Will Ricker has perfected the pan Asian restaurant formula. Buit with a new venture open and another coming, quality remains his mantra.
Will Ricker, godfather of Pan Asian London restaurants, has been a bit quiet of late. The 44 year old Australian opened Eight Over Eight in Chelsea three-and-a-half years ago and then nothing until two weeks ago, when XO opened off the main drag in Belsize Park, north London. It might be out of the way, and Ricker might have been out of the limelight for a while but it hasn't stopped customers jumping at the chance to eat there.
When I went to interview him, just a week after XO opened, I told the 44-year-old Australian restaurateur that Metro critic Marina O'Loughlin was bemoaning the fact, in that morning's issue, that she had been unable to get a table to review it. "Really?" he asks, seeming genuinely pleased. "Well, that's great. We had 90 at Sunday lunch, 120 at dinner, we're busy."
Ricker's latest opening may have been a long time coming but that's not because he's been busy reinventing himself. With Ricker you know what you're going to get. He's been waiting two years for planning permission on a new restaurant, Mandalay, in Westminster, which he thought would be open before XO but is now scheduled for two years hence. That'll be casual Pan Asian too. "There's not much point saying, ‘Ooh, I'll try my hand at a steak restaurant,' or, ‘I quite like Spanish food, let's open a Spanish restaurant'. I don't know anything about that kind of food," he admits.
As well as knowing your subject, it also makes business sense to stick to the formula. "Once you get to a certain size, there are certain efficiencies of scale in human resources." he isn't worried that Pan Asian food might go out of fashion. "I don't think of Pan Asian as foreign food now, it's really part of the vernacular, part of what people are used to eating day to day. The idea is that you can come into one of my restaurants and have Chilli Salt Squid here in Belsize Park and it'd be the same as it is in Cicada in Clerkenwell."
Ricker's restaurants are all about serving consistently good food for around £30-a-head, so why, I ask, hasn't he given his restaurants the same brand? "Because that doesn't mean they're all the same. They've got different personalities. I'd serve lobster and black cod in Chelsea because they like the finer things in life, but that wouldn't necessarily work in Hoxton."
He's also reluctant to put his name up in lights, which would be a possible consequence of group branding. "If you start calling restaurants after yourself then suddenly you're looking for something else, for the celebrity aspect," he says. "I'm in the business of opening restaurants; the food and the consistency of what I'm offering is my brand."
XO follows the same £30-a-head pattern but looks lighter and brighter than Ricker's other venues, courtesy of design by Ou Baholyodhin Studio, which also designed Benares and Patara restaurants. Next door is a takeaway outlet, XO to Go. This part of the venture is very much about trial and error, says Ricker, and when I ask how much he hopes to take a week he looks like it's something he genuinely hasn't considered. "Er, if we did £1,000 a week we'd be very happy," he hazards. He does, though, admit that the concept could be rolled out to any of his other outlets if it's a success, or even used as standalone To Go's across London.
Although E&O in Notting Hill is by far his most fashionable restaurant, as soon as it opened it was being name-checked for who'd eaten there, and though it's the most successful financially, taking "north of £70,000 per week", XO could well surpass that, says Ricker. "It's a bigger restaurant with a bigger kitchen and there's a huge catchment area. We've really gone up a level here."
Ricker is also notable for building restaurants that last. Cicada in Clerkenwell is celebrating its tenth birthday this year and, apart from a restaurant in Soho and a bar in Chelsea, both of which Ricker invested in rather than fully owned before he launched the Great Eastern, he hasn't closed anything he's opened. "We build perennial restaurants by making sure the food is consistent and people already know what they're going to pay and what they'll get for that money before they come to one of my restaurants.
We try to create modern environments that are fun and in local communities. We feed nearly 5,000 people a week so we must be doing something right," says Ricker with a smile.
As far as the future goes, there's Mandalay which, slow planners allowing, will open in 2009, as well as a project closer to home, a baby due in March. After this, expansion will continue at the same steady rate. "If you're sensible about how you grow there's no dips in profit. I pick my sites carefully, I haven't got shareholders who demand I open seven new places a year…"
Potential locations, all in the Capital, are Soho, Chiswick, Borough, Mayfair, Marylebone, Islington, Fitzrovia and Knightsbridge, but it's often dictated by what sites are on the market. A perfect restaurant site is actually a pub, he says. "They just seem to be the right size for a great restaurant." Plus there's his canny sideline to consider – developing flats attached to his restaurants, which he's done everywhere except at XO.
"If I'm going to be a tenant then why not be my own tenant?
Then it's not a problem to get permission to take down walls and create the best space without a nervous landlord looking over my shoulder. If I'm trying to give people a reason to come to the area then the house prices will go up, so why not take the benefit myself? It's not really a risk compared to buying a restaurant – that's the real risk."
Typically he takes the flats (or, in the case of Mandalay, 11 luxury apartments), does them up and sells them on straight away. This allows him to plough more money into his restaurants. "Look,"
says Ricker with all the confidence of a man who's found his perfect business formula and is not about to deviate from it, "I just want to feed more people. That's what I'm in the business of doing and I'm going to play to my strengths so I can keep doing that."
- Cicada, Clerkenwell. Opened 1997
- Great Eastern Dining Room, Shoreditch. Opened 1998
- E&O, Notting Hill. Opened 2001
- Eight Over Eight, Chelsea. Opened 2003
- XO, Belsize Park. Opened 2007
- Mandalay, Belsize Park. Scheduled to open 2009