I am sitting opposite Will Ricker in the café of La Bodega Negra, his funky new Mexican hot spot, tape recorder at the ready, when his mobile phone rings. He takes the call and it’s obviously not good news. Ricker returns with the look of someone who’s just been told his lottery numbers came up, but he forgot to buy a ticket.
“Let’s start with a bit of background about yourself,” is my opening gambit to smooth things over, to which Ricker responds by launching into how he came to London from Australia in 1989 as part of a move by the property company he was working for. But after 30 seconds he tails off. “Sorry”, he says, with a sigh, “that call has really annoyed me... God, where were we?”
As interviews go this is an inauspicious start. More so because Ricker has a reputation for being a laid-back kinda guy, the type you assume to be unflappable. The Aussie-born property man turned restaurateur, with a string of successful spots across London, is best known for his snappy dressing and celebrity parties – although he has since settled down with his wife and three sons. The dejected figure across from me is not what I was expecting.
And then ‘bang’, suddenly he’s back, his soft Aussie lilt finding a more vibrant chord. Why did he move from property to restaurants? “There was this guy who was such a moron, but he was making so much money out of a dreadful tapas restaurant in Oxford Street, so I thought if he could do it anyone can,” he grins. That’s more like it.
Pan-Asian gold mine
It was a rudimentary approach to starting a restaurant business, but one that has paid off. Over the past 16 years Ricker has opened numerous successful sites, including Cicada in Clerkenwell, E&O (Eastern & Oriental) in Notting Hill, famous for its celebrity clientele, Great Eastern Dining Room in Shoreditch and Eight Over Eight in Chelsea. With the notable exception of his latest opening, all serve pan-Asian cuisine, feature sleek minimalistic decor that reflect their location and have that elusive ‘X factor’ restaurateurs crave. With some 8,000 Londoners a week eating in his places, Ricker undoubtedly has the Midas touch.
Admittedly the success of the early years had an element of gut instinct to it. After two unsuccessful investments, in Soho and Chelsea (Soho was an
“unmitigated disaster” involving a business partner Ricker describes as “unhinged”), Cicada marked a turning point. However, he admits he settled upon Clerkenwell because he was “chasing a girl who lived there at the time”. The pan-Asian approach, which has since defined his business model, was also a gamble. “We made it up as we went,” he says, now in full flow. “No one here [in the UK] knew what pan-Asian was and I didn’t either. Our customers couldn’t criticise us because they didn’t know how it should be – as long as it tasted OK. Londoners are exposed to a lot of foods, but they are not necessarily knowledgeable.”
“It’s a bit like Mexican food now,” he adds. “No one knows much about it. We are getting a lot of food writers and bloggers at La Bodega Negra who
clearly don’t know much about Mexican food. One girl wrote that our rice dish was a paella.”
This brings the conversation around nicely to a topic I’d been wanting to raise since we sat down. The odd blogger mistake you can shrug off, but what about AA Gill’s assassination of La Bodega Negra (it was awarded no stars) in which he singled out the guacamole as “Peter Mandelson’s gay mushy peas”. Surely that must have hurt?
“It was very funny,” says Ricker with shrug. “I laughed. Adrian is a great writer, he’s brutal, but you’ve got to accept it.” So the staff weren’t taken out back and shot? “No way. When you do 1,400 covers a week downstairs [in the restaurant] and 1,000 upstairs in the café, and are turning away 500 people on the weekends, you’ve got to be doing something right. Anyway, we don’t particularly want Sunday Times readers here – sometimes we do for our restaurants, but they are not our target market.”
Coming from anyone else this might sound like sour grapes, but Ricker’s restaurants famously attract a starry clientele, including the Middleton sisters, Kylie Minogue and Mark Ronson. “I am always gobsmacked about who goes to Eight Over Eight. Every week I get a printout of who’s been and it always gives me a smile. But it’s not my thing. It’s nice to have them in the business, but what I really want is a busy place. The star should be the
restaurant and not the people in it. As long as you are feeding people and they like it, that’s great.”
The lucrative lure of Mexico
With pan-Asian seemingly nailed down, it’s curious Ricker should choose to change tack with his latest venture and head to Mexico. He has previously
expressed interest in opening a brasserie – he’s been looking for a site for four years – and an Italian restaurant, as well as opening an E&O in Soho. Why didn’t he use his latest site for that? “I wanted to get out of pan-Asian. It came together as a Mexican out of a desire to do something different.”
The idea behind La Bodega Negra is straightforward – to bring an authentic Mexican restaurant to the UK, the likes of which have hitherto not existed. To help, Ricker teamed up with New York nightclub operator and designer Serge Becker. Upstairs the café and taqueria echoes the progress made by Mexican chain Wahaca, with small hand-held dishes such as quesadillas, tostaditas and tacos the order of the day. In the basement the offer is altogether more high end, with a wood-burning grill for dishes such as giant tiger prawns (£30) and rib-eye steak (£58).
Although they technically exist in the same building, they each have different entrances – the dining room is accessed via Old Compton Street the café on Moor Street – and a very different feel.
The cafe is light and cheerful with large windows opening out onto Soho, while the windowless dining room below is a moody affair with one room a macabre collage of cardboard and sinister figurines. The Old Compton Street entrance doesn’t even offer a clue that it is a restaurant at all, with the frontage designed as a sex shop instead. Upstairs the average spend is in the high £20s, downstairs it’s around £55.
The business of restaurants
The early customer numbers imply the move has been successful, but the switch from pan-Asian to Mexican has been far from simple. “I didn’t realise how much preparation was involved [in Mexican food]. We have two guys who do a night shift every day, from 1am to 8am, making all the salsas. The labour costs are way more than I thought.
“You can sell a drink for £8 in Soho with only one person behind the bar. Our wage costs are 30 per cent, but the bar costs are only 10 per cent. You need a good bar to bring down the weighted index of labour costs. People don’t want to eat at 6pm, but they want a drink.”
Such talk of ‘weighted index labour costs’ shows that these days Ricker certainly can’t be accused of winging it; he displays a sound business mind behind his cool exterior. The pan-Asian nature of his sites, for example, and the fact that they feature similar dishes, gives the group good economies of scale, means people can be moved around the business easily and enables margins to be set across the board. “It is a cookie-cutter approach for the back of house, which in the restaurant industry is what we all want.”
His property nous has also been put to good use. Most sites were former pubs, which he says make for great restaurants thanks to their ceiling heights and a basement for the kitchens. He buys property with residential space above it, converts it and sells it on, using the capital to repay his investors.
In La Bodega Negra’s case the site was initially touted as a development with a hotel above it and a £6m price tag. But after two years, and with the ground-floor site still unsold, the landlord became more agreeable, says Ricker. He picked up the site for 30 per cent less than the original asking price with no premium. “It is better to get a site that wasn’t previously a restaurant with no premium and a rent-free period, so you have time to work on it. Paying rent while doing up a place is brutal.”
Business growth has also been measured. “I’m not opening three or four places a year. It’s like having too many kids – some miss out and you don’t spend as much time on them as you’d like.”
With his long(ish) hair and black jacket there is a touch of the Richard Hammond about Ricker, but not in the mid-life-crisis-buy-a-Porsche way that the Top Gear presenter projects. Ricker is approaching his 50th birthday (“in my own mind I’m 32,”) but looks a decade younger. His excitement about the new project is palpable. “We think we’ve got something we can open elsewhere. There’s potential for another café in London and then outside the UK, maybe Florida or Chicago.” Not bad for a guy who doesn’t regard himself as a natural restaurateur.
“I’ve never carried a plate, don’t know how to work a till and never done a stock take. I work on restaurants, not in them. A restaurateur is someone more involved on the inside.”
Nevertheless it’s a strategy that has worked for Ricker, and will no doubt continue to do so. One thing’s for sure, he’s not going anywhere yet. “There are some genius restaurateurs out there. I’d put myself mid-table in the Premiership. I haven’t made it into the Champions League yet, but I’ll keep going. I want to be involved and keep contributing to London, whether people like it or not.” Consider yourself told, Mr Gill.