Business Profile: MWB's Robert Cook

By William Drew

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Hotel, Hotel du vin

Robert Cook. Photo: Mike Poloway
Robert Cook. Photo: Mike Poloway
As chief executive of the Malmaison and Hotel du Vin business, Robert Cook has embarked on a voyage of discovery into the standalone restaurant sector: Is he steering a successful course?

It’s the morning after the (decidedly late) night before, but Robert Cook shows little sign of fatigue. The previous evening, the
effervescent Scot had been hosting a lavish opening bash for the new Smoak restaurant and Ember Lounge cocktail bar at the Malmaison hotel in Manchester – sharing a fine bottle of red with Sir Alex Ferguson, schmoozing suppliers, glad-handing guests, charming the press, even enjoying an early-hours tipple or two with his senior staff.

At breakfast, like the hotel restaurant in which he’s sitting, Cook is buzzing. “Smoak has given me a real boost in the arm,” says Cook, who is chief executive of the combined Malmaison and Hotel du Vin businesses. “It’s really exciting for Mal.”

Smoak Bar & Grill, to give the concept its full title, is the first independently branded restaurant within the 12-strong Malmaison chain. It sees a slightly tired brasserie format replaced by a US-inspired grillhouse with an open kitchen, complete with obligatory Josper Grill, counter dining and stripped-back décor.

The large space incorporates a lounge area with old movies playing on a big screen, a sunken pewter-topped bar, and red-leather banquette booths in the 95-cover main dining area. Beyond the restaurant lies the luxurious Ember Lounge, a private space with an impressive cocktail list where one can envisage the local elite (footballing or otherwise) kicking back.

"As always, we are trying to create something that doesn’t feel like a hotel restaurant or bar. It’s important that it’s destinational,” says Cook. “We put a steakhouse in the Aberdeen hotel a few years ago and it’s been a huge success. That gave us the confidence to do something branded. If we want to expand Mal, particularly with overseas developers, they want not only a branded hotel but also a branded F&B product.”

Cook aims to roll Smoak out across at least half of the Malmaison estate over the next couple of years, with Edinburgh next on the agenda. “And then Utopia is to have a standalone Smoak on the high street, probably in London.”

Hotelier turned restaurateur

Cook, of course, has form in this regard: in the specific shape of Bistro du Vin, the standalone spin-off from the successful Hotel du Vin boutique chain. The first of these opened in Clerkenwell, London, in the spring, with a second on Soho’s Dean Street joining it in June.

In parallel with the positioning of the two hotel brands, Bistro du Vin is pitched at a slightly higher level than Smoak, driven largely by its focus on wine – and the higher average spend per head that it generates as a result (£40-plus in Bistro du Vin versus £30-plus in Smoak). Both the Hotels and Bistros du Vin are more sophisticated, quieter and less brash than Malmaison and Smoak, perhaps befitting the brand’s more genteel middle-England origins.

The company has clearly invested considerably in its two solo BdV restaurants with ‘Cave au Fromage’ cheese and charcuterie spaces and private-dining wine rooms alongside large, high-spec bar, dining and lounge areas. But while the restaurants are several notches above other chain hotels’ culinary offerings, why move into thefiercely competitive standalone market?

“First, we’re good at it – they’re really flying now,” says Cook with typical directness. “But also, getting hotels into London is prohibitive. Bistro du Vin gives us an opportunity to capitalise on the London dining market, while promoting the brand at the same time.”

Cook admits that the Soho site had to soften its lunchtime menu by introducing a £14.95 twocourse offer, but insists it is faring well on a level with Dean Street Townhouse opposite and Quo Vadis next door. “London can take another six at least: Shoreditch, Chiswick, Marylebone High St, Mayfair, Fullham/Chelsea way, the Portobello- Notting Hill area,” he continues. “We know where a lot of our London-based hotel customers live, of course, so we can target those areas. We have a good name with a good reputation for food, so why not extend that?”

Brand extension is a particular focus, as witnessed not only by the BdV development, but Brighton’s Pub du Vin (“I’m fascinated by the pub business. When the time is right and we have the resources, we’d like to get more going”) and the proposed Petit du Vin small-hotel concept.

Operational flexibility

The business is wholly owned by MWB Group, which bought Hotel du Vin, itself founded by hotelier Robin Hutson and legendary sommelier Gerard Basset, back in 2004. Since then it has been expanding steadily: Hotel du Vin growing from six to 14, Malmaison from seven to 12.

The group is currently refinancing – a process that is likely to involve selling and then leasing back more of its hotel properties – in a bid to reduce its debt and free up further capital for Cook’s varied investment ambitions.It currently clocks up around £27m EBITDA on a group turnover of £110m, with approximately half of that coming from food and beverage sales. Half of its diners in the hotels are nonresidents; a crucial factor with room rates in the hotel business still under considerable pressure.

Perhaps tellingly, the different brands are run as one business, with marketing the only central function that is brand specific. Outside of the London head office, the senior team is split regionally (Scotland; North & Midlands; London & South) rather than by brand or specialism. “It also means we can develop talent better. We can move chefs or managers back and forth to keep them growing,” says Cook.

Around half of all the menus are made up of ‘simple classics’ that are consistent across each restaurant brand, developed by exec group chef Keith Shearer and his team and changed every quarter. That leaves half the menu entirely down to the head chef within each establishment. Similarly, under the guidance of acclaimed director of wine Ronan Sayburn MS, the head sommelier at each Bistro du Vin (including those within the hotels) has the freedom to put together his or her own wine list – be it 50 or 500 bins.

This formula of brand-neutral back-of-house systems and strong elements of autonomy within individual sites is undeniably successful. Cook believes the business and its brands have to remain flexible. “I wouldn’t rule out putting aBistro du Vin into a Mal, for example.”

Cook himself lives in Northumberland, heading down to London early on Monday mornings where he works for half the week, before criss-crossing the country to his various locations for the other half. Of course, he’s simultaneously checking out potential sites for pubs, restaurants and hotels, big and small, on his travels.=

“My passion is food and beverage. I am now running this as a restaurant business with rooms,” he says. And for a man steeped in the hotel business throughout his life, that’s a telling statement of intent.

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