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Dial M for Meat: Martin Williams of M Restaurants on his growing business

By Emma Eversham+ , 15-Jan-2016
Last updated on 15-Jan-2016 at 11:57 GMT2016-01-15T11:57:48Z

Dial M for Meat: Martin Williams of M Restaurants on his growing business

When Martin Williams left his post as managing director of Gaucho after nine years to launch M Restaurants, another steak restaurant in the capital seemed inevitable. Now with a second site just opened in Victoria, he’s out to prove that there’s more to his solo project than meets the eye.

Sweep past the numerous bottles at M Wine Shop and down the stairs into the subterranean restaurant and it is immediately evident that M Victoria Street is yet another of those in your face restaurants that have opened up across the capital in recent months. This time with a wall of wine, a 10-metre marble sushi bar, a bullring inspired grill room, two private dining rooms and a members-only area that houses a six-seat cinema, Martin Williams’ latest venture has the bling dial turned up to 11.

Coming from the former managing director of Gaucho, a restaurant group known for its extravagant style, and the man behind projects such as the Gaucho International Polo competition and the ‘Gaucho of London’ Sunseeker yacht on the River Thames, M Victoria seems par for the course.

But while it might share some similarities with the Argentine steak brand he once helmed, Williams is also quick to point out that his now two-strong restaurant group has many more differences, which he hopes will make it stand out in the crowded steak space. 

“I can understand why people think it’s a Gaucho guy doing another steak restaurant,” he says. “When I opened the first M [in the City] people probably thought I was taking on Gaucho. What I was actually doing was taking a decade of operational ideas and putting them into one venue, and I couldn’t fit it into a 2,000sq ft humble steak restaurant. From the outside, it seems more steak driven than it actually is. The grill element of it is a quarter of what the brand is about.”

For a start, the first M – comprising M Grill and M Raw – a whopping 15,000sq ft restaurant that opened on Threadneedle Street in December 2014, and indeed its slightly smaller new Victorian sibling, are not steak restaurants.

Instead, Williams has created a multifaceted restaurant brand, designed to attract different diners for different occasions. At the original site, customers have a choice between two 100-cover areas; through the main doors they either turn right into M Raw, which majors on seafood and lighter bites such as sushi and tartare, or left into M Grill, the more meat-heavy side of the operation.

“I have always wanted to create something where there are different restaurants in one building,” he says. “If you go to a hotel you can often choose between two or three different restaurants and bars, and you can also do that at Novikov [in Mayfair], and that’s what I wanted to do at Threadneedle Street. People ask why I chose such an ambitious first project, but it was very easy for me to take this site because I could see how the venue could work.

“It’s a playground where you can go to either restaurant, do wine tasting or finish in the private den drinking cognac and playing PlayStation. It can be whatever evening you want. But it’s still new to people and it will take time for them to understand that you can come to one venue for different reasons. We have 70 to 100 guests who dine at least once a week with us and, every time they come, they use the restaurant in a different way.”

A raw deal

This varied approach has helped M differentiate itself from the myriad of meat-led restaurants that swamp the capital, but it hasn’t played out exactly as Williams planned. M Raw was devised as a nod to the raw food movement with a menu of light, protein-high dishes that could be served quickly and that would be more attractive to a female demographic than steaks, yet Williams admits that it has so far failed to achieve this in a meaningful way.

“It’s probably a bit ahead of its time in the City, but it will come,” he says. “The model was always that Raw would be twice as busy as Grill but with half the average spend. In reality, it’s half as busy but Grill is 50 per cent busier than I thought it would be. We expected to do 100 covers in Grill and 200 in Raw each day, and we’re actually doing 150 in Grill and 50 in Raw.

“Raw could be seen as a relative failure, but it shouldn’t,” he adds. “We are getting more regulars who just come to Raw and more people are coming across from Grill too. But, compared with other elements of the restaurant, it has not been an instant hit. People understand what Grill is, and more people want to eat that kind of food in the City. In the West End, Raw will be more popular.”

Taking these lessons to Victoria, the raw element has been reduced and comprises only 60 covers while the grill part of the restaurant has been increased to 120 covers.

Williams has made other tweaks to Victoria Street, with around 50 per cent of the menu different at the new site. This is primarily to take into account the area’s different demographic, he says.

While M Grill in the City does a Menu 28 (two courses plus coffee in 28 minutes for £28) for the time-pressed business luncher, this approach was deemed less suitable for Victoria. Instead, Williams intends to introduce a bento box on the lunch menu. 

“Victoria is less masculine [than Threadneedle Street] and the menu will reflect that,” he says. “I am excited about running a group of restaurants – albeit only two of them – because they feed each other. In Victoria, Friday and Saturday nights will be the busiest times of the week, but they have been the most challenging in the City. There, it’s full Tuesday to Thursday with corporate diners, but harder to attract people at the weekends. Hopefully we can push some of that midweek business to Victoria.”

After numerous attempts to attract people to Threadneedle Street for Saturday lunchtimes, including deals on OpenTable and a number of themed events, Williams has “finally stopped flogging that horse”. As well as ditching Saturday lunch, he has also pulled back from his more scatter-gun approach to marketing, which he now realises was sending a confusing message to potential customers.

“Because I was almost doing three different brands, I was trying to a push different messages about each with what I thought was interesting content. People were hearing more about our dog-friendly brunches (last Easter it launched a ‘pooch brunch party’ on a Saturday for dog owners and their pets) than about the Grill. I underestimated how long it takes to get brand recognition. What we should have been telling people is simply that we are selling the best steaks in London.”

This makes sense: Grill is where M’s core strengths lie. While many steak restaurants stick to offering meat from just one or two countries – Boisdale’s focus is on Scottish meat, Hawksmoor uses English animals and Goodman majors on USDA beef, for example – Grill has a truly international offer.

Williams has selected six locations he believes have both a strong wine and meat heritage, namely the US, Japan, Argentina, southern Africa, Australia and France, and serves steaks from each, whether it be Blackmore wagyu from Alexandra, onglet from Normandy or rib eye from Botswana. The menu is overseen by executive chef Michael Reid, who also worked under Williams at Gaucho.

“The grill restaurant was inspired by my time at Gaucho. When guests came and we asked them if they had ever tried Argentine beef and wine, the American guests would say ‘yes, they’re great but not as good as American’ and the South Africans would say the same about South Africa. There is such national pride among customers. So we selected six countries that had amazing steak and built the grill around that.”

M takes it meat seriously, too. Steaks range from onglet at £18.50 (200g) and Argentine Angus for £20 a rump (300g) and £32 sirloin (400g) to USDA prime Black Angus as a fillet for £49 and rib eye for two at £78. They top out at £150 per 150g for the highly prized 10+ grade Tajima-Gyu Kobe beef fillet. “I want people to come to M to try the best steak available,” says Williams of thepriciest cuts on the menu. “It’s expensive, but we can provide people with the rarest beef you can buy. There’s an appetite for great steak restaurants in the capital. There’s still not that many of them.”

M for money

It is in the steak menu at M Grill and in the extra features at both restaurants where the true ambition of Williams and his attempt to create the UK’s best meat-led restaurant group shines through. His approach thus far has been to aim M squarely at a moneyed clientele, whether it be City workers or nearby corporate clients – Jimmy Choo, Burberry, Tom Ford, Amex, Microsoft, Google and Rolls Royce all have offices in Victoria – although Victoria Street will also target tourists and local residents.

At Threadneedle Street, there’s booze lockers and a den for diners looking for a bit of privacy, as well as Enomatic wine dispensers where guests can try different vintages, including Petrus 2005 for £130 a taste. Victoria, meanwhile, has a private members’ club (£750 for personal membership, £1,200 for corporate) where members can get free breakfast every day and have the opportunity to hire the space for private functions.

“The average guy who buys Petrus has a case in store at London City Bond and will never drink it. They will most probably sell it again in a decade. With the Enomatic machines, customers can taste how that wine’s developing at a relatively small cost.”

This ambition to create what Williams calls ‘heightened hospitality’ in everything he does ultimately led to his departure from Gaucho after nine years as managing director. “I had tried to turn Gaucho into a luxury brand while I was there, with ideas like the polo and pushing for things like a hotel. That was very much my vision.” He says his desire was for Gaucho to be a brand that happened to have 14 individual restaurants that shared the same name, but this ultimately sat at odds with how others saw the company being positioned.

“You could say that was the wrong route in this market. What [Gaucho] has done since I left is to create a really solid chain that’s very accessible.”

Three sites and beyond

Williams’ experience with what was one of the most forward-thinking steakhouses during his early days at Gaucho has put him in good stead now that he’s in charge of his own destiny. Gaucho, he says, taught him how to run a £2m turnover restaurant and an £11m one, whether it be a neighbourhood one in Hampstead or a behemoth in Piccadilly. “I know how they work up and down the scale. They were all profitable.
When I went it alone I had less of a worry of whether I’d be in profit or not than someone without that experience.”

It also meant that when he came looking for backers for his solo project he wasn’t short of takers. Initially needing to raise £2.3m, his main backer, who stumped up a third of this figure, is his father-in-law. Ten further investors, who knew his track record in the industry, have interests of up to a couple of hundred thousand pounds each.

These investors have signed up to a plan to open three restaurants in three years under the M brand, all of which will be slightly different to reflect the local area, with Williams then looking to refinance in year four. The plan is for each restaurant to have a turnover of at least £4m and an EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) of £700,000, which he says Threadneedle Street will reach by
the end of the year. Victoria, meanwhile, will hit £6m turnover in year one, he predicts.

“Threadneedle Street is only a five-and-a-half day operation but Victoria is seven, so it will do bigger numbers. It will become easier as the brand becomes more recognised.”

Restaurant three will be in the West End, either Soho or Mayfair (“I’m not going lower than Piccadilly”) and Williams says that despite looking in this highly sought-after location, he isn’t prepared to pay a premium.

“I didn’t pay a premium at Threadneedle Street and I’m not going to pay it elsewhere,” he says, “there’s enough opportunities with new leases out there. It’s not in my model to do so. Threadneedle was much less than people think. The capex was £2m. Most people would expect double that given the scale of it. I was up against some serious players, but the majority only wanted half the unit. It has a relatively attractive rent and space to be able to facilitate my vision – without trying to sound like a dick.”

Not paying a premium and getting good deals on sites – although he did have to pay £100,000 to change the usage of the Victoria Street site from A1 to A3 in spite of it being a new build – has meant his restaurants are also less risky than they might first appear. The breakeven at the City restaurant is £40,000 a week, and Williams claims to have beaten this figure every month, except in January and in the summer when it only broke even. “July and August were horrible, and so are bank holidays,” he recalls, adding that each Tube strike costs him about £20,000 in lost revenue.

Jumping ahead, Williams has already signed heads of terms on what he believes will be M’s fifth site, in a new high-rise build in Canary Wharf. Located on the second floor, the planned 10,000sq ft restaurant is due to open in 2019.

Winning with wine

Once the first cycle of investment is complete, any new backers will have to consider the wine element of the M brand. Victoria Street is home to M Wine Store, which Williams had to put in to comply with the developer’s demand for having a retail offer at street level. Rather than do it half-heartedly, however, he has embraced the idea and created what he describes as his “dream wine store”.

With a range overseen by director of wine Zack Charilaou, recently crowned Best UK Sommelier 2015 in the Harpers Awards, the store is home to wines that are either exclusive to M or only available through fine wine merchants, according to Williams. Starting at just £8.50, the store can compete with supermarkets on price but also offer more specialist wines, with those at the top end hitting £3,250. “If you go to a supermarket and buy South African wine you usually get shit Chenin Blanc or Pinotage, but the country has some brilliant Sauvignon Blancs and that’s what we are offering.” As well as the Victoria shop, M also has a wine website where customers can order wine to be delivered.

As a format, it’s still early days, but Williams believes the wine side of the business has potential for further growth in both new and existing locations. Should the Victoria store prove a smash, he would consider opening a second in the basement of Threadneedle Street, parts of which are currently vacant due to the size of the site, or even move Raw downstairs and put a wine store at the front of the restaurant.

“I am genuinely looking at it more closely. People are so interested in food and wine these days. Going back to the Gaucho days, people came in for steak and red wine, and for then Argentine beef and malbec, and then for Argentine sirloin and malbec from Mendoza. In the past decade, customers have become really knowledgeable about beef and wine.”

Williams has set up M Wine Store as a separate company so that “if it goes mental”, he can split it from the restaurants. “When the initial investors exit and the new ones come in they may or may not wish to buy mwinestore.co.uk. We shall have to see.”

In the meantime, the man from Gaucho is concentrating on ensuring that Victoria is a success which, despite his chutzpah, he admits is not a foregone conclusion. “I’ll either be the genius who first brought high-quality steaks to Victoria or the idiot who was there ahead of its time.”