Wilkinson is quietly masterminding a turnaround at the Spanish casual-dining chain Shopping-centre landlords are too greedy, restaurants need to work harder to take market share back from pubs, and Spanish food has massive potential in the UK.
These views from Simon Wilkinson, chief executive of La Tasca owner LTR Grupo de Restaurantes, are typical of his crystal-clear focus regarding his job, his career and, it’s easy to imagine, every aspect of
his life. The easy-going 45-year-old laughs as he says: “Everyone thinks I’m laid-back – I am, but I’m also incredibly determined.”
His steering of the company through last year’s company voluntary agreement (CVA), which resulted in the closure of 16 sites and rent reductions for a further 19, is a good example. Negotiating with some “very aggressive” landlords was not exactly an enjoyable experience, he admits, but it became “a personal crusade”. Wilkinson ended up with a stomach infection at the end of the exhausting process but, true to form, he got the result he wanted. The 40-strong middle-market chain is back on track, with a renewed focus on being ‘quintessentially Spanish’.
In his early career Wilkinson had to learn the hard way about tackling business challenges. He was an area manager in London for Scottish & Newcastle at the time the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York led to a massive drop in clientele (who were mostly tourists) almost overnight. Wilkinson’s efforts to re-educate the landlords in his charge to think and act more ‘locally’ resulted in him still coming out as one of the top managers in the business that year.
The more recent task of sorting LTR’s debt followed a raft of other changes to overhaul the business completely in terms of product and service. Whereas two years ago, 85 per cent of food used at La Tasca was frozen, now that same proportion is fresh – a change that has been implemented without any rise in dish prices by dealing directly with suppliers and halving the previously over-complicated menu. The menu majors on familiar Spanish tapas such as gambas al ajillo, chorizo with morcilla and patatas bravas, and mains including paellas and pork cheek with Pedro Ximinez. Marketing and communication on the menu and elsewhere focuses on the regions of Spain where the ingredients and dishes originate.
The reliance on discounting has gone and a loyalty card introduced, which is now held by a healthy 165,000 people. The brand has been tweaked not only from an aesthetics point of view but also in the way staff interact with customers.
Fairly early on in this role, Wilkinson says he recognised his belief that La Tasca could be 'the Spanish Carluccio’s' – in the sense of being quite foodie – was mistaken. Instead, the emphasis is firmly on fresh, authentic Spanish food and drink (gone is American Zinfandel on the wine list) in a modern environment with a distinct focus on fun.
For example, more venues now have late licences and offer evening entertainment such as salsa lessons. In addition, new-look designs are being trialled and the company has opened a specialist cava bar (at its unbranded site in Brighton).
On the people side, the revised company culture has meant that, of the staff in a support office or general manager role prior to the overhaul, there are now just five remaining in those positions – all the others have been trained up through the revamped company.
Together, these drastic changes have already yielded impressive results. For one, they have dramatically turned around customer feedback: in his first week Wilkinson received 81 complaint letters; in the week that we meet there were only 15.
Even more gratifying, despite having to battle, as a chain among independents, to be included in a Spanish food event at Billingsgate Market in east London this spring, La Tasca’s food was voted the best in terms of quality on all of the stalls by customers.
What’s more, the company’s previous four years of double-digit decline have been reversed, with the group reporting EBITDA growth after the CVA last October. La Tasca is now 20 years old (the first site opened in Manchester in 1993) and it has managed to bring many of its customers through this rapid period of evolution, while encouraging back those who had been turned off the previously failing brand. It is also attracting new diners: the new-look La Tasca at the Trafford Centre is pulling in the previously elusive 18 to 25-year-old crowd.
The business is winning back market share, Wilkinson says, not only from other newer, fresher names that sprang up all around while La Tasca was heading perilously downwards, but also from pubs that have encroached on the casual-dining space – something he feels more restaurant companies could do with addressing.
Company sales are now “north of £50m” and like-for-like profits for quarter one this year are up by more than 60 per cent. Wilkinson is very happy to have achieved these goals in two years and three months – it took TGI Friday’s three years to turn around, he says.
When he was initially approached about this job in October 2010, fresh from turning around Maison Blanc as COO of Kuwaiti-owned Kout Food Group, Wilkinson made it quite clear he would move only if the business was demerged by then-owner Bay Restaurant Group (BRG). It was, thereby separating it totally from Town & City Pub Company, some of whose sites BRG had rather unsuccessfully converted into La Tasca restaurants.
His other conditions were that something be done about the debt and that cash be made available to invest in and evolve the brand. Now he is on the brink of securing the further backing the group needs to help it reach its potential and match his ambition “to easily double” La Tasca in this country and expand farther overseas (a sixth US site is on the cards and talks are advanced for a franchise in the Middle and Far East).
Wilkinson also aims to grow the marginally more upmarket, five-strong La Vina tapas spin-off chain and the unbranded ‘Bar y Tapas’ cava bar and tapas concept, currently operating only at its Bellota restaurant in Brighton, on a more opportunistic basis.
The penetration of Spanish restaurants in this country is still relatively low compared to other nationalities, especially when you consider the growing popularity of Spanish ingredients such as chorizo. The accessibility of tapas in terms of price, Spanish food’s occasion versatility and its alignment with the key long-term eating-out trends of small plates and sharing dishes all help reinforce the sense that there is plenty of potential room for growth.
Wilkinson will not be drawn on figures for the new funding or even whether the money is likely to come from existing backers Commerzbank and Kaupthing. He does, however, confirm that an announcement regarding a financial restructure to 'enable a period of investment in the current estate and in acquisitions' should be made in the coming weeks.
Wilkinson says that La Tasca will gain critical mass quite quickly in the next two to three years, but adds the brand will take a long-term approach to future sites.“My view differs from that of a lot of
the industry, particularly regarding shopping centres,” he says. “The great new developments attract a lot of people, but it won’t last forever. The owners are getting too greedy, adding in too much
food and beverage [F&B] and simultaneously putting up rents. You can’t keep giving units to F&B instead of retail; that is a very short-term strategy.
“We don’t need as much square footage as some other operators, so we will look at smaller opportunities such as private [independent] restaurants that might be struggling, or sites in secondary locations and
up-and-coming areas that other restaurants might not go to yet.”
This forward thinking reflects Wilkinson’s approach to his own career development, although he says he doesn’t like to look too far ahead, preferring instead to progress one step at a time and seeing how things play out. He has toyed with the idea of starting up his own restaurant venture, but neither he, nor his wife, have found that option as tempting as other offers along the way.
After focusing fully for the next two to three years on growing LTR, he would like to get a non-executive position in a non-competing business under his belt. His career to this point has been driven, of course, by a real passion for the industry, stemming from his days as a teen glass washer in his parents’ pub, but also by a desire to move up a level with each job he has taken on.
Prior to joining Kout, he was a managing director at Chez Gérard owner Paramount Restaurants (he negotiated his exit from Paramount when the firm restructured, enabling him to spend 'the best eight months' with his son before he started school).
This coincided with a fallow time in business generally, post the Lehman Brothers collapse, which Wilkinson believes was a serendipitous period to take time out from the sector.
Before Paramount he spent several years at Leisure Connection, the contract management firm, where running health clubs taught him a lot about sales, while juggling the often opposing needs of private equity owners with those of local-authority clients and the paying customer. This conundrum provided experience in reading people, which he says has been put to good use in his more recent dealings with landlords.
Building and managing relationships with people has been key during his career, Wilkinson says, and in his time in the industry, he has seen a big change from the hierarchical structures that were employed at the hotels he started his career in, including Grosvenor House in Mayfair, central London.
He feels strongly that the industry needs to do more to persuade younger generations that hospitality is a good career with excellent prospects – not just a job to get by in or to do until something better comes along. The day before this interview, Wilkinson was in Blackpool, back at the hotel management school part of Lancaster University, where he studied. He was discussing a potential apprenticeship scheme and got called in to talk to a class of year-one hospitality students. What better way to demonstrate where hard work and ambition could get them?