The London Steakhouse Company founder talks to James Stagg about how his business was resurrected over a cigarette and a handshake with Marco Pierre White
My father was a lawyer, and I was always going to be a lawyer, but when I got to university I started working in pubs. I worked for Kevin Doyle in Edinburgh and loved it. It established a link between fun, cash, women and alcohol. I wasn't senior at all, but working behind a busy bar meant you were key to revenue.
I was interviewed by law firm Norton Rose, who offered me a graduate position, but at the same time I interviewed with Conran at Butlers Wharf. I was offered a position as commis waiter at Coq d'Argent, which I took. Norton Rose thought I was mental and offered to defer my place.
It's not rocket science. Many people in this business don't understand that you have to turn up on time, be polite and do what you're asked. After I was trained in proper service at Coq d'Argent I moved up to chef de rang. I had an epic time and ended up going to the Titanic with Marco Pierre White. They were desperate for head waiters and took me on because I could hold a pen and speak English.
I always wanted to open my own business. In 2003 my friends and I got together some cash: we sold a couple of flats in Battersea, borrowed £20,000 of our dad's money, got a loan from RBS and converted a wine bar in the City of London into Lanes restaurant. It was great food and we won a number of awards.
We didn't get everything right, but it was enough. After three or four years my business partner left, so my wife came on board from a career in banking. We agreed a buyout and pushed on with plans to open our second restaurant in Chelsea, Jimmy's.
I'm amazed that small businesses are able to deal with the complexities of booking, environmental health and HR themselves. In 2010 we took a head office space as we'd outgrown my study. I started doing my own bookkeeping and I then had a real understanding of the finances.
We used to miss hundreds of calls a week. So in 2012 we put in a call-queue system, Res Diary, which means that diners call head office. On the first day we missed just 20 calls and got everyone's email address. Business went up 20% overnight.
We monitor trade and know when we might have a problem. In those situations Bookatable star deals are good for spot filling. And we have a long-term strategy with Virgin Acorne Experiences and Red Letter Days. We entered that market in 2011 and really embraced it. It's not a cheap meal voucher; we tailor our offering cleverly so there is enough upsell left. And as we're very organised and ask for the voucher details at booking, our commission rate effectively halves as there will be a number of no-shows that we've already redeemed.
When it comes to chefs it's about finding people who don't have crazy ambitions. There are many 28-year-olds who want a Michelin star, but we're not their playground. That said, we're a serious business and we make sure our chefs can pay the mortgage. We offer eight shifts a week, but it's a square deal: chefs are paid well and they can work around childcare.
September 2003-present Owner, London Steakhouse Company
February 1999-May 2003 General manager, White Star Line Restaurants, Marco Pierre White Group
August 1998-February 1999 Waiter, Coq d'Argent, London
September 1996-July 1998 Barman, Woolpack Pub, Edinburgh