Spanish food in the UK is going through a transitional period. At one end of the spectrum the sector is flying, led by high-quality players such as Brindisa, Barrafina, Jose Pizarro and Iberica, the latter having successfully expanded outside of the capital. But at the other end it is a different story, with the UK’s largest Spanish restaurant group, La Tasca, moving in the opposite direction.
Indeed, the day before I interview Richard Bigg, the founder of Spanish restaurant and bar group Camino, news filters through that La Tasca is set to be slashed by over 50 per cent to a little more than a dozen restaurants as its owner, The Casual Dining Group, switches its focus to other brands in its portfolio.
So how does Bigg view the decline of one of the casual dining sector’s best-known brands? And, more importantly, what does the current position the brand now finds itself in mean for smaller players such as his own?
“It’s easy to be negative and sarky about La Tasca. Simon Wilkinson (the former CEO) worked hard to turn the whole thing round. La Tasca has paved the way for Spanish food all over the country,” says Bigg. “However, we now travel a lot, we’re more interested in food and to be quite honest we expect better.”
Over the past few years the number of restaurants serving high-quality Spanish food in London has increased dramatically. In fact, the Spanish tourist board now says the UK capital is the best place to eat Spanish food outside the country itself.
Camino – which operates four standalone restaurants in Kings Cross, Bankside, Monument and Blackfriars, alongside a couple of bars, one majoring on cava (Copa de Cava) and one specialising in sherry (Bar Pepito) – has been part of this movement. All of the group’s sites are in busy central locations. Bigg worked briefly in the City as a junior commodities trader and has largely based Camino around his former
stomping ground – positioned to draw in affluent local workers.
A drinks-led operation
Bigg’s considerable experience in the bar world – he made his name in the hospitality business running some of London’s best known bars including ’90s stalwarts Cantaloupe and Cargo and in some circles he’s referred to as ‘the grand druid of hip hangouts’ – has resulted in a Spanish group that has a greater emphasis on wet sales than its competitors. Camino is as much a bar business as a restaurant business, in fact.
With a menu primarily concerned with tapas dishes, this focus on drinks makes a lot of sense. Eating tapas in Spain is as much about the drink as it is the food and a busy night at a Camino restaurant evokes the feel of a tapas bar in Seville or a pintxo joint in San Sebastian, albeit on a much bigger scale and with much larger glasses of beer.
British people like tapas, but they don’t necessarily approach it in the same manner as the Spanish, who tend to eat and drink more slowly and lightly as they flit from one bar to another. Bigg has made his establishments flexible to avoid dictating how people should use them.
Most have a bar area for casual eating (often standing up) and an adjoining restaurant that has a marginally more formal feel and table service.
Bigg is still refining his operational blueprint, but he says his restaurant near Monument tube station that serves a City crowd is likely to have a big influence on future openings with its 50:50 split between restaurant and bar.
“The bar and the restaurant feed off each other. Bars are more approachable – you just walk in and order a drink.Monument is the sweet spot. We use the bar as spill over for the dining room at lunchtimes and offer table service across the restaurant. In the evenings, the bar is full of vertical drinkers and the split between wet and dry sales is usually 80:20,” says Bigg.
An all-encompassing offer
Camino’s menu is split between the obvious Spanish dishes – tortilla, croquettes, padron peppers, patatas bravas and the like – and the less so. Executive chef Nacho Del Campo is from the Basque country, which most Spanish chefs agree to be the gastronomic heartland of Spain. As such there is a slight bias toward the cooking of the north, but the menu still manages to list a diverse selection of dishes from
across the country.
Prices reflect the choice on offer. “If you’re on a budget at Camino you can fill yourself up and have a glass of wine or beer for little more than a tenner,” says Bigg. “But those looking to indulge can opt for more costly options such as our air-dried hams and old cow beef.”
There is fideuà (a Valencian seafood dish made with noodles), Riojan chorizo served with roasted piqullo peppers and mini burgers packed with minced Iberico pork and Idiazábal, a famous Basque cheese. Air-dried ham is a speciality, too, with all restaurants serving several at a time, including the familiar Jamon Iberico from the south, but also less-known varieties including Teruel from the Valencia region. The meat is carved to order by a cortador de jamón, or ham carver.
“We default to the lesser-known dishes and we have on occasion deemed something too ubiquitous. But when we have tried to take it off the menu we encounter resistance from customers. People expect certain dishes to be available in a Spanish restaurant,” says Bigg, who has been a card-carrying Hispanophile since he toured Spain in a Mini during his early 20s (Camino means ‘journey’).
“But there are some dishes we don’t touch. I love a good paella but we’re not really set-up to offer a proper version. You really need to specialise in it to get it right as it needs to be cooked to order. It’s also not a tapa,” he adds.
The drinks menu is predominantly Spanish. Bigg is knowledgeable about Spanish wine – his love of it bubbles over like an enthusiastically shaken bottle of cava – and is able to talk about it in simple terms both in person and on his menus. Every member of the front-of-house team receives regular wine training from Bigg, Master of Wine Peter McCombie and the London Wine School’s Jimmy Smith.
The brand also has a strong sherry focus, with Bigg doing his bit to elevate the status of this criminally underrated wine on these shores. In 2010 he opened the UK’s first specialist sherry bar across the road from Camino King’s Cross with the help of Tio Pepe owner Gonzalez Byass.
“Depending on the sherry they’ve tried in the past, some people will say it’s too dry and others that it’s too sweet. Although sherries are some of the driest and sweetest wines on the planet, there’s a lot in the middle too,” says Bigg, who makes the drink more accessible at Bar Pepito by offering a trio of 75ml tasting flights.
“Bar Pepito may be tiny, but it’s had a great PR benefit for the wider group because it proves we know our product,” he says. “Sherry allows us to offer fantastic wine at a very low price-point. Just be thankful it’s not French or Italian, because it would cost a bloody fortune”.
Even more bravely, Bigg is also trying to get people back into cava. The Spanish sparkler has lost a lot of ground to prosseco in recent years, but Camino has made its sales pop by hand selling the drink and refusing to let customers see it as a poor cousin to other fizzy wines.
“It’s got an image problem. If you turn up to a party with a bottle of cava under your arm people will think you’re cheap, but I do it all the time. Cava is made in the same way as champagne, with a second fermentation in the bottle. This is undoubtedly the best way to make sparkling wine. Prosecco (which is made using the less sophisticated tank method) can be great, but the stuff sold in restaurants is often gruesome.”
Camino’s house cava is a reserva, which requires at least 15 months of ageing. Despite having been rated Silver in the International Wine Challenge the restaurants offer it a competitive price point, just £26.50 a bottle and £5.50 glass. Bigg also grudgingly, but very profitably, stocks Bollinger at his Monument restaurant for bonus-happy City workers.
In 2012 the Business Growth Fund (BGF) took a minority stake in Camino and invested £3m of capital into the business. Since then, just one restaurant has opened (Bankside), with Bigg and business partner Nigel Foster apparently wanting to tweak the concept and the BGF looking at ways to improve margins.
The group ended last year on a high, with like-for-like sales up nearly 20 per cent in December and has just employed experienced marketer Caroline Young, who ran accounts for blue chip companies including Tesco at The Big Kick agency, to improve its websites and social channels. Bigg has not identified any new real estate for Camino just yet, but the aim is to open more restaurants this year, most likely in London, but also potentially in the regions, should sites in the capital prove elusive or be prohibitively expensive.
Despite La Tasca’s current situation, Bigg believes a mid-market interpretation of Spanish cuisine still has what it takes to make it outside London because it naturally lends itself to menus that offer a range of price points. With Iberica set to open its second non-London site this year, in Leeds, and restaurants such as Friends of Ham and El Gato Negro also introducing northern consumers to high quality Spanish food,
he’s not alone.