We have a small chain of restaurants based in central London, where we serve mainly hummus-based lunches. We wanted to do something healthy and food everyone knows, but is different from the other restaurant chains already in the market. My business partner and I were friends at university and we used to do a lot of projects together during our degrees, so when we left we decided we should set something up.
We did a lot of sampling all around London piecing together our menu, and then eventually we found a unit in Wardour Street. We didn’t know until afterwards, but our unit was known as the ‘unlucky’ unit on the street. Maybe that’s why we got a good deal on it! By the second day of operation, we got a call from Time Out magazine asking if they could come and take some pictures of the restaurant. We said yes, asking if they were planning to do a review of some sort. It turned out they had already done their review and we had only been in there two days. That helped to get our name out there right from the start.
The weeks are very busy because we now have three sites that we are constantly going between. At least once a week we try and work on the ground in the restaurants to find out what the atmosphere is like, engage with the customers and see what they think, and generally keep our finger on the pulse.
This week though, we have been seeing some new properties. One of the most important things we’re focusing on for the business at the moment is getting some new sites open. We’ve secured funding for our next location, so now is the time for us to find the right unit with a good local audience and in a good spot. We want to open four more locations in the next year to 18 months, so a good portion of our time is spent working on this at the moment.
Other things I’ve done this week include our monthly manager meeting – we get the site managers from our three locations all together to resolve any issues. These days it’s great because of the technology available to us. We use Google Docs so that managers can update a document collectively and everyone knows what the agenda is by the time we get to the meeting. Sometimes issues are resolved before we get there which really helps. This, emails and calendars are all massively important to the efficiency of the business, and some of this technology simply wasn’t around when we got started back in 2006.
When we first started the business, initially it was crazy hours. We’d often work till around midnight as my business partner and I would have to lock up the restaurant ourselves and we didn’t have that many staff. It was six-day weeks, and that lasted for about a year. But now we have around 50 staff, we’ve got a layer of managers running the stores, and we work about 10 hours a day on average.
We definitely fell into some pitfalls when we got started. We were very young and we didn’t have many connections. Things like raising venture capital to fund the expansion were very difficult. A lot of that is based on your relationship with investors – you very rarely get people who are willing to invest out of the blue. A bit of track record would have helped.
Also, we were so keen to get started that we thought ‘if the food is great the rest will come’, but we neglected branding and marketing by doing that. We should have paid more attention from the outset to ‘how do people feel when they’re in our restaurant, and is this a brand that they want to be associated with?’ We’ve obviously worked on all that since, but it would have been good to invest more in it at the outset.
The best things about the job are the fact that you can choose who you work with, the flexibility of being able to work longer or shorter hours when you want or need to, and seeing customers and getting their feedback in-store. Sometimes they’ll tell you they loved a dish or they’ll tweet at you with some nice comments, which is all very rewarding. We work with some great people and it is very exciting – and we get to eat in the restaurants every week!