How the Galvin brothers are taking their restaurant empire international

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

How the Galvin brothers are taking their restaurant empire international

Related tags: Restaurant

Big fat splodges of summer rain bounce off the tarpaulin that protects Galvin HOP’s outdoor area as its owners outline their plans to open in sunnier climes. 

Despite their love of and considerable proficiency in charcuterie – HOP’s gala pies and gourmet hotdogs are a case in point – the Galvin brothers won’t be pioneering the pig in the Emirates.

“We looked into it last time we were in Dubai. We’d need to have a completely separate kitchen and there’s a lot of bureaucracy that comes with it,” says Chris, who, at 57, is 12 years Jeff ’s senior. The Jumeirah Beach Hotel has a pork kitchen but it’s been closed for years because it’s too much hassle.”

It may be chucking it down in Spitalfields but our early morning meeting is representative of the calm before the storm. The Galvin brothers are in the busiest period in their company’s 10-year history.

The pair has just taken over the kitchens of The Athenaeum – Jeff has already done breakfast service at the Mayfair hotel and looks remarkably fresh for it – and, over the next few months, will launch two restaurants in Dubai, open a pub in Essex and take responsibility for the hospitality at a swanky golf club near St Albans.

This latest tranche of expansion was supposed to be more spaced out, but fate (and the building and planning industry) conspired against this affable Essex-born pair.

“Nobody in their right mind would have planned it like this unless they wanted a quick trip to the bloody grave,” laughs Jeff. “We had a nice three-year break after doing the two restaurants in Edinburgh and Demoiselle at Harrods in 2012. Everything has slipped. Dubai was supposed to be last September and the Essex pub has had planning hold-ups. It looks like most of it will open in September.”

“Oddly, it feels less stressful than the openings we did in the early days of the business,” adds Chris. “We have the infrastructure in place to cope and we’ve worked with some of our team members for over 20 years now so they know how we work and we’re confident they’ll deliver.”

The pair opened their first Galvin-branded business back in 2005 and currently operate six highly regarded restaurants in London and two in Edinburgh (see Essex’s finest, right).

The pair’s Dubai restaurants will be run by Galvin alumni Luigi Vespero and Corrado Fairnola. A project in the UAE has been in the offing for some time. “We’ve had a few offers but we didn’t want to put our name to something that wasn’t busy. We came very close to opening a restaurant a few years back. It was an incredible space but it was too much of a faff to get to. There were corridors, lifts, escalators. We couldn’t see people making it up there in their Louboutins,” says Jeff.

It’s no secret that the Dubai restaurant scene has a dangerous capacity excess with as many as 180 restaurant openings last year. A number of the Galvins’ peers have come unstuck in the Emirates including Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White. Yet the brothers are confident that their restaurants in the newly opened City Walk development will be a success.

“There are too many seats in Dubai and a lot of restaurants that are quiet. We’ve been out there pretty much every year on business trips to see what’s going on so we feel like we know the market and the challenges that come with operating there,” says Jeff, who recently tested out the Dubai market with a 18-night pop-up based on La Chapelle.

“Unusually the two restaurants we’re opening aren’t connected to a hotel and are prominently positioned, which will really help,” says Chris.

"Luigi and Corrado have spent the past few years working out there so they know how staffing and supply works, which is invaluable.”

Set to open in September, the first Dubai site is a reworking of Demoiselle – the female-friendly restaurant located in Harrods’ famous ground-floor food hall. Opening in October, Galvin Dubai is a more high-end
Mediterranean-inspired restaurant.

Changing marketplace

Back in the UK, the classically trained duo are having to adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace, and they’re making a better fist of it than most. They launched their inaugural Galvin HOP pub earlier this year in the space that once housed Café à Vin, the casual restaurant that adjoined the Michelin-starred La Chapelle in Spitalfields. While the Galvins certainly don’t view this more informal offshoot as a failure, they do concede that business suffered as the area became a hot spot for casual eating.

Galvin HOP opened last year

“When we launched in 2009, there weren’t many restaurants here. There is a huge amount of competition now,” says Chris, gesturing to the brightly branded establishments that encircle HOP and La Chapelle. Not to be outdone by these more casual players, the brothers have installed a serving hatch at the front of the space that knocks out a grab-and-go menu centred on bacon sandwiches and the Galvins’ rather good gourmet hotdogs made with sausages that contain all the meats associated with choucroute.

The pub is intended as a test site for the HOP brand, which the brothers hope to grow to as many as 20 sites in the home counties over the next five years. An ambitious figure, especially given the well-documented pressures on the pub trade.

But as a first foray into the pub world, HOP is impressive, particular as the pair openly admit they had precisely “sod all” knowledge of how pubs operate prior to opening. The modern, glass-fronted space may be a far cry from a spit-and-sawdust boozer in the looks department, but from an operational perspective, the Galvins have nailed it, turning the wet:dry split on its head from 60:40 in favour of food to 60:40 in favour of booze and dramatically lowering staff costs both front and back of house. Both turnover and operating profits are well up on Café à Vin.

“It’s been a big adjustment for our staff who are obviously from a restaurant background,” says Jeff. “There are a lot of things we now don’t need to do because pub service is more free form. We are trying to over-deliver on some aspects though, for example, keeping tabs on what is being ordered at the bar so we can offer tables another round of drinks without them having to get up.”

The Galvins clearly love the romance of the great British pub – both talk fondly about being treated to packets of crisps and bottles of coke in the backrooms of roadside hostelries on family holidays – but there’s a more practical reason behind their entry into the pub trade.

“We did seven restaurants in seven years,” says Chris. “We took a step back and regrouped, and by the time we got back into the acquisition game the market had changed completely. Intense competition for sites made restaurant property prohibitively expensive.”

“We looked at leaseholds in good locations but they’re too much of a risk in this market,”interjects Jeff. “We could see ourselves investing heavily, creating a great business and then see the rent shoot up after the five-year review to the point where it would barely be worth our while. Freehold pubs outside London represent comparatively good value.”

On the menu at Galvin HOP: A Royale dog Deluxe with fries.

The next HOP pub is expected to open in September just down the road from Chris’ house in the countryside that surrounds Chelmsford. Purchased last summer, The Green Man has been a difficult birth. Much like fellow high-profile chef Daniel Clifford – who runs a pub in nearby Little Dunmow – the brothers drastically underestimated the amount of capital needed to get the site up and running.

“We had to decide whether we wanted it in a hurry because I only noticed the ‘for sale’ sign a day before the bidding ended,” Chris rather sheepishly explains. “We were looking at £450,000 to £600,000 for a refurb and a modest extension but the costs rocketed because the building is listed. This meant we had to get in costly planning consultants, and we also needed to bring proper power to the site and create a new heating and cooling system.”

Spiralling costs made the original business plan unworkable so the Galvins had to build a 90-cover dining room and double the size of the car park to stand a fighting chance of generating a return on their investment. The brothers are now looking at a bill of £3m – around six times more than the capital expenditure originally planned. Ouch.

The brothers are remarkably philosophical about this uncharacteristically rash decision. “We’ve learnt a lot of lessons throughout our careers and the most important one has been that it always pays to invest and do things properly,” says Chris. “I remember working for someone that didn’t install air conditioning and, in the summer months, it was a catastrophe. It pays to invest properly in a business.”

The pair are also working incredibly hard to get the locals on side by way of a sustained charm offensive. Jeff recently hosted an open day that attracted 200 people on a rainy weekday morning. “There was a lot of concern that we’d turn it into a restaurant, but that’s not what we’re planning,” he says. “The Green Man is a local amenity first and foremost. We’ll look after the local clubs, the cyclists and the ramblers. If we can get these people on side, they’ll be our best customers."

Managing expectations

A concerted effort has been made to diversify the Galvins’ estate with a mix of freeholds, long leases and management contracts. The latter is a low-return model but it affords them access to exclusive venues and is low risk. The management contract at The Centurion golf club will see the brothers take responsibility for all aspects of the top-end golf club’s hospitality offering, including an 80-cover restaurant, members’ bar and a halfway house on the green itself. 

Jeff is a keen golfer (he won’t be drawn on his current handicap) but explains that the main motive behind the deal is the owners’ ambition for the club – there are plans afoot to build a spa complex – and the customer crossover. “It turns out a lot of the club’s members are already customers of ours, which is a bonus. The main restaurant will be open to the public, which is essential because the club can never have more than 450 members at any one time,” says Jeff.

Galvin Bistro Deluxe

Leonardo Clementi has been named as general manager, and brings experience in previous managerial roles at the nearby golf club and restaurant Brocket Hall and the Auberge du Lac. 

The main restaurant will serve food that’s broadly comparable in price and style to that of Galvin Bistrot de Luxe. The Athenaeum is another management contract but unlike Galvin at Windows – which is moments away – the pair will be responsible for the F&B offer across the whole of the hotel including breakfast, room service and events.

Galvin alumni William Lloyd Baker and Benjamin Heuls are executive chef and restaurant manager respectively. The cooking will be more British in character to reflect the positioning of the Mayfair hotel with a wide ranging and decidedly upscale brasserie-style menu.

The Galvins’ shtick has always been two Essex boys cooking French food but, in recent years, their cooking has become more patriotic. “Increasingly we’re cooking British food,” says Chris. “We came up at a time when everything was French. All the great hotel kitchens were run by Frenchmen. All the cookbooks were in French. The best ingredients were from France... ”

“But British ingredients have really come on, especially over the period we’ve been running our own restaurants,” adds Jeff. “We’ve gone from 10 per cent to 50 per cent since we opened the Bistrot. Britain has always had good suppliers but they could never do volume, and now they can. We serve 30,000 people a month at our London restaurants so we get through a flock of chickens pretty quickly.”

As well as competing for chickens, the pair are also in competition with their peers for good staff. The fact that the Galvin brothers are having recruitment headaches should be cause for concern for the rest of the sector. Even the most scurrilous tabloid hack would struggle to find anyone with a bad word to say about them – last month they received a peer-voted Special Award at the Craft Guild of Chefs awards – and they’ve also worked tirelessly to combat the skills shortage head-on. The brothers run an apprenticeship programme and work closely with catering colleges to give students a real taste of the industry through lecturers and hands-on experience at the restaurants.

Both brothers are outspoken about training and education, and bemoan the loss of the City & Guilds qualification, once an industry benchmark. “The 7061, 7062 and 7063 were the same exams wherever you were in the country. As a chef, you knew what you were getting. It meant people had a grounding in everything and you could speak in shorthand with them,” says Chris.

The NVQ teaches core skills but it also introduced choice. Employers now have little idea what skills people have learnt at college. This flexibility also makes the quality of the qualification dependent on the quality of the lecturers at each college. I think the way forward is for the better colleges to offer their own certificates alongside the NVQ. All we need is something that’s got some currency.”

The company also runs Galvin’s Chance, an in-to-work programme for troubled youngsters. Chris and Jeff had a rocky start in life – their dad walked out when Jeff was a little boy – and both found solace in the restaurant industry at a young age.

Devised in partnership with Galvin at Windows’ GM Fred Sirieix, the scheme sees 20 or so young people a year trained in front-of-house skills at Galvin restaurants and other partner restaurants. Modest to a fault, Chris says he never really wanted to call it Galvin’s Chance but it has turned into something that the group should be extremely proud of with 130 or so youngsters completing the programme in the
eight years it has been running.

“I always get a lump in my throat when they get through it,” says Chris. “It’s tough and we do lose a few along the way. Many of them come from a terrible place and, a year later, they’re standing up in front of a microphone giving an eloquent speech about where they’ve come from and how they’re now making their way in life. Galvin’s Chance has given the industry 130 bodies that are much needed, and they’re
bloody good too.”

With more than 700 staff, a Dubai outpost, yet another grand London hotel, a fledgling pub group in their portfolio and a shelf at their head office that is apparently groaning under the weight of partnership proposals, the Galvins look likely to become the UK’s most successful family restaurant businesses over the next few years. Bonne chance.

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