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Flying the nest: Why Duck & Waffle is coming back to earth

By Sophie Witts , 12-Apr-2017
Last updated on 13-Apr-2017 at 16:58 GMT2017-04-13T16:58:43Z

Flying the nest: Why Duck & Waffle is coming back to earth

After two years of planning, high-rise London restaurant Duck & Waffle opens its fast-casual spin-off in the newly developed St James’s Market next month. And it’s coming back to earth with a bang.

It is a grey London morning and the tower blocks of the City are spread out beneath Duck & Waffle like matchboxes. Upstairs, the restaurant’s 40th-floor dining room is busy with chatter and the clink of plates; a few Japanese tourists take selfies against the view while those with weaker stomachs eat their breakfast with their backs to the steep drop down the side of the Heron Tower.

Dan Doherty is drinking a coffee, looking remarkably fresh faced for a man tasked with running London’s busiest 24-hour restaurant (and soon to be running a second and likely equally frenetic establishment, more on that later). Behind the 32-year-old (he turns 33 this month), the top of the Gherkin peeks through a window as he tries to put his finger on the secret to his sky-high restaurant’s success.

“I often look at our restaurant and wonder why it’s full,” says Doherty, who has recently returned from trekking through the Nepalese Himalayas for charity Action Against Hunger. “Ultimately, I think it’s about listening to our guests and making small changes all the time. Duck & Waffle is constantly moving forward. That’s why it doesn’t have the feel of a restaurant that is five years old.”

Doherty met Shimon Bokovza, founder of Samba Brands Management, back in 2012. Bokovza was planning his UK debut with the group’s Sushisamba chain across the 38th-40th levels of the Heron Tower at 110 Bishopsgate, but wasn’t confident that one brand could fill all three floors and needed another idea. Together he and Doherty came up with Duck & Waffle, named after the popular dish at Samba Brands’ Sugar Cane Raw Bar Grill in Miami.

Wind the clock forward five years and Duck & Waffle has become one of the capital’s most successful restaurants. Over one million guests have ascended the stomach-turning glass elevator to its 40th floor dining room and the restaurant seats up to 1,000 covers a day. Doherty says the restaurant is never empty and hosts a stream of diners from Thursday evening until Sunday night. A team of 48 kitchen staff, all but two aged under 35, work throughout the 24-hour cycle. Among them are several young parents, eager to get in an eight-hour shift while their children are at school or asleep.

“When we opened I knew there was no way we could build a team this size by forcing people to work these hours,” says Doherty, who is chef director and partner at Duck & Waffle Restaurants and also the co founder of Chefs of Tomorrow, a mentoring programme for young chefs. “My idea was to find five or six young mums or dads who wanted that flexibility. So we’ve got five dads on the night team, and the breakfast guys tend to be parents or students. It works because these people want to be in the kitchen at these unusual times, otherwise they’d just get pissed off at everyone.”

High-level challenges

While the restaurant’s 40th floor site might make for a good selfie, Doherty admits that it’s rather less glamorous for his kitchen team. “It’s an absolute shit show,” he groans. “Our prep kitchen is in the basement, which may as well be in Hackney as we can’t see what’s going on. I’ve had to hire a senior chef to be down there full-time to keep an eye on it.”

With limited storage on the 40th floor, the kitchen team has to email a list of supplies to an iPad in the basement around four times a day. The downstairs chefs then wheel the produce through a maze of doors and corridors to the goods lift, which only reaches the 38th floor.

“All the chefs then have to down tools and run downstairs and carry everything up. We’re talking a lot of food, say 30-40 chickens and ten ribs of beef,” Doherty explains. “It’s a nightmare but it’s the price you pay for this view.”

As chef director of the restaurant, Doherty has full creative control of the restaurant’s eclectic, globally hued-menu. Standout dishes include ox cheek doughnuts as well as Doherty’s foie gras crème brûlée. The menu has been subject to continual tweaking over the past five years to suit its 24-hour clientele. Bread is one of its most popular items, and its menu has grown from offering one loaf to six varieties such as maple-glazed corn bread and a charred aubergine and yoghurt flatbread.

“It’s really strange because month-on-month I don’t think anyone would really notice the changes that happen, but if you look at our opening menu it’s completely different to our current menu,” says Doherty. “I think one of the things that makes the restaurant a successful business is these slight tweaks. No one wants to go to a restaurant in a year’s time and have a completely different experience, but gradually evolving what we do makes sense.”

Going Local

It is this drive for innovation that’s behind Duck & Waffle Local, the restaurant’s fast-casual spin-off opening in London’s St James’s Market development next month. Doherty and Bokovza have been planning the restaurant for two years, and are shaking up the Duck & Waffle formula to focus on speedier service and lower prices. “Shimon and I were sitting in the restaurant watching people ordering and we thought, ‘what if we could make a restaurant like this, but strip it back a bit and make it more accessible?’”

The original Duck & Waffle serves more than 8,000 ducks a month, now Doherty has placed the bird at the centre of his new menu. Dishes at Duck & Waffle Local will include a duck jam doughnut, an ‘epic’ duck burger with crispy leg and snacks such as duck hearts and gizzards. Prices are set to be considerably lower than at its sister site, verging on casual-dining territory, in fact. A duck-based main will be priced around £10-£12, vegetable dishes £4-£8, and snacks £3-£6.

“It’s our aim to make duck more accessible, fun and creative,” Doherty explains. “Generally speaking people only associate it with Chinese duck and Duck a l’orange.”

The other half of the menu will be more health conscious, with a selection of vegetable dishes available in smaller and larger version. Examples include lentils with miso yoghurt, spinach and buckwheat; grilled sprouting broccoli with chilli, garlic lemon and almonds; and baby spinach with peas, avocado, grains and seeds.

Rather than tackle the issues associated with opening 24 hours – Duck & Waffle’s Heron Tower site employs ‘hosts’ to manage rowdy late-night drinkers at ground level – Duck & Waffle Local will offer breakfast from 8am-11am, followed by an all-day menu until midnight (the restaurant will stay open until 1am at times but will take orders up to midnight).

The restaurant is eschewing table service by requiring guests to order at a counter that backs onto the kitchen, where chefs will cook each dish to order in full view of the 120-cover dining room.

Doherty insists that this fast-paced approach is the way many other restaurants should be heading. “The thing that frustrates me when I go to restaurants is waiting around for people, waiting for the bill, waiting to pay; we’re trying to cut that out and just offer really fresh, cooked-to-order food,” he says. “It’s going to be interesting to see how it is received. You won’t need to wait around for service or the bill.”

A move into takeaway

The new restaurant is aiming to offer all its dishes for takeaway. Doherty and Bokovza considered launching a mobile ordering app to streamline the process, but worried it would make the experience too impersonal. “The idea is that the counter service point is within the kitchen, so you can watch the chefs and smell the food and that interactive element helps people order and entices them in,” he says. “So we wouldn’t want to remove that, but we might introduce technology to help things along in the future.”

Some of Duck & Waffle’s best-selling dishes have been adapted to be more suited to both takeaway and the quicker turnaround time the fast casual service style will require, not least Doherty’s titular Duck & Waffle with mustard maple syrup, and the Full Elvis, a peanut butter and jelly waffle with vanilla cream, peanut brittle, fresh berries and caramelised banana. Translating the dishes from a high-end restaurant to a fast-casual menu will mean a tweak in presentation in some cases, too.

“When we sat down to plan this restaurant one thing we took in to account was the production,” he says. “Certain dishes need to be executed differently if they are going to travel well.”

Duck & Waffle Local could be set for a rollout if there proves to be an appetite for the concept. However, Doherty is tight-lipped about the expansion of the original Duck & Waffle format, despite rumours of a site in Miami. “If the first Duck & Waffle Local is rammed we’ll be doing a few others,” he says. “There’s never going to be more than a couple of (high-end) Duck & Waffles in the world, though.”

With a growing profile, including a cookbook and several Saturday Kitchen appearances under his belt, will Doherty himself be flying the nest any time soon? “I’m with Duck & Waffle all the way, but I’m also working on a few of my own bits and bobs as well, so there will hopefully be some news on that later this year. The restaurant has been great for me and the people behind it are allowing me to explore other ideas concurrent to this not instead of it, so watch this space.”

This article appeared in the April issue of Restaurant Magazine, Subscribe here  from just £70 per year.