This year Brasserie Blanc celebrates its 20th birthday, a landmark that is not lost on the company’s managing director Mark Derry. Although he might be forgiven for having doubts as to whether this would be an occasion he would ever see.
After a positive first decade, the French casual-dining chain that bears the name of multi-Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc had, in more recent times, lost its mojo. The design had become dated, sales
were flat, site numbers had dwindled and the customer base, like its look, was old. Blanc’s vision of a group of restaurants serving homely French food that ‘maman Blanc’ would cook was looking skewed.
Yet today, Derry and his team will be in a celebratory mood when marking the anniversary. The final stage of the estate-wide refurb of Brasserie Blanc has recently been completed – the formal Gallic brasserie cues having been replaced with a modern and neutral decor, the waiting staff’s bow ties and waistcoats ditched in favour of a more relaxed look – and the results speak for themselves. Like-for-like sales at Brasserie Blanc have climbed steadily over the past few years, and were up 10 per cent year on year at the last count. “As we speak, they are not slowing down,” says Derry.
Coinciding with the reversal of fortunes has been the company’s move into the pub business with the creation of The White Brasserie Company, which has seen it remodel one Brasserie Blanc into a pub as well as build a food-led pub estate. Since The White Brasserie company was formed in 2014, it has opened 13 pubs, and sales are on the same trajectory as its sister brand, with like-for-likes having risen by 6 per cent in the same period.
And, last month, The White Brasserie Company was named pub company of the year at Restaurant’s R200 Awards. What a difference a few years make.
The move into pubs
There are a number of oddities about this progression. First, why would a company with a presence on the high street decide to move into the world of pubs? And second, why would it call the pub arm of its business The White Brasserie Company rather than putting the word pub in the title?
The answer to the first question is straightforward. Derry has form with pubs having previously worked for Whitbread. When it bought the Loch Fyne brand he had helped build and roll out the format into some of its pub estate. Indeed, he admits he knows as much about pubs as he does restaurants.
So, in 2014, Derry and Blanc bought two pubs, in Teddington and Weybridge, and put in the Brasserie Blanc menu to see how they would get on. Needless to say, the results were good. “There was clearly
an opportunity in pubs; one that is still there today,” says Derry.
The strategy was, and still is, to take on under-utilised pubs and develop them, with the company having thus far focused on the south of the country. It has since taken on pubs in Guildford, Cobham and Chobham, in Surrey; Reading, Berkshire; and Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. “You need a strong property strategy in our sector, and pubs offer such opportunities. There are many sites that are underdeveloped in term of what pubcos can do with them, which we can take.”
In response to the query about the name, The White Brasserie Company was chosen as an English translation of the French Brasserie Blanc although Derry admits that, in hindsight, it is “completely clunky”.
“It is the genius of marketing,” he says. So are they pubs or brasseries? “They are definitely pubs,” is the quick-fire response. “To our customers, our places are known as The King’s Head or The Cricketers not The White Brasserie Company. People go to the pub because it’s round the corner from their house. They do not consciously think it is associated with Brasserie Blanc.”
The name notwithstanding, these are proper pubs too, Derry insists, saying that the drinking element is not lost when a site is taken over. “We are taking pubs and adding a dining area onto the back of them. We are not eating into the original pub. If it was capable of doing 200 drinkers, it still can, but we are trying to create pubs where people can also go to eat well.”
All the pubs are run free of tie after Derry negotiated with the pubcos on the original two sites, and the company has now created a lease model that is more akin to restaurants than pubs, but that still suits both parties. It currently has leases with Enterprise, Greene King and Surrey County Council and Derry says the company looks for pubs with leases of about 20 years to make the investment worthwhile.
“It’s a pretty natural evolution. Back in the day, pubs were where you would go to eat, drink and stay; only recently have they become places where people have 15 pints and a pickled egg as their meal.” Even the French food element makes sense: “The word brasserie is also French for brewery so there are straightforward parallels between a brasserie and a pub.”
The pub food isn’t a replica of the Brasserie Blanc menu as in the beginning, but the offer is broadly similar, with starters of cheese soufflé and Burgundian snails and mains, including Toulouse sausage and mash, lobster tail and duck leg confit appearing on both. More pubby dishes do feature, such as a pie of the week; and gammon steak, egg and chips; and the brasseries have a few more involved dishes but this is down to kitchen size more than anything else.
Unlike some pub groups that give autonomy to each head chef, the menus are the same in any The White Brasserie Company site. À la carte changes seasonally across the group and there is a company-wide prix fixe menu that changes every four weeks, but each site’s chef can put four or five specials on each week in a nod to individuality. As with the brasseries, Blanc has input on the pub menus.
A flexible portfolio
In essence then, what Brasserie Bar Co, the parent company of Brasserie Blanc and The White Brasserie Company (another odd name given that bars aren’t part of the portfolio) has done is build a flexible dining model that can move into different areas. This structure can also help safeguard against the current challenges the industry faces.
Brasserie Bar Co provides aspects such as central marketing and accounts and gives the group purchasing power, but operationally the two brands are run separately. “There are huge benefits for running pubs rather than restaurants,” says Derry. “With restaurants, the whole rental structure makes it very expensive – property owners are becoming increasingly avaricious. Certain places are very challenging. Councils,
particularly those in county towns, are handing out new A3 leases as more retail moves online and too many places are now sharing the same market.”
By contrast, pubs operate in a much smaller sector, he adds. “Nobody can build next door to you. If you take a nice community pub you can have a really strong business – as long as you don’t mess it up.”
Derry also believes that the pub sector will be resilient to the “inevitable” rise in prices that businesses will have to introduce this year. “If you look back at the past couple of years, people have been reticent to raise their prices, but will be forced to do it. Our challenge is to keep these rises to a minimum. If you can’t pass on price increases, you’ve not got a viable business. You can’t keepsucking up the rise in costs forever.
“There have always been really good pubs, but the level in general hasn’t been that high. People’s expectations have always been a little lower in pubs than restaurants and, if you do a really good job, customers are willing to pay more.”
Derry says the forthcoming rates increases will be “pretty crippling” for some businesses and believes the increase in minimum wage will be damaging. So does he think that staff shouldn’t have a wage increase next year?
“Those people earning the lowest money deserve to get help, but it doesn’t touch many people in the restaurant industry,” he says. “The tips are high and the people working for us are not struggling for the most part. The tips people get here are very generous. Customers don’t comprehend the sheer amount of money that goes through the business as tips.”
Against this tough backdrop, Brasserie Bar Co looks well placed. Thanks to a complete redesign of the Brasserie Blanc estate, the company has managed to appeal to a younger, more affluent crowd that has led to a strong rise in sales. It used to be the company ‘in joke’ that every time a hearse went past a restaurant, the company had lost another customer, but Derry says that the average age of its customers has
dropped by some 10 to 15 years as a result of the modern makeover.
Moreover, the more casual staff uniforms have not only made the staff happier and less constrained but have helped with job recruitment and retention at the chain. “It is now attracting people to work for us.”
The company has also benefited from its few years in the wilderness, which saw it consolidate its estate as growth slowed, while groups around it were expanding at pace. Having opened and closed a number of sites over the past few years, the company now operates 18 Brasserie Blancs, which equates to fewer than one for every year of trading.
“The reason we’ve not expanded faster is that two or three years ago, we were struggling with flat sales and were finding it difficult to find different ways of evolving the company,” admits Derry. “But it’s all too regular for a business to grow at a rate that suits the investor rather than the capability and availability of management. It is just as hard to run a loss-making business as it is a profitable one. We took a breath, cleaned out the ones that didn’t work and got on with the ones that did.”
This included Opera Terrace that Brasserie Blanc opened to great fanfare in Covent Garden in 2012 but closed last year. “The problem was that it was our busiest site, but also had the worst food. The kitchen configuration was terrible. We approached the landlord and got permission to extend the kitchen but they offered us the chance to go and we thought it was a good opportunity to use the money to open pubs instead.”
Brasserie Bar Co can now pick up the pace of expansion. The plan is to build the pub side of the business aggressively to attain parity with the size of Brasserie Blanc, with Derry forecasting the company will open six to eight pubs and a couple of brasseries each year for the next few years.
“Our medium-term goal is to open 25 sites in the next three to four years, so around 18 pubs and six to seven brasseries (creating a group of about 40 each of brasseries and pubs by 2020).”
This will begin in March next year with the opening of a 19th Brasserie Blanc in Fulham Reach and a 14th pub, The Jobber’s Rest, in Upminster, Essex, and London will remain a target rather than market towns.
“We still don’t have a lot of sites in London. We have a few in the City, but not a lot in the West End. There are still opportunities there.”
The focus will be on large sites, similar in size to its successful ones on London’s Southbank, Beaconsfield and Bristol, that have around 200 covers each. They will feature bigger bars to enable to the company to increase its wet sales.
The group has also taken its first tentative steps up north, in Cheshire, with the opening of a pub in Alderley Edge and a Brasserie Blanc in nearby Knutsford. To make life easier, Derry plans to open restaurants outside of the south in clusters. “By building in clutches, we can ensure we have the same infrastructure as elsewhere.”
With the opportunity to expand into untapped markets and a show of resilience where lesser brands might have faltered, Brasserie Bar Co looks a force to be reckoned with, something not lost on Derry. “We’ve moved mountains in the past few years,” he says. “To successfully rebrand something that is celebrating its 20th birthday is no mean feat.” The big 40 now beckons.