testing, constantly eating and drinking and pushing the boundaries. Staff as well. It was exciting. The chickens are sourced from Banham's Farm in Norfolk - we've met the farmer, seen what the chickens eat. They are free range and the perfect size.

How about Dirty Burger?
We steam the burger first, which is unusual, and we steam the bun, which is made to our recipe - not too sweet or salty. It's called Dirty Burger because people try to make burgers healthy, but you can't. Our brief was to make it dirty. We offer three burgers - cheeseburger (£5), Dirty Bacon (£6.50) and Dirty Cop-out
(£5), which is vegetarian.

How do you make a profit with those prices? Price is the key because our profit is through volume. By combining Dirty Burger with Chicken Shop at Whitechapel we can drive all-day business and get the volumes we need. Before 11am we serve our Dirty Burger breakfast items, such as sausage and egg (£4) and bacon and egg (£4) as well as a new Full Dirty (£7) and a tomato, avocado and egg muffin (£4.50). We've also introduced Dirty Doughnuts (£2), which we bake every day.

At Chicken Shop, a whole chicken is £15, half is £8 and quarter is £4. Add-ons such as cut chips and sides are £3-£4. On its first day, Whitechapel did 500 covers. Soho House has committed to £130m of debt to fund expansion and seems to be growing its non-membership restaurants as fast as its
membership clubs.

What are your plans? Well, on 11 August, we are opening Soho House Chicago, with 40 bedrooms. We're going to put Pizza East and Chicken Shop into it, which is the first time we've taken our UK restaurant brands to the USA. We're also going to open our biggest membership club to date, with 85 bedrooms, in Istanbul on 1 December. We'll take Cecconi's there. It's our first time in a half-Asian city and we need to learn the culture and the market. We'll develop it if it goes well.

Then, in 2015, the plan is to open Soho House in Barcelona. Soho House is also slated to open in part of the redeveloped BBC Television Centre in west London and work on the £500m project starts next year.

Aside from members' clubs, a few other Pizza Easts will be popping up. We're also running the F&B for the Hoxton hotel brand in London. Its second hotel, Hoxton Holborn, opens in September. We've lined up another New York-style Hoxton Grill on the ground floor as well as a Chicken Shop, and Cheeky, which combines a beauty parlour and F&B.

You say staff are an important reason why your expansion is gathering momentum? Yes, expansion creates excitement for staff. You can't say you are planning to open some thing in five years' time; staff don't want to wait that long. We need a field for our teams to develop in and move around. Many of our staff stay with the company a long time. For instance, we've got a guy who joined as a
waiter and is now director of operations for North America, Pierre Dourneau.

How do you market your non-membership restaurants - aside from tapping into your members? We reckon that if you have to overmarket a venue it's not going to work. We use social media such as Twitter, which is subtle. Until the week before the Whitechapel opening, we had sent just one flyer to Time Out magazine. The day before it opened, I saw people outside sending Instagram pics of the restaurant to their friends. We let the product talk. We undersell and over-deliver.

We always listen to social media. If someone posts something bad, we did something wrong. Nick and I do a non-stop job, constantly trying to improve and find out what we can do better.

There's a go-with-the flow intangible essence that makes Soho House tick, but how do you maintain service standards and quality? One way we do it is by recruiting the right people in the first place. I quickly forget about the CV because I believe we can teach someone how to work in hospitality. But, we can't teach them how to smile or to have a good attitude; I'm looking for a can-do attitude. If I hear someone say no to a customer, we have a problem. We don't accept mediocrity.

Training and development is strong and we are constantly thinking about how we can grow talent within our teams. For instance, we have a scheme where we slow-cook our junior managers and sous chefs over 14 months to get them to the next level. We give them sessions on how to deal with a challenging customer, telephone manner and so on. There is input from all of us.

We also look for fresh blood. We're constantly getting applications and if I find the talent, I will find the job. We call it the bench, like football. If a person is good, we keep them on the bench and when the company expands we pick up the phone.

What do you do operationally to ensure quality isn't compromised? My background is corporate. Strict. At Soho House we try to have all the efficiencies and hotelkeeping at the back. In front, we want tattoos and music and personality. It's a fine balance. If you are too still and too focused on policies you lose the philosophy of service, and vice versa - if you don't have efficiencies your business can become shabby. We have what we call a grey area. We have all the standards, such as serving tea with teaspoons on the right side of the saucer, but we empower our staff to break the rules if it is necessary.

Every general manager has a company manual, but I always say: "break the rules if you need to".

Soho House Group

Owners Ron Burkle (60%), Richard Caring (30%), Nick Jones (10%)
Founder Nick Jones
Launched The first private members' club opened in 1995 for those in film, media and creative industries

Private members' clubs
London
Soho House, Little House Mayfair; Shoreditch House, High Road House, Electric House, Dean Street Townhouse; Shoreditch Rooms
UK - Babington House, Somerset Canada - Soho House Toronto
Germany - Soho House Berlin
USA - Soho House New York, Miami and West Hollywood

Non-member restaurants Café Boheme, London
Dean Street Townhouse, London
Electric Diner, London
High Road Brasserie, London
Hoxton Grill, London
Soho Kitchen and Bar, London

Brands Cecconi's Mayfair Miami Beach and West Hollywood
Pizza East Portobello, Shoreditch and Kentish Town, London
Dirty Burger Kentish Town and Vauxhall, London
Chicken Shop Kentish Town and Tooting, London
Chicken Shop & Dirty Burger Whitechapel, London

Other businesses Cinemas Aubin Cinema, Shoreditch; Electric Cinema, Notting Hill; Edible Cinema concept
Beauty - Cowshed, Cheeky, Neville

Down to business In October 2013, the company refinanced to secure its long-term expansion plans by committing to £130m of debt facilities
www.sohohouse.com

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