18 June, 2011
by Peter Martin
From steak tartare to Kir Royale at £3.95, Cote has all the hallmarks of a 'seriously casual' concept
Everyone’s talking about Cote. Peter Martin meets the duo ensuring the day-to-day delivery of high quality and value in one of our hottest and most serious casual dining chains.
Get past Jamies Italian and Nando’s and the name that now frequently appears on those lists of competitor brands that operators ‘most admire’ is that of Cote. The 23-strong chain of French restaurants may still be relatively small and largely confined to the South East, but it’s not going unnoticed.
That is perhaps not surprising when you look at its heritage. It was created in 2007 by the team behind Strada – Andy Bassadone, Chris Benians and Marcus Cload – and backed by fashion-magnate and millionaire restaurant investor Richard Caring (he of The Ivy and Soho House fame).
Much has been expected of the venture – and it doesn’t seem to be disappointing either customers or industry admirers. It’s a premium, or should we now say “serious”, casual brand that’s working on many levels – and doing things differently enough.
Other operators point to the quality of the food and experience - and the fact that it is still able to put out a £9.95 prix fixe two-course lunch everyday, providing inherent value too. The lunch-time offer makes up 20% of food sales.
Also making chicken the “hero dish” is, as another friendly competitor put it, “very clever too”. Corn-fed poulet sourced from Brittany and served with frites and a choice of three sauces is top of the grill menu – and also just £9.95 for half-a-chicken and chips. There was much debate in the business about keeping the sub-tenner threshold when the VAT rise came in. It’s remained, as Cote is proud of its Good Food Guide 2009 award for “Best Value Restaurant in the UK”.
But the perhaps the shrewdest, and possibly least known, aspect of the fast expanding concept is its management structure. While the likes of Bassadone and Benians are out looking for new opportunities, the day-to-day running, quality-control and, not-to-say, passion of the operation lies in the hands of a lower-profile pair, at least until now – former operations director Harald Samuelsson and ex food-and-beverage director Alex Scrimgeour, who are now installed as joint managing directors of the business.
Samuelsson, who grew up in Holland before coming to London to work, joined the original team with Strada in 1999, when the then fledgling Italian chain had just four sites. He became general manager of the Islington branch and when the brand was sold to Tragus, owner of Café Rouge and Bella Italia, he went with it. But he was fairly swiftly to return to the Bassadone and Benians team, and as operations director has played a key role in establishing their new project – Cote.
Scrimgeour has five years service with the team and is the foodie of the pair (although that is a relative term), working closely with Chris Benians, also a trained chef, on dish and menu innovation. Scrimgeour once ran his own restaurant in Los Angeles before heading back to London to become executive chef at the Wolseley, working with the iconic restaurant pairing of Chris Corbin and Jeremy King.
But he wanted something different and decided to join Strada too, as executive chef. “I’d been told not to do branded restaurants. But my wife and I went to Strada in Wimbledon and the food was very good – and then we looked at the bill. I became fascinated about how they could do it.”
After leaving with the Strada sale, he then moved to became head of food at Zizzi’s. He admits that it was a tough decision to leave Zizzi’s, as he was having fun relaunching the brand, but he too returned to the fold as the second Cote opened.
Now the pair has responsibility for driving the operation forward – and most importantly maintaining and developing its brand standards. They have the experience, calculating that they have opened over 100 restaurants between them in their time. They are also very much bound up in the culture of the brand and the business.
There is always external speculation that Cote will some time be sold on – it’s the nature of the business and there’s a precedent too with Strada, which was sold for £56m in 2005.
But both Scrimgeour’s and Samuelsson’s focus is on the here and now, they say – “doing what we like doing best”.
“The most important thing is concentrating on what we have now – evolving the restaurants, introducing new dishes,” says Samuelsson. “The nuts and bolts of a successful business are its values and its people,” he adds.
Food quality is, however, paramount. “We pitch high with our food quality,” says Scrimgeour. That means high quality sourcing too. “We don’t buy cheap,” he adds. There’s plenty of food tasting, a team of area chefs (as well as area managers) work with the restaurant teams on standards and consistency and there are built-in reporting systems too, which are particularly important as the brand expands.
There is one area chef for every six to eight restaurants to ensure standards and that the quality message is carried across the business.
“We have a real desire to improve. There’s endless tinkering. We never sit still, ” adds Scrimgeour. A bank of “specials” are constantly being tested and introduced every two weeks to keep things fresh.
Calamari is the best selling starters, followed by scallops, with sales of grilled chicken and steaks evenly spread among the main courses.
“We focus on what’s important for the customer – great food, a great time and a great price,” says Samuelsson.
Sourcing is focused on buying direct from producers, which means regular trips to France. But simplicity is also at the heart of the menu. ”People like to complicate things. We build on a passion for food,” says Scrimgeour.
But that’s not to say they play safe. What chain puts steak tartare on the menu? It’s good though – as we tasted it, along with a large selection of other dishes from the menu, when we all met up at the Soho restaurant for this interview. “Tartare sets us apart, although it’s high risk”, admits Scrimgeour.
Operationally, Cote is able to give the feel of a high-class restaurant through its food and service standards but is able to work all the day-parts from breakfast through to dinner as well. Touches like serving Kir Royale for £3.95 (“it’s a great calling card” says Samuelsson) or offering a dessert wine with a foie gras parfait reinforce the former, while you can still drop in just for a coffee. It has all the hallmarks of the on-message “seriously casual” concept.
The flexibility is something the team encourage, and they believe starting early with breakfast, especially at weekends, is a real advantage throughout the day by creating a momentum - and hopefully never looking empty.
Service starts at the door. “We insist on a friendly greeting. We want people to be greeted as if they were coming to your home. We want to make them feel comfortable,” says Samuelsson. They also expect managers to get involved in their local communities, to go out and engage with customers and potential customers.
Developing people is fundamental, especially with a rapidly expanding business. “We want people to move with the business and expansion gives them that opportunity,” adds Samuelsson. There’s lots of energy in the team and openness too – which works both ways with praise for a job well done and candidness when things don’t go right too.
The lessons learned are to keep going back to the basics: “Talk to your managers; ask them what the feed-back is from guests. You’ve got to constantly keep going back,” says Samuelsson.
The chain has now reached 23 sites, with more openings outside London - Birmingham and Cardiff being the furthest flung outposts. So it’s going to get more difficult and getting the right people in place who can think for themselves, backed up by systems and structured feed-back, is going to be vital – but without losing any of the quality or passion, maintain the joint MDs.
They believe there are great opportunities for Cote around the M25 and in in cities like Salisbury and Bath, where it opens this month. If they can find the sites, management anticipates it will open at least 10 restaurants a year.
Samuelsson and Scrimgeour both like to work out in the restaurants (“you don’t make money in offices”, they chorus). But there’s a closeness in their relationship and a common cause and passion. “We all believe in each other – and that’s the team as a whole.”
That trust obviously extends to the owners too. The admiration of the rest of the industry is all too evident.
Asparagus Hollandaise £6.75
Seared Scallops £7.95
Steak Tartare £6.75
Roast Duck Breast £13.95
Steak Haché £9,25
Half Chargrilled ‘Breton’ Chicken £9.95
10oz Rib-eye £14.95
Chocolate Fondant £4.95
Crème Brûlée £5.25