Two childhood friends opened their first restaurant on a whim. Seventeen years on, Le Bistrot Pierre provides timely lessons in delivering value in the middle market.
Robert Beacham and John Whitehead are extolling the virtues of older women. “At one stage we were a bit jealous of not having a young trendy set in and being cool. But then we realised that was a load of bollocks,” says Beacham with characteristic candour.
“Our lunchtime trade in particular is quite reliant on the grey pound, and it’s probably 70 per cent to 80 per cent female,” explains Whitehead. “It’s a great demographic: relatively high disposable income, financially secure, not faddy or fickle. They love the whole French thing and they are very loyal.”
But if some of Le Bistrot Pierre’s customers can be characterised as conservative, old-fashioned, even a tad undynamic, the same cannot be said for the business itself. The Nottingham-based operation, which school friends Beacham and Whitehead set up back in 1994 as the first franchisees of the Pierre Victoire chain, has been pretty active of late.
This summer it opened in Ilkley – the small market town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales– with a combination of bistro, pub and smallhotel. It follows openings in Harrogate, North Yorkshire and Stockton Heath, Cheshire, and refurbishments in Leicester and Sheffield over the past couple of years. The mid-market French themed chain now numbers nine sites, with a turnover in the region of £11m and a healthy EBITDA approaching £2m. Crucially, the business remains privately owned by its two founders and carries relatively little debt.
After an £850k restoration of the historic butrun-down Crescent Hotel by the Robert Angell Design Studio, Ilkley is flying. “The town was never going to be big enough to entertain us just as a restaurant – we are a bums-on-seats operation,”says Beacham. “But I loved this building, and we realised we could combine Le Bistrot Pierre with a pub and rooms. One central kitchen serves both– it’s the same management team, so the only additional cost is one or two barstaff.
”It has captured the local market’s imagination: on a wet Wednesday night in November, both the real-ale led Crescent Inn and adjacent 95-cover bistro are buzzing with drinkers and diners (of all ages). According to Whitehead, turnover is split 65:35 between the restaurant and pub sides.
The concept was inspired by the company’s experience in Stratford-upon-Avon, where it runs a pub, The Bear, alongside its restaurant with similar results. “Real ale is the only growth category in thedrinks sector in the UK, and the coupling seems to work very well,” adds Whitehead.
Value is at the centre of Le Bistrot Pierre’s appeal,earning it the title of Best Value Chain at Restaurant’s own R200 Awards this year. Its success derives not simply from pricepoints, but its combination of good, solid French bistro fare and comfortable eating-out experience. Indeed, dining with the founders in the Ilkley restaurant is genuinely fun, aided by several bottles of wine imported directly for the business.
The food is simple but tasty and well-executed– from slow-roasted shoulder of lamb to moules marinieres – and certainly several cuts above the Italian casual-dining chains which dominate the middle market.
Group executive chef Ajay Barak has retained a strong French feel to the menu, while judiciously adjusting it to UK tastes. It holds its own against its newest and most fêted competitor, the Richard Caring-backed Côte chain, which is now radiating ominously beyond its London base at a frightening (and perhaps risky) pace.
Despite recent acceleration, Le Bistrot Pierre has grown steadily rather than spectacularly in 17years – not least due to issues in the early days with the franchise owner, and then the distraction of creating and running a high-end boutique hotel in Nottingham in the early Noughties. But it is this longevity that is perhaps behind the restaurants’ enviably relaxed service style and atmosphere.
“We really strive for our customers to feel at home, so they can come in, know the people, settle down and feel like we’re on their side,” says Whitehead. “We don’t pull it off all the time, but generally the culture comes through.”
That culture of warmth stems from the top. The founders, in their early 40s with young families ,possess a blend of youthful enthusiasm and hard-won experience. Whitehead oversees day-to-day operations, while Beacham is in charge of the property side, as well as design and marketing. Judging by staff-retention levels, it’s a company that people want to keep working for: operations director Marylise Perrard joined as a waitress in 1994 and regional manager Simon Barnes has been with them for 15 years.
Avoiding the Parisian pastiche
The fact that Beacham and Whitehead know each other – and their business – inside out is evident from the outset. They riff good-naturedly on their shared history, mistakes and turning points, and the finer points of the operation. They are currently debating whether the service style has become a tad too complicated, with the inevitable need to upsell, and whether to strip it back slightly.
Essentially, like all good operators, they are continually analysing how they can improve the business while retaining their loyal client base.The interior of the latest site, for example, marks anew era for the brand in design terms. “Ten years ago, food and service made a good restaurant,” says Beacham. “Now it’s also about theatre – the quality of the tables and chairs, the fittings and the décor are more important than ever.
”Designer Robert Angell was previously at creative consultancy David Collins Studio. But the Ilkley bistro has none of the grand pretensions associated with the showcase London eateries for which Collins is famous. Instead it treads the fine line between being recognisably French and a Parisian pastiche, with a degree of modernity
.“We worried about being a French theme park so we’ve moved away from the [Café] Rouge look to something more subtle,” says Whitehead. As expansion has been gradual, design has evolved with each outlet, rather than being a standard fit-out. “Continuity manifests itself in the menu, PoS material, blackboards, so we have the freedom to do what we want with the interiors,” he adds.
“You go to France and there’s no standard look to a French bistro,” chips in Beacham. “Sure, we have banquette seating, but we’re also trying to ensure we have our own identity.”
There has undoubtedly been something of a resurgence in the bistro market of late, filtering down from the top end through to the middle market. But does that simply bring more players onto Le Bistrot Pierre's established turf?
"Good restaurants stimulate the market. We’re in competition with everybody, not just Côte or Brasserie Blanc. When Jamie’s [Italian] and Carluccio’s opened in Nottingham a week apart, it put 500 good-quality covers into the city. We went down about 10 per cent for three or four months and then bounced back," says Beacham.
"The early restaurant adopters come and go; our customers keep coming back. When we opened in Nottingham in '94, it had barely a handful of decent restaurants. Now we are one of maybe 50, but sales have grown year-on-year."
Surviving the downturn
From its solid regional East Midlands base – its first two sites in Nottingham and Derby remain the strongest restaurant performers – Le Bistrot Pierre has spread north and west. But not south, as yet.
“We’re quite well spread now,” says Beacham. “But we’re at a crossroads: do we go south to the UK’s most affluent corner, or head to bigger cities in the north such as Leeds and Manchester?”
Having built up the foundations and with a management structure in place ready for growth, the duo have an appetite for it. To increase the pace significantly, they would require an injection of funds, but are understandably reluctant to cede control of what is undeniably their baby.
And it is by no means insulated from widespread pressures on consumer spending, which are more acute outside London. “We had our best years in ’08, ’09 and ’10, but we’re beginning to feel the pinch this year. Things have definitely shifted in the last few months. Our overall sales are marginally up, so we’re still doing alright, but it’s a mixed bagout there,” says Whitehead.
Le Bistrot Pierre remains better placed than many to ride the economic rollercoaster. Whether it ventures south – and with what degree of success – could define the next phase.“I’m very excited by the idea of opening in London,” says Whitehead. “I’m not talking Regent Street, but more of a satellite such as Richmond or Barnes. Outside of London, we’re all looking in and thinking, ‘Lucky sods."
That said, more than a few London-based operators could take lessons from these guys in delivering consistent value in the middle market. First step: look after the ladies who lunch.