Apart from a good business plan and a fantastic team you also need to have a sense of humour if you want to open a restaurant, particularly if you're a start-up business. With SBG it took us six weeks to get credit card machines into the Manchester restaurant – we had to hire machines off the company we were buying them from - if you didn’t laugh you’d cry.
The last two years have been particularly difficult for the industry, primarily because the banks don’t like the sector. We have had to adjust how we run our business because of it.
I’ve been amazed at Edinburgh’s food scene. It seems to be going from strength to strength. More restaurants have opened than shut recently, which is good to see.
Manchester’s going through a fantastic resurgence – it has an exciting vibe like Glasgow. It has a beautiful city centre and people tend to eat out a lot there. I was really pleased to get the Livebait site there, I think it will do really well.
When I was at Sodexo I commuted between Edinburgh and London for 10 years and from a personal point of view that was quite tough, but it was what I had to do then and it was balanced out by what we managed to achieve as a company in that time.
The contract catering business and the restaurant business are completely different. In contract catering you have a defined target market, so you know who you’re aiming at and in most cases it’s also subsidised. However, you do have to watch what’s going on on the high street, as that’s your main competitor and it’s the same with a restaurant in that respect, because in both cases it’s about getting the price right.
It was great to get the chance to open restaurants with Gary Rhodes. He really was at the start of the British food revival and he did it exceptionally well.
In the mid-90s when Conran opened restaurants they’d take a lot of chefs out of the system and we were losing a lot of top end chefs at Sodexo, so we started to use Gary’s kitchen as a training academy for chefs. It was hugely motivational for them to work in a Michelin starred environment and it reduced our turnover of staff to 8 per cent which was fantastic.
I left contract catering in 2003, but I think it provides a very good grounding for someone looking to come into the industry and the opportunity for moving sideways or upwards is great.
We are in the process of gaining MSC accreditation at Café Fish and we are committed to doing the same in Manchester and Leeds at our Livebait sites. We would be fools to ignore ethical practices.
There’s a lot we can do as an industry to support sustainable and ethical practices. When there are restricted quotas of fish we won’t buy them for our restaurants and we use diver produce from the west coast of Scotland, not dredged produce and we’ll only buy cod that’s over five years old for example.
There are three important things you need to find in a business partner to make that partnership successful: Experience, skills and personality. William Rollason, my partner at SBG restaurants, who I first met during a business takeover in 2007, has those qualities – he’s particularly sharp financially too and a thoroughly good egg.
I’m a strong believer in trying not to make the same mistakes twice, but making a mistake is often the only way you learn. Having something that doesn’t work right the first time can sometimes be better than something that does.