The Caterer Interview – Ross Shonhan

03 October 2014 by
The Caterer Interview – Ross Shonhan

Former Zuma chef Ross Shonhan launched his first solo venture, ramen bar Bone Daddies, in 2012, followed by Flesh & Buns the following year. His latest move is a Bone Daddies expansion, with a string of openings in the pipeline. Janie Manzoori-Stamford finds out more

Your second Bone Daddies is set to open on the first floor of Whole Foods in Kensington next month. Why have you moved away from the traditional high-street store with this one?

Whole Foods has 80,000 sq ft spread over three floors and the first floor is the one that most people don't know exists. I used to live two blocks away while I was at Zuma and I walked up there once. I saw this quite unattractive food court offer, saw that even very American things like barbecue were being done quite
badly, and I walked back out again.

Whole Foods was kind of forced to rethink it, which I think it needed to do because it has an amazing space in an amazing building, with an incredible food ethos in what it does.

We're kind of a test case for them, as well as us. We can see what it's like to operate almost as a concession in somebody else's environment and we can ask ourselves if we can then do this in an airport or shopping centre. If it works, which is the aim, we can take landlords from companies like Westfield and show them what we've done.

How do you see your growth plans differing from a traditional brand rollout?

‘Rollout' is a term I never want to use, which I know a lot of people say. While I do want to do more restaurants, I want to make every one look and feel individual. Even the menu offer in each one will be individual. That's a harder way of doing it, but I think it's a more enjoyable way, more exciting.

Byron has done it very well. Every one of its stores looks and feels completely different and I think that allowed them to get to 40-odd restaurants before most of their customers realised they were eating in an enormous chain restaurant, backed by another enormous chain restaurant. Everyone wants to feel like they're
making a discovery they can tell their friends about. Byron was very clever because it did that.

Using that as an example, because it's clearly done very well, I want to take that but extend it into our food and drink offer as well.

How will that work?

We'd like to manipulate it so if you come out of Tottenham Court Road Tube station and you're hypothetically within walking distance of three Bone Daddies, you don't just choose to go to the closest, you pick one based on the experience you're going to get. Do you go to the original in Soho because it's always the loudest? Or if we opened one down by the piazza in Covent Garden, do you go there because, again hypothetically, it does a bigger selection of gyoza and has green tea waffles dipped in chocolate for dessert maybe?

Do you think the challenge will be to communicate this to your customers?

I hope not. This is where we need to not be too clever. That's why we're sticking with Bone Daddies. What we saw with Flesh & Buns is even though it says it's endorsed by Bone Daddies, people still came looking for noodles. We learned a hell of a lot from this about public perception and how different it is just 800 yards from the original [restaurant].

I made a lot of mistakes doing this because in my head it was a very simple offer that made sense: buns, pickle, sauce and flesh. What I realised quite quickly as that people didn't understand it and even worse, they didn't know how to tell people about it.

Part of the problem is there's not a restaurant like us, so we get accused of just trying to dress up street food. This food, served in Taiwan and parts of Japan, is eaten in restaurants.

In Taiwan the buns are served at a banquet instead of rice. So it is a little bit irritating when people say we're expensive for street food, when they're in Covent Garden, they made a reservation to sit at a table, they have cocktails brought to them and they get the whole dining experience that they don't get standing in the cold in Dalston, waiting 10 minutes just to order.

You've got sites planned for Soho, Shoreditch and Bermondsey. What is the timescale?

We're going down to Bermondsey to take two railway arches. Ramen is unique because it takes an enormous amount of prep to make the soup, the flavours, the toppings and all of these things. Then when it comes to the actual assembly, it's quick and fast. We don't have the space at our original site to produce the volumes we need. One of the arches will allow us to buy some beautiful pieces of kitchen equipment that will enable us to do 300 litres of soup absolutely perfectly every single time. Then we can walk it into a blast chiller and we'll have the best controls to deliver it consistently.

The second railway arch will be an ad hoc restaurant space. We'll open up the roller shutter four nights a week and use it as a fun kitchen for development and training and lots of interesting things. It should all be up and running by October, hopefully.

Shoreditch won't open until the beginning of next year because of the licensing process. We hope to get the keys for Soho by the end of September and maybe do a pop-up through the winter and have a bit of fun.

How are you finding sourcing London sites?

As soon as I left Zuma, I went looking for sites. I thought naively that I'd be able to find one quite quickly and soon realised that no agent or landlord would take a chance on me: ‘Yeah, you've cooked in some good restaurants, but that doesn't mean you can pay your rent.' I was badgering agents to even send me details and when they did they sent things that were just worthless.

I went knocking on the doors of Soho myself, asking to buy restaurants. The lady who owned the original Bone Daddies site told me to piss off for six months before she'd even meet me for a coffee. I called her once a month, and it took a year and a half to secure the site from the time I first knocked on her door. Once we got that site and it was working, agents started to send me things; they sent me details of the site that is now Flesh & Buns.

Now that we've done this, they're more interested in what we're doing. Not quite to the same extent as Richard Caring or Alan Yau, but it's a lot better than it was. Having worked in high-end Japanese restaurants such as Zuma and Roka in London and Nobu in Dallas, what inspired you to take a more casual approach to the cuisine?

to charge too much for.

I use the same suppliers as I did at Zuma; I don't take nearly the same margin on any of it. Arguably the same care and attention goes into how we produce the food; it's just not tarted up in the same environment and delivered in the same formal manner. We don't have the likes of sake sommeliers, so we don't
have the same labour costs either and therefore aren't forced to charge the same amount.

How are you financing your operations?

Everything the business produces goes back into growing it. My business partner is Bernard Kantor, the managing director of Investec Bank, and I can't speak highly enough of the guy. He's an incredible mentor.

For him, banking is what he does, but restaurants are what he loves.

How did you get to know him?

When I left Zuma I had a big list of potential investors that I felt I could approach and a big chunk of them turned out to be full of it. I realised as I started to negotiate with them that they were so greedy and that everything was going to be one-sided. There's one guy in particular who effectively wanted to structure
a deal whereby if it was successful he did well, and if it failed I'd have a big debt to pay off. It was a very interesting experience going from the kitchen into pitching for investment - it was very Dragons' Den-esque. It was fascinating watching the way the minds of these business people work because there's a
million ways you can carve up a deal.

I met Bernard through a couple of the Zuma door guys that I'd always chat with and send food out to when I worked there. They told me I should speak to Bernard, who ate there all the time but I'd never met. They introduced me and we had a bit of chat and he said: "Ross, I've lost a lot of money in restaurants. I've not really made any. But if you can't do it, no one can."

Is it a challenge to hit your GP given the ingredients and products you use aren't necessarily that easy to source?

Absolutely. I had an interesting social media debate not long after we opened with someone who described Flesh & Buns as very expensive "compared to others".

Which others?

I asked for examples and he said Polpo. ButItalian ingredients are cheap for the most part, unless you go for the expensive varieties, and they're coming from just over the road in Italy whereas we're getting things from Japan. He was comparing what is, in its own country, a cheap peasant food with what is, again in its own country, actually quite expensive. Price perception is interesting. People are prepared to pay £10 for a pizza that costs pennies to make - the best GP on almost anything I can think of - but getting ingredients from the other side of the world to deliver our product is seen as expensive. If I'd spent a million
quid on our décor, people would be happier to spend the money. The biggest lesson I learned here is that people are happy to pay a higher price if they're in an environment that feels expensive.

Look at Marina O'Loughlin's recent review of Fischer's in Marylebone. She said something like, as is always the case with Corbin & King, the environment and service is amazing but the food is secondary. Coming at it from a chef's point of view I assumed people would come for the food, so it was a good lesson.

The good thing is at least I didn't have to spend a million quid to learn it!

How easy is it to recruit for your restaurants?

Finding staff even to come and work at Zuma was ridiculous because people see the Jason Atherton world as a career path; they don't look at oriental food in the same way. But as I foundout by chance, you can fast-track your career in the world of oriental food because there are so few people who can do it well.

I was head chef of Nobu at 26. Was I really ready to be a head chef? Would I have that chance in a European restaurant in London? No, no one would have given me a head chef job in London 10 years ago, at 26. Asian food has become more popular around the world and I get calls from headhunters all around the
world that need chefs who can cook Asian food and have ideally worked at Zuma, Roka, Nobu.

But I don't know anyone. They're hens' teeth. And anyone really good, I want for myself! We're focusing more on internal growth; taking young guys and teaching them to do what we need them to do in the way that we want them to do it. I'm hoping that with this growth spurt we're working on, people will
look at us and think, 'Wow, these guys are actually moving, now is a good time to join…'.

There are two things that will limit our growth: not finding the right people and not finding the right sites. But we've got our plans for the next six months, which are going to be mental.

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