After moving from a small Liverpudlian estate to a sunny condo on Miami’s South Beach with his model sister, a young and thick-accented Peter Avis began a passionate career in the hospitality industry as a dishwasher.
But despite the Americans’ inability to understand his northern twang and his commitment to becoming the ‘best dishwasher there was’, Avis’s natural charm soon catapulted him front of house, where, 18 years on, he’s become the award-winning restaurant manager of Virgin’s Babylon at the Roof Gardens.
Sitting in Babylon’s private dining room with a panoramic view of London, Avis told Becky Paskin how elocution lessons, investment in his staff and good-old American hospitality helped him become the Academy of Food and Wine’s Restaurant Manager of the Year.
“When I first moved to Miami I got a job as a dishwasher at Nick’s Italian Fisherie, and I really took the job seriously,” he said. “I thought that if I was a good dishwasher then one day I could become a kitchen manager. But one evening the commis waiter was sick and I was asked to step into his place. I remember being so nervous, but my manager was really impressed with me. He gave me a promotion and a pay rise there and then. It’s funny because I wasn’t overly excited to be a commis waiter; I really wanted to be a kitchen manager. But from that day I loved it and by the end of the first week, I knew waiting was for me.”
Avis stayed in the position for just a month before becoming a full waiter, but at just 18 years old his still robust Liverpudlian twang meant Florida’s diners couldn’t understand a word he said.
“They sent me to elocution lessons,” Avis laughed. “I took everything they said on board and slowed my speech down. Because I was an English boy my accent worked well with the Americans, and when my manager saw that I had this way with the customers, I was eventually made senior waiter and then training waiter for their new branch in Fort Lauderdale.”
Living Las Vegas
After almost three years working in Fort Lauderdale, Avis took the decision to move to the lights of Las Vegas with his sisters, where he found a job as head waiter at one of MGM Grand’s restaurants.
“We were ballsy and ambitious kids with everything to live for, and wanted something new and different, but I hated Vegas with a vengeance. The MGM Grand was amazing and all about the American way - the service, guests, development of the team, understanding different characters and how to manage them, and I was managed so well and progressed so well in that role. I loved that job. But Vegas to me wasn’t real. It’s a desert and not what I expected it to be, but me and my sisters had made a pact to carry on no matter what.”
Sadly, after six months Avis and his sisters were forced to ‘wave the white flag’ and head home to Liverpool, after a family member passed away. After building himself a reputation and developing his skills in American hospitality, Avis was forced to start all over again back in the UK.
“Coming back home was a huge culture shock,” he said. “It was difficult time going from four years of living a completely different life in America and then coming back like that. It was hard, but that’s life. So I brushed off the dust, refocused and moved to London after three weeks.”
Avis immediately landed a position as senior waiter of the Royal Garden Hotel when it opened in Kensington in 1996, and it wasn’t long before his passion and ambition drove him onto the hotel’s trainee management course.
But after two years Avis left to pursue a ‘different environment’ for his own self-growth, and joined the Balans Group as a training manager, where he helped open the company’s Knightsbridge and Kensington branches.
“It was a very intentional move that I needed to do for personal reasons, but I ended up immensely enjoying it there. It gave me experience of working with large volumes of guests at a good level and how a group works, which was good for me.
“When I left there I was asked to work for a small restaurant and private members club on Brompton Road as assistant manager, which really was an amazing experience. I had an opportunity to run my own little team at a new opening, which despite being challenging gave me an opportunity to put all the skills I’d learned and put them into me as a manager to develop a team. I developed some amazing characters in there, and I still feel like my job wasn’t over there I could have done more.”
But Avis was never given the chance to finish what he started, when one day he received a call asking him to work for Richard Branson’s Virgin brand, which was opening a new restaurant at the Roof Gardens in Kensington.
“They said they wanted a supervisor with experience of training people and opening restaurants, as well as someone who was ‘a bit American; a bit European’. I didn’t really know how to take that but went for a chat anyway, and that was eight years ago.
“Babylon has been my baby so it’s nice to see her like a toddler now. It’s been a huge challenge and its still a challenge today. The London restaurant scene has changed a lot since I started 12 years ago. At the Royal Garden Hotel we all had to stand a certain way and everyone was addressed as ‘maam’, but I’m not like that.
“I’m a firm believer that there’s a simple formula for a restaurant. You bring the customer in like they’re a guest in your own home and you look after them. I treat guests how I feel they want to be treated and that’s a skill.”
Avis’s skill to know what his guests want and treat them accordingly has helped him gain recognition as one of the best restaurant managers in the industry. Not only has he steered his team to win Toptable’s 2008 Best Restaurant in London award, but Avis himself has been named the Academy of Food and Wine’s 2009 Restaurant Manager of the Year, as well as granted their Dalmore Award for Excellence, given to an ‘outstanding personality in the hospitality industry’.
“To win all these awards is amazing,” he said. “I’m elated because I’ve been recognised as the best in my industry that’s huge I couldn’t ask for more. I’m the proudest person that could be and it’s made me want to up my game even more. We’ve been here eight years and we got here because our strategy was a bit unique and my management style is a bit different.
“We need to go to a new level now, not with the intention of winning more awards, but to always be the best. It’s my responsibility now to keep raising the game of the restaurant scene in London, to keep inspiring managers that come through here.
“This is a serious industry. I came from washing dishes and am now an award-winning restaurant manager, which shows anyone can do it if they’re determined and passionate.”