Busaba Eathai is among the few chains to gain plaudits from the critics and guides. Conceived by Alan Yau – founder of noodle giant Wagamama and the Michelin-starred Hakkasan and Yauatcha, Busaba now operates five sites and is owned by Phoenix Capital Partners. Operations director Jale Erentok, who is also Yau’s wife, is currently head honcho. She discusses food quality, working cultures and the chain’s plans to expand steadily.
On Busaba’s food:
Erentok simply refuses to cut any corners when it comes to preparing and serving Thai food.
“Everything is made fresh on site,” she says. “Thai food is vibrant and flavours dull quickly, so some of our curry pastes have to be made twice a day. We use authentic Thai ingredients and we don’t compromise on anything, even if it costs more. Fresh vegetable prices are through the roof at the moment so we try to be seasonal to cut costs. We now try to change the menu four times a year.”
On maintaining authenticity:
The dishes have not been changed much to suit the British palate. It might not be as hot as the notoriously fierce street food of Bangkok or Phuket but – on balance – it’s authentic stuff.
“We don’t want to water down the product,” explains Erentok. “We put a dish on the menu that we didn’t think would be palatable to the European market (Crispy Morning Glory with Yellow Bean, Thai Garlic & Red Chilli), but it sells well.
“A lot of our customers have been to Thailand and this country is getting more and more experimental, people want bold and challenging flavours and love the idea of eating unadulterated, authentic food. It goes down pretty well with Thai people too.”
On Busaba’s operations:
Each Busaba functions as a stand-alone restaurant. Head office helps out with training and menu development, but each team is responsible for maintaining quality. This brings empowerment and cohesion to the team, bolstered by a full staff meeting at the beginning of every shift, a working culture introduced by Yau in the early days. Food quality is maintained throughout the branches by making everyone responsible.
“We have a very strong kitchen operations team; its job is to maintain quality and retrain and recheck. For us it’s not a once-a-week or once-a-month job, it’s done daily. We train all front-of-house staff to be able to check the food too, and if it’s not right it doesn’t go out.”
On a steady expansion:
Prior to the sale of the then three-strong chain in 2008, things had moved slowly. But with the backing of Phoenix Capital Partners, Busaba’s growth has gained pace.
Two sites have already opened this year – one on Panton Street, near Leicester Square, and one in Hoxton, east London – and two more are slated to open before 2011. One of these, in upmarket outlet shopping centre Bicester Village in Oxfordshire, is the brand’s first outside London. Erentok and the team are currently aiming to open three to five sites a year.
Southern cities will come first, like Oxford and Cambridge, but expansion in the north is on the cards too, and Erentok still thinks there is the potential for many more sites in the capital.
“We need young, dynamic people who are accustomed to spicy food,” says Erentok. “Logistics are important too. We must have the quality-control mechanisms ready for a given area. Ideally, we’d have a cluster of openings that are fairly near to each other so it’s manageable for the ops team.
“We are very different in the way we approach things. Our set-up as a brand and the model of each restaurant is very different to other fast-casual operators. We can’t open restaurants as fast, while still maintaining quality – we don’t want to grow aggressively.”
“The explosion in Asian concepts is a good thing for the brand; it keeps us on our toes and proves that the sector is healthy.”
On immigration caps:
The coalition Government’s temporary cap on immigration is bad news for Busaba Eathai and other ethnic restaurants that rely on skilled, non-EU workers.
“We rely on cooks from south-east Asia for head chef and wok chef positions in particular,” Erentok explains. “Training people that are not from south-east Asia to that level takes many years, and you won’t find many that are willing to learn to that extreme.
“The points-based system was great. We didn’t have any problems getting good chefs in,” she says. “But now the Government is being extreme, and we’re worried about what’s going to happen when the temporary cap lifts – it could have a very detrimental effect on our expansion plans.”