Pat McDonald may be a dab hand with a garlic crusher, but when it comes to his fellow restaurateurs, he doesn't mince his words. 'This soup is a horrible colour,' he memorably told one chef during the Channel 4 series If You Can't Stand the Heat, warning that the hapless cook was unlikely to earn himself a Michelin star.
In the flesh, McDonald cuts a burly figure befitting of a former schoolboy rugby star. But his brusque manner turns out to be no more than a gift for plain speaking, a refreshing antidote to the vacuous antics of your average celebrity chef.
McDonald's TV role as trouble-shooter to a succession of struggling food businesses was carved out in recognition of his real-life occupation as a top-flight restaurant consultant, which has seen him provide advice to the likes of Sir Rocco Forte and Sir Terence Conran. In between, he runs his own restaurant, the Epicurean, which began life in Cheltenham before moving to the small Worcestershire town of Pershore. Unusually, it opens only on Friday evenings, and in early December was already fully booked to the end of March. McDonald, you see, does have a Michelin star.
Blunt and uncompromising he may be, but McDonald's credentials are as well turned out as a perfect tarte tatin with career highlights that include being sous-chef under Anton Mosimann at the Dorchester and executive chef at Ettington Park in Stratford. Not surprisingly, the gamekeeper's son who grew up in the Scottish borders and conceived his first Swiss roll at eight, has strong views on what it takes to cut the mustard as a restaurateur.
Owning a restaurant is one of those fantasies that many people have nurtured at some time. For most, it remains an idle dream, but for some - especially those who are already successful in other areas - it turns into reality.
Yet few businesses leave such a dismal trail of failure. McDonald has seen it time and again. Since his television appearances, he is besieged by letters asking for advice about opening a restaurant, most from people who admit they have no experience of catering. 'Food has become an aspect of lifestyle that most people enjoy and they are blinded into thinking that running a restaurant is a bed of roses,' he says. 'A good restaurant looks seamless, it flows and people think it's easy.'
In reality, of course, it's very different. So where do most wannabes go wrong?
LACK OF EXPERIENCE. Hands-on training starting at the bottom is invaluable, says McDonald. 'When I worked at the Dorchester, we had a delivery of a dozen 40lb salmon every morning. We had to scale, gut, fillet and portion them and after a while you learn how to do it until eventually you can do it without even thinking. That sort of skill is not there any more.
A lot of kitchens have de-skilled and you get chefs in the big brasseries using salmon portions and they don't even know what a whole salmon looks like. They have become line chefs, just doing three dishes repeatedly.'
McDonald has a letter from one couple planning to open a restaurant who have zero experience. The wife intends to learn the ropes by waiting in a cafe for three weeks. 'How can you possibly learn about front-of-house in three weeks?' scoffs McDonald.
UNDER-FUNDING. 'People get pounds 15,000 and set off to find premises, but they don't realise how much things cost. My kitchen cost pounds 35,000 and that's just for the basic fittings. Then you have to pay for decoration, tables and chairs, cutlery and china. When we first opened the Epicurean, I bought six silver-plated wine coolers which cost pounds 1,500 apiece.' McDonald estimates that anybody wanting to set up on the scale of his current establishment would need pounds 100,000 to pounds 150,000 for starters.
LOCATION FIXATION. 'People say restaurants are all about location, location, location. I say bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. If you have a good enough product, people will come. Take the Altnaharrie Inn at Ullapool. It's on a loch, you can only get there by boat and you have to stay the night at around pounds 200. But they do very well.'
POOR MARKETING. 'People open their doors and just expect customers to come,' says McDonald. 'They get the support ads in the local paper to begin with, everyone from the butcher to the candlestick maker, but then what? Interest wears off. You need a drip-drip effect, you need to constantly remind the public you are there. You need to budget for PR and advertising.'
At the Great House hotel and restaurant in Bridgend, McDonald was astonished to learn that people working at a business park two miles away didn't even know of its existence. 'They told me they'd sent flyers,' says McDonald.
'But I told them that wasn't enough. I told them: go and meet these people, invite them to your hotel, give them a reception, drinks, dinner. They did this and it started to work, but then they stopped, they just sat back.'
Takeaway literature is a start. Diners at the Epicurean register for a membership card, which means they are put on a database and receive regular mailings. The moral is that even restaurants can get into relationship marketing for a modest outlay.
POOR BUSINESS PLAN. 'The guys at the Kwizeen in Blackpool (Tony Beswick and Marco Calle) took on premises and then found they had pounds 2,500 to spend on the decor. You can't buy a decent coffee machine for pounds 2,500. They didn't even have a business plan. Then you get people who write out a plan saying, we'll lose pounds 35,000 in year one, pounds 10,000 in year two, in year three we'll break even and in year four we'll make a pounds 10,000 profit. But when I ask who's funding the loss, they haven't thought about that.'
Running a restaurant is the same as any other business. 'You buy your product, you process it, you sell it. I buy chicken and turn it into terrine, the guy down the road buys steel and turns it into trailers.' You must know your field and know your market.
Just as there are reasons for failure, there are a number of ingredients that help to create a successful restaurant.
INVEST IN STAFF. If you're not an accomplished chef yourself, employ one, but taste their food first. 'I've been advising on a project,' says McDonald, 'where they appointed the chefs on their CVs without tasting their food. The results were horrific.' And if you don't know the business, employ a chef and a manager.
PRICE IT RIGHT. 'If a bottle of wine costs pounds 5 and you sell it for pounds 10, people often think that's a 100% profit. It's not. There's a rule of thumb that to earn a gross profit of 65% you multiply the price at which you buy ingredients by 3.5. People think they're making a profit when they're not. I ask: have you taken out VAT? How much does it cost to launder each napkin and tablecloth? How much, per guest, do you pay for sugar, butter, milk, flowers? Typically, breakages account for 0.5% to 1% of turnover, cleaning 3%; wages 25% to 40% and food 35%. Then you have indirect costs - rent, electricity.'
LEARN TO COMMUNICATE. Successful restaurateurs are usually gregarious and charismatic. 'I know some unbelievably talented chefs, but the kitchen door is their barrier. You've got to be able to communicate with people and with staff, too.'
BE GENEROUS. 'Being a restaurateur is about generosity. How many times have you asked for extra bread only to be charged for it when the bill comes? If you give, it pays dividends.'
DO YOUR RESEARCH. 'You might find a huge premises for pounds 5,000 a year in the Orkneys but the population is only 500 people. If you're thinking of opening an Indian restaurant but the two already in town aren't doing very good business, there's not much point in opening another.' The premises, says McDonald, have to be viable in terms of rent and rates and there has to be sufficient volume of potential customers.
KNOW YOUR NICHE. 'Your brand image and concept must be right. Are you a restaurant, a bar cafe, a brasserie or a hotel with a restaurant? If somebody comes to your restaurant thinking it's a bistro, they might turn up in jeans and a T-shirt, feel intimidated and worry about how much they were going to spend.'
SO YOU WANT TO BE A RESTAURATEUR?
If you can't tick yes to all of the following questions, don't even think about it: n Are you prepared to work in excess of 12 to 14 hours a day?
- Would you give up a safe job to do so?
- Are you prepared to give up weekends and to work when others are on holiday?
- Are you prepared to give some control of your business to those you employ?
- Are you able to communicate with staff and customers?
- Do you have the experience and the knowledge to run a restaurant?
- Do you have the funding to see you through the early days when the restaurant is making a loss?
- Do you have a separate source of income to keep you until you make a profit?
- Are you prepared to take a risk and, if necessary, to lose the money?
- Do you have the motivation to be your own boss?
- Do you have a strategy?