After a difficult year for the casual dining sector, Rosa's Thai Cafe chief executive Gavin Adair is setting his sights on growth, a refreshed set of values and a new vegetarian delivery service to propel the business forward. He speaks to Neil Gerrard about the business's plans for the future.
Gavin Adair has struggled to put his finger on the strange feeling that has been nagging at him over the past 12 months, as he has helped to steer Rosa's Thai Cafe through some of the most challenging times any restaurateur is ever likely to experience.
He's happy to admit that Rosa's has been impacted far less severely than many other fellow businesses. Yet somehow, the feeling remained. Eventually he realised, whether justified or not, it was guilt.
"It keeps me awake at night. It's my Northern Irish Presbyterian guilt about things not being as bad for us as they have been for other people," he explains.
In normal times, a chief executive would be far from shy about celebrating their successes. But as has been remarked many times over the past year, these are far from normal times.
"Many people are friends in this industry, and over this period many more of us have become friends. There has been a lot of solidarity," says Adair.
Fortunately for Rosa's, already having a strong delivery operation proved to be a boon at a time when restaurants were forced to close their doors. "There's no getting away from it – we relied on a lot of government support. But we have been lucky in certain aspects of how our business model was already operating. This financial year and last year have been completely different to what we envisaged, but we have remained profitable. We have opened multiple sites in the last 12 months and we have built our teams. So I see us as extremely fortunate, through some combination of good luck and good judgement, to have come through this. Often more luck than judgement," he says.
I see us as extremely fortunate, through some combination of good luck and good judgement, to have come through this
Having been founded in 2007 as a market stall in east London's Brick Lane by Saiphin and Alex Moore, Rosa's has grown steadily to more than 20 sites in the capital and in major cities like Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester, with a Birmingham site to follow later this year. Among those sites, four are delivery-only "cloud kitchens", while Lao Café in London's Chandos Place was born from a pop-up.
Adair joined the business nearly four years ago, around a year before investor Trispan took a majority shareholding and former Yo! Sushi boss Robin Rowland came on board as chairman. The founders are still involved with the business, with Saiphin still active in driving the food and Alex in his capacity as a non-executive director.
Despite several years in hospitality, initially as finance director for Ask Restaurants and then as commercial and strategy director for Wahaca, where he helped launch two sub-brands – Burrito Mama and DF/Mexico (now DF Tacos) – Adair still feels like a "relative newcomer" to the sector.
He is a numbers man by trade, having started his career as a graduate trainee at accountancy firm Grant Thornton before eventually rising to become a senior manager in its recovery and reorganisation arm, but says his time at Ask gave him the hospitality "bug".
Despite not feeling like a veteran of the trade, he is nonetheless ready for hospitality's gradual reopening this spring. "Like many others, this isn't our first rodeo, and sadly we have got experience reopening sites," he says. The group will be able to offer limited outdoor seating now outdoor dining has the green light.
All in the delivery
Reservations for restaurants once they have fully reopened look healthy, but Adair adds: "We haven't had every night booked up for six months like some of our competitors appear to have – mostly in fine dining. But we are also very aware that, unlike some restaurants, people have been able to get their Rosa's fix from takeaway, collection and delivery, which was a big business for us and is now a very big business. The big unknown is how the split of business will move over time. That is related to how quickly people will get their confidence back."
It's perhaps fortunate that Adair got over the scepticism he once had for delivery prior to the pandemic. "I joined from a business where effectively I was the guy saying: ‘We are not going to do delivery'," he admits.
"The reason was twofold: number one, we can't guarantee the quality of the food, and number two, the experience is a package – it's not just about the food. So I had a bit of adjustment to do when I joined Rosa's, which had an existing delivery business. But I found the product travelled fundamentally better and was set up for it. I ended up embracing it.
"More delivery-heavy kitchens have already been part of the strategy, but what Covid has done is accelerated some of that. It is going to be a big part, but we want to make sure that it doesn't become too big a part and that we don't lose sight of what we actually are."
Adair is keen to emphasise the continued importance of Rosa's as a restaurant business that can provide guests with a shared experience and a social environment, which he says is "partly what you are paying for".
To that end, Rosa's has revamped its values and is basing a new service experience upon those values (see below) so that people feel they are getting the "best possible experience" when they return.
Nonetheless, one of the latest innovations at the company – Rosa's Thai Veggie – is a delivery-only concept. Operating out of a ‘cloud kitchen' in Hackney, Rosa's Thai Veggie launched in March and follows on from a pop-up at a Rosa's site in Soho in 2018.
The new brand serves only meat-free dishes, including some using products from meat-free brand This, which produces soybean protein- and pea protein-based meat alternatives, which can be found in dishes such as This Isn't Chicken chilli and basil stir-fry. Dishes also feature tempeh, a plant-based protein made from fermented soybeans that originated in Indonesia, for example in a chu chi curry.
Adair, once a "committed carnivore", says Thai food "lends itself incredibly well to vegetarian dishes". Demand for meat-free menus and vegan menus was increasing steadily before the pandemic and did not abate through lockdown, he explains. An October 2020 series of vegetarian specials enjoyed strong sales, encouraging Rosa's to bring the vegetarian brand back to life.
"We thought that as a standalone offering, it was super-compelling. A very large proportion of the menu is completely new and exclusive to Rosa's Thai Veggie. We will improve our existing dishes further and then to continue to evolve it and launch it elsewhere," he says.
The only way is up
After such a bruising year, you might expect the business to pause its expansion plans, but Adair has ambitions to grow Rosa's by eight or more sites over the next 12 months. Currently it has 28 sites, including four cloud kitchens and Rosa's Thai Veggie, plus Lao Café. Birmingham's opening is set to coincide with the resumption of indoor dining around 17 May, and a site on London's Baker Street is slated for the end of June.
"We have got another couple in London coming and another couple of sites out of London pretty well progressed, but not signed," says Adair.
Finding sites has not been easy, even with some operations succumbing to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. "There's still a number of operators who want to secure the good sites, so rental expectations haven't adjusted as much as they might have done," says Adair.
"Building value in our business is about finding great sites and opening them well, creating spaces that people want to come to and have a good time. We have been fortunate that our landlords have been supportive and that has worked both ways.
"But I think everyone wants to grow their way out of this, including businesses that have had it even tougher than we have; that makes it a tricky market even before you get to the issues over rents, upward-only rate reviews and all the things that don't seem quite fair."
As the hospitality market hopefully continues to open back up this spring and summer, Adair hopes to bring back most of Rosa's workforce. At the peak, the business furloughed two-thirds of its employees, although this has fallen slightly, with roughly one-third working full-time, one-third working part-time on flexible furlough, and one-third still furloughed.
"Some people have left, but we are pretty hopeful that everyone who wants to come back will do so. That is the other huge advantage of being able to continue to grow – we are actually looking for more people to recruit and are also developing people internally. Even having this conversation makes me nervous that it jinxes things, because I am really conscious of how fortunate we are.
We are actually looking for more people to recruit and are also developing people internally
"Fundamentally, I think our government has provided incredible support that we couldn't have done without, and yet it still isn't enough for many. Businesses like us who can continue to trade benefit from things like the reduction in VAT and being able to strike deals with landlords. Other businesses like pubs aren't even able to trade," he says.
While he is not as bullish as some in the sector, Adair describes himself as optimistic for the future, with a strong belief that people will return to restaurants and to socialising.
"I am just as positive about the opportunities now as when I joined four years ago," he says. "We have got some great competitors that we benchmark ourselves against in casual dining: Dishoom, Pizza Pilgrims, Pho, Honest Burgers.
"Giggling Squid is doing a great job in Thai, but I don't think anybody has yet begun to own the space. That's not an ambition in and of itself, but I think there is opportunity there and I think we have the foundations to go and do that. That's why, despite everything, I still spend my time with a relative smile on my face."
Gavin Adair – CV
January 2020-present Chief executive officer, Rosa's Thai Cafe
2017-January 2020 Managing director, Rosa's Thai Cafe
2013-2017 Commercial and strategy director, Wahaca
2010-2013 Finance director, Ask Restaurants
2006-2010 Head of finance, future media and new business, Channel 4
1996-2004 Senior manager, Grant Thornton
Facts and figures
Annual turnover £20m+
Average site annual turnover (pre-Covid) £1m
Average restaurant spend, per head £20
Average delivery spend (for more than one person) £25-£30
New values, new service style
"One of the best things about the last 12 months has been the attitude of our teams," says Adair. He explains how an exercise to redefine Rosa's Thai Cafe's values, which was paused at the start of the pandemic, has since gone forward and been used to inform a new style of service for the business.
"Our number one priority for 2020 was a huge overhaul of our culture and values. Rosa's had grown up founder-led with a fantastic feel, and as a medium-sized business it was ready for the next phase of its growth."
A new people director joined late in 2019 and, while initially putting two-thirds of staff on furlough seemed to derail the project, Rosa's management was so impressed with the attitude of its teams, many of whom were keen to keep working on deliveries, that they decided to move ahead with it virtually.
Eventually, the Rosa's team decided on three core values: ‘kind-hearted', ‘hard-working' and ‘food lovers'. The business then identified behaviours that show how the team conforms to each of these values, and they have been used as the basis for a new approach to service that moves away from a traditional "steps of service" model and instead relies on a more natural approach.
"What really struck me when I joined Rosa's was how independent it is. It was really clear from the outset that we didn't want to do anything to make it ‘corporate'," says Adair.
"Changing the service style is a big challenge because steps of service exist for a reason. I am not going to naïvely tell you that there won't be certain standards that we accept. But fundamentally it should be about behaviours and how teams and customers feel, rather than: ‘Did you do X, Y or Z?'."
Portrait photography by David Cotsworth
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