Innovation is not always a good thing in the restaurant industry. Andy Bassadone and Chris Benians, founders of Italian restaurant group Strada and French bistro concept Côte, are firm believers that – in most cases at least – opening wilfully radical concepts is a poor business strategy.
“Look at BMW and Mercedes,” explains Bassadone. “How have they become worldwide brands? They both decided to improve something that other people were already doing. There’s a big thrust in the restaurant business to come up with something completely new. There are many opportunities to refine existing concepts.”
Take Italy, for example. Apart from a few avant-garde mavericks, Italians don’t do innovation and – as anybody who’s eaten in the country will tell you – the general standard of food and restaurants is exceptional; gradual evolution in restaurants and cuisine yes, but there are very few operators that strive to be different.
Strada – which was sold to Richard Caring in 2005 for £56m – stood for good Italian food done simply, and Côte represents good French food done simply. The pair don’t reinvent the restaurant experience; the approach with both Strada and Côte was to make better versions of existing concepts they knew there was already a market for.
When Bassadone and Benians were last interviewed in Restaurant, back in the summer of 2007, they’d just opened their second Côte on Soho’s Wardour Street. With their Strada heritage, few in the industry would have bet against Côte being anything other than a roaring success but – with 20 high-performing sites in barely four years and dozens more to come – the brand has exceeded all expectations.
The pair both hail from the upper end of the restaurant business. Bassadone ran Caprice Holdings for Luke Johnson as chief executive in the early 2000s, and Benians held a number of senior chef positions, most notably executive chef at respected upmarket Italian restaurant Daphne’s in London.
Armed with this experience, they have set about stripping away the luxuries and accoutrements associated with fine dining, leaving only great food and great service.
Côte has been backed by majority partner Caring since its inception in 2007. Some money has come from the bank but Caring’s deep pockets have been instrumental to the brand’s growth. The Côte business is separate from Caring’s other restaurant interests, Caprice Holdings and Soho House Group.
Neither of the pair draw a salary, but are significant shareholders. Côte is overseen by four directors – Bassadone, Benians, Nick Fiddler and Marcus Cload, all ex-Strada. Other key people include operations director Harald Samuelsson and food and beverage director Alex Scrimgeour.
Despite Côte being a French restaurant, great care has been taken to make the concept accessible. The menus aren’t written in French; a French language menu conjures – for many at least – images of snooty waiters, overly rich, expensive food and formality – not a good look for a mid-priced group that’s hoping to expand throughout the UK.
Similarly, a decision has been made to not make the aesthetic too Gallic – Côte restaurants don’t ape the grand design of a Parisian brasserie and the waiters don’t do bow ties. Food quality and consistency are paramount.
“All we talk about in formal management meetings is food. We have a total commitment to maintaining food quality. We want to serve really good, simple food, which people are happy to come back three times a week to eat,” says Bassadone.
Very little is bought in. A large amount of sales are grilled chicken and steaks, and the quality of these items is more down to the sourcing of high-quality ingredients, which gives the kitchen teams more time to concentrate on preparing more complex preparation for the likes of stews and sauces.
To produce high-quality dishes cooked from scratch, Côte has had to invest heavily in staff and training. ‘Proper’ cooking is always desirable, but many chains eschew it altogether because there is – frankly – too much that can go wrong.
Increased training and calibre of staff leads to a significantly higher wage bill, but the pair believe that this is a virtuous circle – chefs make good food, the restaurant is busy, and spend is comparatively higher.
“It all comes out in the wash if you’re doing the right level of sales,” says Bassadone.
Coping with challenges
If the pair learnt one thing from the roll-out of Strada, it’s that a sound infrastructure is essential for a quick and competent expansion. At the time it’s hard to stomach, but start-up restaurant groups looking to expand quickly have got to make huge investments in head-office staff, trainers and opening managers before they’re strictly necessary.
“When we were doing Strada,” recalls Benians, “Richard Caring told us to invest £1m in people infrastructure ahead of expansion, and this allowed us to competently double the estate to over 50 restaurants in less than two years. It’s impossible to apply infrastructure retrospectively – the horse has bolted. You need to be confident.”
Armed with this experience, by the time Côte opened its second site, the infrastructure was in place for the 20 units it now operates today.
“The first couple of years are the hardest,” continues Benians. “You need to set up the right team, which has been simplified and speeded up because our senior people have worked with us before.”
With a solid corporate structure in place and Caring as an enthusiastic and trusting backer, lack of sites is the main thing holding Côte back from an even quicker roll-out.
“Côte is an everyday good-quality product that would be suited to many locations, but the trouble is finding them,” says Bassadone. “We love London and the south-east – and we think there’s a lot of opportunity here.”
It’s a similar picture across the industry. Most of the national chains are looking for the same sites in the same areas, pushing premium prices up significantly. To get the good town and city-centre units you need to be ballsy, and Côte is willing to play hardball when it comes to bidding wars, paying hefty premiums to net the right sites.
The staffing crisis
Aside from available units, a further factor preventing Côte from expanding faster is lack of good staff. Thanks to TV chefs and an increasing national interest in food and restaurants, the image of the industry has improved in recent years, but this has yet to translate to a steady flow of capable people looking to get into the restaurant business.
“We are amazed by how hard it is to recruit good people,” says Bassadone. “The restaurant business is full of opportunities, so many examples of fast promotion and early responsibility. I’m staggered that we don’t get letters on spec from people that want to work with the better restaurant groups. The sad reality is that most English people don’t want to work in the business.”
Part of the problem, Bassadone believes, is that a lot of amateur restaurants – run by people with little or no experience of the business – are still giving the industry a bad name and putting people off.
There’s no doubt that Bassadone and Benians understand the restaurants and their challenges. But with a history of building up large businesses, how long will it be before they turn their considerable talents to another project?
Well, they already have. Bill’s – a fresh food store/café/restaurant with units in Lewes and Brighton, East Sussex – was identified as having roll-out potential in 2008.
Caring is now on board and, since the Côte team became involved with the expansion, units have opened in Reading and Covent Garden, with more planned for this year. A side project maybe, but Bill’s looks set for significant growth too.
Even with an exciting new project in the offing, Bassadone and Benians see Côte as a long-term project. “We won’t set a maximum number of sites or years before we move on. You don’t think like that in this business,” says Bassadone.
If they can find the sites, the pair anticipate they’ll open at least 10 restaurants a year for the foreseeable future. “That’s a minimum,” says Benians. “We’d be disappointed if we didn’t do better than that, and so would Richard Caring.”