There aren’t many people who genuinely have no problem getting into The Ivy, but fewer still who enjoy the fast track route that Richard Caring no doubt takes to his seat. But then he does own the place, along with some of London’s other eateries du jour, including Le Caprice, J. Sheekey and Scott’s.
As owner of Caprice Holdings and the Birley Group, a stakeholder in Soho House and one-time owner of the Wentworth Club, Caring has a bold strategy for his chic restaurants and bars, and wants to see the Caprice name roll out on a truly international scale. “We’re hitting five cities in the States and hoping to nail a couple of situations there,” he says.
“Outside of that we’re looking to open Caprice restaurants, the actual Caprice, possibly in Berlin, Madrid and Istanbul; but we are concentrating on America first. The Caprice as a single restaurant is a concept we think will travel. It is probably the easiest of our concepts from a Caprice Holdings standpoint to export.”
New York will play host to the next Le Caprice, due to open in June next year, and plans to expand the other Caprice Holdings brands, which include Rivington Grill and The Ivy, are also in the pipeline.
The company will open a Rivington Grill in Dubai in December and is expected to launch The Ivy concept as well as a Le Caprice there by 2010. It is also coordinating expansion that will see the development of its brands in 22 countries over the next seven years.
“Everybody says ‘you are doing a 60-yard dash here, you are trying to do everything in 10 minutes’, but when a brand becomes available that’s iconic, there’s only one. And if we believe that brand has the quality you can’t say we’ll come back for it in a year because somebody else will take it,” he says.
“We are interested in picking up brands that stand for an image and an expectancy, and people shop for brands because they really believe in the quality behind that brand. We are certainly not looking for redundant old brands to bring back, although we did actually do that with Scott’s, which we are very proud of.”
Caprice Holdings has an annual turnover of £50m and employs about 500 people and with its positioning at the very top end of the market and the exclusive nature of its restaurants, there is rarely an empty seat. But now that the dreaded ‘r’ word has loomed its head, is Caring concerned that expansion and short-term growth of his existing business will be hit?
“It’s impossible to say how much we’re going to be affected,” he admits. “Hopefully, we’re in a place where we’ll be fine. I’m not concerned that we won’t still have a strong business, but I think everybody will be touched. All our clubs have long waiting lists and all of our restaurants have a really strong regular customer base. I wouldn’t want to be opening cold today; that would be more difficult.”
Difficult, maybe, but Caring’s experience not just latterly as a restaurateur but as major player in the fashion industry could prove useful in these testing times. Caring built up his father’s business over four decades to the point where he was supplying clothes to most of Britain’s leading outlets. A self-made multimillionaire he was among the first in the UK to realise that clothes could be made much cheaper in the Far East than in the northwest of Britain, and amassed a fortune acting as the middleman between the UK’s top fashion chains and developing-world factories.
Yet, in recent years, with the rise of the Chinese textile industry the rewards have dwindled. This, it seems, was the catalyst for Caring’s sharp career shift into the hospitality industry with the purchase of Wentworth in 2004.
“When we bought Wentworth the food and beverage needed to be redone,” he says. “Caprice came in to do it for us. We had conversations and I ended up buying the Caprice group and that started me off in the restaurant scenario.”
Signature Restaurants, the owner of Strada and Belgo, was soon added to the portfolio and was later sold in 2007 so that Caring could buy the Birley Group, owner of Annabel’s, George and Harry’s Bar. A year later he bought a majority stake in Soho House, which runs Babington House in Somerset as well as a string of London clubs.
Caring isn’t just about acquiring trophy brands and selling them on. His more recent activities demonstrate a desire to build a brand from scratch and nurture new opportunities. Take Cote, the French bistro concept he founded last autumn with the former directors of Strada. With Caring’s deep pockets Cote has expanded from its first incarnation in Wimbledon with sites in Soho and Richmond. A fourth is due to open in Covent Garden and there are no plans to stop there. The intention is to open as many as 20 sites within 18 months on the back of what he says has been “a hugely successful test store” in Wimbledon.
More surprising is his involvement with Bill’s Produce Store, a small two-site restaurant/shop in which Caring owns a stake. Bill’s, which is based in Lewes, East Sussex, and in nearby Brighton, is a utilitarian concept that serves high quality food to the East Sussex masses. It couldn’t be further from The Ivy if it were based on the moon.
“It’s like a greengrocer shop with a restaurant in the middle. It’s fantastic,” he enthuses. “The chefs come out into the shop and pick fruit and vegetables for the menus they are cooking in the shop. It’s very well priced, fun and is something we think can go all over the country.”
This is Caring all over − he is a businessman first and foremost. As long as the brand fits it doesn’t matter whether it’s a restaurant, club or produce store. “There doesn’t need to be a personal connection, although Wentworth was definitely a passionate purchase,” he says. What part Bill’s or Cote will play in Caring’s grand scheme is still unknown, and his main focus will remain on the Birley Group, Caprice Holdings and Soho House.
“I think it has been interesting for people to see what we are trying to create. It’s exciting, but at the moment the press are determined to put everyone in a depressive state. The credit crunch is obviously a concern for everybody. We’re determined to push through it. I think we’ll all come out of it at the end of the tunnel into some nice sunlight.”
This article appears in the December issue of Restaurant magazine.
Business Profile: Steve Hill