We are ‘Firm Optimists’. We know that these days will pass, that the pandemic will run its course and that in hospitality enterprises, the kitchen will again bustle with activity, the aroma of coffee will fill the air and staff will fulfil their mission of exceeding customer expectations.
Here at The Firm, we will continue to discover and nurture the finest talent and match them with the new requirements of a re-emerging industry.
Insights from our Firm Talk with Fergal Lee:
Chris Corbin and Jeremy King are two of London’s most famous restaurateurs and restaurant entrepreneurs. Between them they encapsulate the essence of what it takes to deliver an amazing dining experience in truly great restaurants.
While the Corbin and King phenomenon has been studied and critiqued many times over the years, few people have ever had the chance to hear the secrets of their success first hand.
Fergal Lee, who has worked alongside the renowned duo for the past 17 years, was the guest speaker at the March 2020 Firm Talks event in the RDS in Dublin. During a lively, informative and never less than entertaining presentation, he let the audience of more than 70 industry professionals into a few of the secrets of the Corbin and King success story.
Introducing Fergal, Micheline Corr, Director of The Firm, noted that Fergal began his career with Corbin and King as part of the opening team for the now-iconic Wolseley Restaurant in Piccadilly in 2003.
“I have special memories of The Wolseley,” Micheline said. “My late husband, a man of obviously great taste, said breakfast there was an essential part of any trip to London. Last time I was there, Cat Deeley was at the next table and on the other side were two elderly ladies who were quite upset that the Bowl of Café au Lait with toasted baguette was missing from the menu. When they mentioned this to the server he replied, ‘It may not be on the menu, but we are happy to make it for you.’ Pure class!”
In his presentation, Fergal divided the components of a great restaurant into different aspects of a theatre show – behind the scenes, raising the curtain, showtime, the finale and the reviews.
But, like all great shows, he began with a prologue and looked back on the history of Corbin and King, the founders and owners of The Wolseley and a string of other great London restaurants. They were initially introduced by the infamous Peter Langan back in the 1970s.
“They found they had similar ideas about what made a great restaurant and got together to open Le Caprice,” Fergal explained.
Some years later they opened The Ivy in the heart of London’s theatreland. “That was 1990 and it transformed the way people ate out in London. There was a one year waiting list, and it created the whole concept of celebrity dining.”
The duo sold their restaurant interests as a result of a serious illness at the turn of the millennium but returned to the business with a flourish in 2003 with the opening of The Wolseley in the former Wolseley car showrooms in Piccadilly. In the style of a grand café, The Wolseley was a homage to the great cafes of Europe and reintroduced the concept of all-day dining to London. A concept that was to become the business model for the Corbin and King group.
The Wolseley was followed by The Delauney, Brasserie Zedel, The Colbert, Fischer’s, Soutine and Café Wolseley near Oxford, the group’s first venture outside London.
Turning to his main theme, Fergal began by taking the audience behind the scenes in what makes a great and successful restaurant. The first ingredient is the people.
“Who are the most important?” he asked. “The customers? To a point. Front of house? I really want to focus on the teams that enable the restaurant to perform at its maximum. These include the kitchen, finance, procurement, training and development, staff welfare, your external partners including your suppliers. If you don’t have good relationships with them, you are not going to get the quality you need. If you don’t pay them on time, you won’t get deliveries when you need them.”
While the kitchen is responsible for the quality of the food on the customers’ plates, it doesn’t call the shots on what dishes are on the menu. “That’s a collaborative process involving front of house and others, but the owners have the final say,” Fergal pointed out.
Back of house also needs to be performing optimally. “Otherwise everything grinds to a halt. Training and development matters; people want careers not just jobs. They also have lives outside work. We have to look after their welfare and their work life balance. You need people of the right calibre to create the right culture. This doesn’t happen overnight. You need to build a reputation as a great employer. If you don’t get back of house right, nothing works.”
Moving onto the next act, Fergal asked where the customer journey begins. “When you make the reservation? Yes, but I believe it really starts when you enter the restaurant. The first person you meet is the maitre d’. That customer facing role is so important. That initial five seconds has to convey the right level of warmth, empathy and authenticity. It sets the tone for the rest of the experience.”
With tongue firmly in cheek, he said the best maitre d’s are waiters who couldn’t make the grade. “But they are like gold and are people to be treasured. They put the right people on the right tables and build the atmosphere in the room. They have to be part Michelangelo and part Machiavelli in that task.”
And they have to be ultra-sensitive. “During lunch you shouldn’t sit people from the same industry side by side, but you can do that during the evening when things are more relaxed. It helps to build the atmosphere. A good maitre d’ has to be interested in people, a bit of a nosy character and have an extremely good memory. Customer recognition is a vital tool in their armoury. Customers expect to be recognised and greeted by name. Restaurants lose respect, trust and authority if they don’t.”
The very best have their own tricks. “I know a maitre d’ who keeps a notebook with sketches of high-profile customers.”
Even in today’s environment with computerised reservation systems and Google images available on phones, he keeps that notebook as an aide memoir.
Fergal recounted the tale of a very famous English author who arrived into an unnamed restaurant and the maitre d’ was forced to confess that he couldn’t remember her name. She responded witheringly, “Go find someone who does!”
“The best maitre d’s create great first impressions and put customers at ease while seeing them to their tables. The role no longer exists in many restaurants, but I believe every successful restaurant should have one.”
“Why do customers come to your restaurant?” Fergal asked. “Is it for business, because celebrities dine there, for value for money, for the food? We have a number of customers who have breakfast in one of our restaurants, lunch in another, and dinner in another on the same day. All for different reasons.”
In his view, those reasons boil down to two things – trust and authority. “Trust that you understand their expectations, that the food will be good, and that you will look after them. Authority in service and delivery, that the staff are knowledgeable and skilled, and that the service is of a high standard.”
Understanding customer preferences is also essential. This is based on knowledge accumulated over the years. “You get to know their favourite food, wine, if they are married or divorced, where they like to sit. Michael Winner, the late Sunday Times food critic, liked to eat at the same table every Sunday.”
Winner was labelled HWC – handle with care. “Red lights flashed in the reservation system when he booked, and he could put the fear of god into any waiter.” But The Wolseley always got positive mentions in his column.
Another regular was the artist Lucien Freud who dined at the same table in the restaurant every day for 10 years. “He treated it like home and in a way it was. On one occasion a lady in a party of six demanded to capture a special moment on camera, much to Freud’s annoyance. Next thing she knew, she was hit on the back of the head by a breadstick expertly thrown by Freud. She was quite hysterical for a while when she saw the thing land in her Weiner schnitzel but did see the funny side later.”
This behaviour was not merely tolerated. “I know we got great value out of Lucien. We wouldn’t have dreamt of stopping him throwing breadsticks at customers. Restaurants need characters. When he passed away, we put a black tablecloth on his table with a single candle for 24 hours in his memory.”
“Like any show worth seeing, the end is as important as the opening act,” Fergal advised. “What happens when the bill comes down to the table? A lot of staff think it’s over then and tune out and start thinking about cleaning duties. People notice this, and it can undo all the good that went before. The farewell has to be as powerful as the welcome. Have we done enough to make them come back?”
He said the aim should be to send customers out into the night with the warm glow of satisfaction.
“A restaurant is not just a place to eat. It should be much more than that.”
Gone are the days when people would pick up the phone and call the restaurant to tell them about their experience, Fergal noted somewhat wistfully. “People used to even write letters to restaurants, but we are now in an era of instant gratification and social platforms like TripAdvisor, Google, Facebook and so on. We monitor all our online reviews and get daily reports on them. We don’t respond to all of them, but we look at trends. If we get three negative reviews about afternoon tea, for example, we will investigate that. We always want to protect our reputation.”
His advice on review response was to focus on what can be controlled. “Ensure quality and delivery of service, and everything else should look after itself. We all have bad days, but what we concentrate on is continually improving, always getting better, and keeping the focus on the customer.”
Fergal’s presentation was punctuated by a number of interactive interludes where he shared some real-life restaurant nightmares with the audience to get their solutions to scary scenarios. These ranged from spilling the contents of an ashtray over a Hollywood star to catering for notoriously troublesome customers with wide-ranging preferences in their group, and having no record of a large group booking which arrives into a crammed restaurant.
In all cases, the answer involved being open and honest with the customer.
Finishing up, Fergal noted that he hadn’t spent a lot of time talking about food, eating trends or design. “They are important but other things are more important,” he adds.
Turning to technology and the role it plays, he said that Corbin and King has a customer-centric ethos. “We’ve been a little bit slow in moving on technology,” he said. “We don’t want our staff looking at screens all the time. Our reservation systems are now cloud-based so they are fully accessible across all restaurants. And we have iPads around the room so the maitre d’ can view the table allocation.”
“How customers are using technology is very interesting,” he added. “Look at the Instagram phenomenon. There was a New York Times cartoon recently featuring a waiter asking if the food was OK because the diners hadn’t taken a picture of it. It has become a verb in its own right and people ask if something is instagrammable. In fact, some people are now pointing to pictures on their phone instead of referring to the menu when they are ordering a dish.”
In conclusion he referred to restaurants having lifecycles. “The start of the journey is like giving birth, a lot of pain, but it’s worth it in the end. That’s easy for a man to say. The first three months is all about winning acclaim and reviews. After that there is more of a commercial focus.”
He left the audience with his five top tips for a successful restaurant:
- Having a great reputation as an employer is the most important thing
- The maitre d’ is king; every successful restaurant must have one
- The farewell is as powerful as the welcome
- Never see customers as a source of income
- Embrace whatever stage of the lifecycle you are in
Responding to questions after his presentation, Fergal shared his insights on a range of topics including the Covid-19 pandemic, restaurant profitability and the challenges of running a hotel restaurant.
On Covid-19 he said it hadn’t had much of an impact on the London market as yet. “London exists in a little bubble to a certain extent, and we didn’t feel any impact in January and February,” he explained. “But the Italy lockdown made people take notice. The most dangerous thing is hysteria. Tourism is down, and people are not travelling. Hotel bookings are 15 to 20% down. Restaurants will feel the effects of more people working at home. A lot will depend a lot on what happens next. Our big worry is if a member of staff tests positive.”
He said he would, of course, like a restaurant to be profitable every month, but that it depended on a couple of factors. “The stage in the lifecycle of the restaurant is one. The first challenge after launch is to establish a local, national and international reputation. And then you hope to gain iconic status in five years. Some restaurants will have fallow periods. August would be down in the West End while local restaurants might be up.”
Hotel restaurants represent a tough proposition. “It’s hard to get it right. We did own a hotel in Mayfair, but we sold it two years ago. They are tough places to fill. A lot of restaurants are moving out of the West End now. The quality of what’s available on people’s doorstep is improving. You don’t need to go to a hotel or the West End for good food anymore. You need to choose a model and location really carefully and understand what local restaurants are already offering.”
And when asked to expand on restaurant lifecycles and how long they might last, he said the aim in the Corbin & King model was to see a restaurant reach maturity after about five years. “We would hope that levels of consistent customer service will sustain it over time after that. None of us has a crystal ball, but we want our restaurants to stand the test of time, we don’t do fads. We would get out if it’s not working. We have closed a restaurant because it was no longer fit for purpose.”