Across the divide
27, August, 2010
By Peter Martin
Cities are changing shape. Restaurant offers are better. To perform in this sector you simply have to be more competitive. We have to invest to keep fresh.
If you want an impartial view of England’s north/south divide, it’s probably worth asking a Scot. Peter Martin talks to Iain Donald, this year’s winner of the Catey for group restaurateur - and the man out on the road for Individual Restaurants.
Iain Donald is the front man for Individual Restaurants, the publicly-quoted company that operates the Piccolino chain, Restaurant Bar & Grill and Bank restaurants in locations from central London to the North West of England to Donald’s own native Scotland.
Much is talked about London being a different country, and Donald wouldn’t argue with that. But “north/south” does not really do justice to the division between the capital and the rest of the country – it’s these days more about inside and outside the M25. Although, one of the markets that most interests Individual is the affluent “M25 corridor” that separates the two.
Yes, it’s already getting more complicated.
Donald’s official job title is commercial director, but the description doesn’t really do justice to his role. He is part of a three- (recently increased to four-) man team of directors that run the business and its 34 restaurants. He shares responsibilities with chief executive Stephen Walker, finance director Vernon Lord and newly joined operations director Danny Fox, until recently with Living Room.
Out of the kitchen
“Iain’s our public face,” says Lord. But as a trained chef, whose early mentor was Anton Mossimann, Donald is also resident foodie and standards man. Although he is handing over his operational tasks to Fox, he will still be out in the restaurants and looking for new opportunities and ideas to develop.
This total involvement in the business is one of the reasons he won the acclaim of his industry peers this year by picking up the Group Restaurateur of the Year title at the Catey Awards.
But back to the day job. Iain Donald talks a lot about changing landscapes. He has been with the Piccolino and Restaurant Bar & Grill concepts since their early days working with restaurant entrepreneurs and founders Derek and Edwina Lilley. He had previously been with them in growing the old Est Est Est brand, before it was sold to The Restaurant Group.
Both Piccolino and Restaurant Bar & Grill have their roots in the North West, but that market is changing. “I spend a lot of time in different cities, walking around looking at sites, looking for sites. It’s the same everywhere,” he says.
“Take Liverpool. Piccolino was at the heart of the property market here, but that business has all but gone with the recession. We have property people coming in now having two starters and tap water.
“But competition is evolving too. San Carlo has come to town. Noble House, run by local operators, has opened opposite our Bar & Grill. Then there’s retail and Liverpool One, which has moved the focus of the city. I’m not just talking about Jamie’s Italian opening; there’s a Chinese buffet down there doing £100,000 a week.
“Cities are changing shape. Restaurant offers are better. To perform in this sector you simply have to be more competitive. We have to invest to keep fresh.”
He also reflects on how the downturn has not panned out as many expected: “How can people keep opening restaurants? People are not going broke and properties are not going up for sale as many predicted.”
There are now 22 Piccolinos, eight Restaurant Bar & Grills, two Bank restaurants (in London and Birmingham) and a sole Zinc bar in Manchester.
Vernon Lord makes the point that although the company’s “home territory”, the M62 corridor from Liverpool, through Chester to Manchester and Leeds is the most profitable part of the business, it doesn’t really have the capacity for more sites. “The South East offers more opportunities and more volume and is providing like-for-like growth and we need that to grow the share price,” he says. “Growth opportunities in the North are not as good.”
Individual has three central London restaurants, plus four further out in Wimbledon, Marlow, Tunbridge Wells and Virginia Water.
Donald sees London as a special market: “It’s blessed, with tourism, a strong middle class that eats out and money.”
More importantly for the development of the business it provides inspiration. “It has passion and being there gives us the opportunity to see what’s working down there. We have to continually evolve outside the capital and to find inspiration.
“We have to infect the business with the London vibe. We may have to temper it sometimes, but London has to be the benchmark.” The M25 ring around London is of particular interest for development, as people there are more receptive to new ideas.
He is bringing London standards north in terms of people too. “It’s easier to recruit better people in London. We have to keep being better and are trying to move our talented managers around to ‘infect’ the wider business with their standards and enthusiasm.”
One of his favourite operators at the moment is Jillian MacLean’s Drake & Morgan bar and restaurant group in London, with sites like the Anthologist and The Parlour that are using space creatively and working day parts imaginatively. MacLean, as it happens, took the Pub & Bar award at this year’s Cateys.
Working day parts better is a current challenge for Iain Donald and he is looking at options for both Restaurant Bar & Grill and Piccolino. “If our old business regulars don’t have the cash to spend any more, we need to backfill.”
Donald and Lord are also aware that they could perhaps do more to leverage their business’s local roots, particularly in the North West, as national brands like Carluccio’s and Jamie’s come in and grab awareness. Competition never eases.
While the North may be tougher and the South more glitz, glam and excitement, Iain Donald and his fellow directors are clear about the advantages of trading in both.
However, as a man always open to new ideas and influences, he admits that one of his favourite websites at the moment is that of Lettuce Entertain You, the legendary Chicago-based business than operates everything from haute cuisine to Asian street-food kiosks and as a result dominates that one city’s eating-out life.
Iain Donald’s quick CV
- Gleneagles Hotel, training as a chef
- Dorchester, London, working under Anton Mossiman - his "finishing school"
- Works overseas, then at Stanneylands Hotel, Cheshire
- Executive chef for SSP at Manchester Airport
- Joins Derek and Edwina Lilley at Est Est Est, becoming operations