Sarah and Eric Guignard have built up a mini culinary empire, with their restaurant French Table and three branches of their café French Tarte scattered across Teddington and Surbiton. They tell Neil Gerrard why there's still a place for great French cooking
The French Table, which opened in 2001, has proved to have enduring appeal, and you have built the rest of your business from there. What's its secret and how do you stay ahead of the game in a competitive market?
Sarah: It's really hard and I worry about it. We think a lot about whether we might be becoming a bit old-fashioned because we've been doing it for a long time. But I think we just deliver a good product at the end of the day, with wonderful, friendly staff who are warm and considerate. People appreciate those things.
Eric: And value for money. We keep on targeting our customers as there is more and more competition. We try to keep up to date because all the young people are coming up behind us.
Do you benefit from having more hospitality businesses opening around you or do you see it as a threat?
Eric: It is a challenge, not a threat, but it's good because it keeps you on your toes.
Sarah: You know you have to keep delivering; you can't become complacent. The hardest thing for us is maintaining our consistency and energy, which can then be instilled in our team around us to carry on that success and to deliver what we aim to deliver: to make it a special occasion for somebody.
You opened French Tarte, a casual pâtisserie, boulangerie and café, in a site adjoining the French Table in 2011, and since then you have expanded into Teddington and Victoria Park in Surbiton. How did that concept come about?
Do you plan to do more?
Eric: I think so. We can't grow the French Table - we can't move the walls! I would like between six and eight sites. I'll tell you why: it's a good size to be able to grow and to pay people properly and to have a nice little company. We have the power to be profitable.
Sarah: Me? I'm fine with just one more. But it's fitting the market now; that's the trend. You can't go down the street without seeing someone with a coffee cup or something to go in their hand, and that's only going to grow.
Tell us about the Alliance of Independent Restaurants (AIR) and how you got involved.
Sarah: It must have been about six or seven years ago that Lawrence Hartley, who I didn't even know, phoned. At the time, he was running Brula in St Margaret's in Twickenham, and he suggested that we sit down and talk about all the problems and all the good things to do with running a restaurant.
We used to call ourselves RATS [Restaurants Asking, Talking and Sharing]. We would sit and drink coffee for about two hours and talk about staff problems or discuss how much we were paying for stock, or ask what are you doing on your Valentine's menu and so on.
One thing we all took away from those meetings was that we all felt better. We hadn't necessarily solved our issue, but we felt better about it because we weren't alone. And it grew from there. I got in touch with chef Paul Merrett, because I had worked with him in the past, and then we approached other places - the Dysart in Petersham and other pubs - and we had about 14 of us. Then it was Erick Kervaon from the Bingham in Richmond who suggested that we do something en masse.
Michael Daniel, who runs the Gate restaurants, also wanted something more structured, and he said that if we had so many members, then surely we could get our cleaning products cheaper. That's how chain restaurants work - the bigger your group, the bigger a discount you get. So as well as the caring and sharing side, we thought we could benefit ourselves financially. And it's still going, and we are now at the point where we are trying to get more on board to make a difference for each other.
How do you organise the buying? Who takes responsibility?
Sarah: I'm not sure how much I can say because it might be disclosing too much information, but we have taken on a procurement specialist.
Eric: It is more for the general things - the dry store or for cleaning products - because we all still buy lamb and stuff like that from farmers. We saved quite a lot on insurance.
There has been some talk about whether AIR should become a lobbying organisation. What do you think?
Sarah: I don't think we have the tools, the hours or the manpower to take that avenue. I am not going to put a lid on it, but because we all have our own independent businesses, this is extra for us, and obviously we have been investing our own time and our own money.
I certainly wouldn't want to rule it out, but the most important thing is to get more members on board and to help them in other ways, in terms of workshops on things like tronc. Brexit will have implications for recruitment.
How much more of a challenge is it making things for you?
Eric: I think we need to adapt. That is going to take time, so we are going to suffer or a few years if they really stop the people who are looking for work in hospitality from coming into the country. Of our 55 staff, about 70%- 80% are from abroad, so it's a big challenge.
Sarah: What is scary is that we are 10 years behind Europe in terms of this industry being a good one to go into. If you look at French, Italian or Spanish waiters, it's been a profession for decades and it's something to be proud of. Here, however, it's almost embarrassing to be in this industry and to say you are "just a waiter". We are so far behind.
Eric: I think we need to educate customers to pay a bit more, and the industry can pay the staff more, and they can do fewer hours. If you go to northern countries, you pay a lot more for your meal, but that is something that diners in England are not ready for yet. A restaurateur still needs to make some money as well, otherwise you don't run a business. It is already harder now for us to make the money as owners than five years ago.
Do you talk to your customers about this?
Eric: Just a couple, but we are not flagging it in the restaurant. I think slowly and surely they would be receptive to it, yes, especially ours, because we are in a good area. But even the chains are struggling a little bit now. It's a problem and it needs to be dealt with.
Sarah: The chains are all fighting for that £10 from the customer and are realising they are not making the money because they are not doing the numbers they were once doing.
Even Waitrose offers you a free coffee now, but it's sad because there are people sitting on a chair overlooking a car park just because they can get a free coffee. The public need to be educated about what an independent business can offer and perhaps that is what we are trying to do at AIR - we've got to.
Eric: There are too many restaurants and coffee shops - we need to find the balance again. In the last recession, we grew like crazy as people would go to places they trusted. But now, people go on OpenTable and see an offer, so they try it. I feel bad for people who have to do offers all the time. You can't make money that way.
You must import a reasonable number of ingredients from the EU - are you being affected by price inflation?
Eric: Actually, the prices of butter, flour and dairy products from England all went crazy, so that was the main increase. What I don't understand is why English products are as expensive as European ones. They don't travel as much, but are more expensive or the same.
Can you sum up how the dining scene has changed and how you see the future?
Eric: It has become more casual, really. They have stripped everything back - the restaurant, the food. Sometimes we feel old when we go to a new place and we don't get it! But there are waves. It will come back to more traditional French cooking.
Sarah: I think when you are in your 40s you are getting old yourself, so you wonder if young people will appreciate the nicer things in life or if they are going to always be trendy. Is there still room for a white tablecloth in the restaurant?
I think at the end of the day there is, because people will always want to celebrate a special occasion and to mark it in a nice way. That's our little niche that we have created.
Sarah and Eric Guignard
Sarah and Eric Guignard met 20 years ago when they were both employed by Bijan Behzadi, who owned the renowned Red Pepper Group in Maida Vale, London.
Eric, originally from France, had worked at the Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower in Paris before moving to the UK. Behzadi grew his group of restaurants to include London venues such as the Green Olive, the White Onion and the Purple Sage. He hired Eric from the Capital hotel as the chef and took Sarah on as a manager. Before long, Behzadi was confident enough to ask them to take on the running of the White Onion in Islington, London.
"Basically, he just gave us the keys," recalls Sarah. "Eric chose the cutlery and crockery, I did the wine list." Eric adds: "It was a good learning curve - the best one you can have really."
Realising that they made a good team, and using their experience working for Behzadi, Sarah and Eric decided to do their own thing. Central London sites were difficult to find, due to the prices needed to acquire a property, so they settled on suburban Surbiton in Surrey following a recommendation from a friend.
In 2001, they bought the site for what is now the French Table. "We never looked back," says Sarah.
From the menu
•Crispy frogs' legs with smoked parsley root purée, herb cream, baby vegetables and parsnip
•Red-legged partridge, smoked sweetcorn purée, sweetcorn galette, girolles, jus corsé
•Salt-baked beetroot, crispy truffle polenta, autumn black truffle, goats' cheese and olive oil emulsion
•Bourguignon of Cornish stone bass with brown shrimp, sea urchin, Ratte potatoes and Chantenay carrots
•Lake District lamb with beans and goats' cheese, roasted figs, smoked shoulder tortellini, rosemary jus
•Chocolate moelleux with caramel oranges, almond tuile and vanilla ice-cream
•Goats' cheese and lemon pavé with crème fraiche glaze, honeycomb tuile and honey ice-cream