Charlotte's Group founder Alex Wrethman on how he built his growing business

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Charlotte's Group founder Alex Wrethman on how he built his growing business

Related tags: Types of restaurants, Menu

It might only operate three London sites, but Charlotte’s Group is proving to be one of the capital’s most progressive restaurant operations thanks to its forward-thinking, young owner Alex Wrethman. 

Despite being called Charlotte’s Group there is no matriarch at the helm of the three-strong London restaurant group that operates Charlotte’s Place, Charlotte’s Bistro and, most recently, Charlotte’s W5. Instead, the honour goes to Alex Wrethman, the 35-year-old company founder and CEO. And yet Charlotte has played a key part in the story of the business, which is why her name can still be found above the door.

It was at Charlotte’s Place, overlooking Ealing Common, then named after and run by Charlotte Kearns and her husband, that Wrethman fell in love with the hospitality industry, first as an outsider peering enviously in and later in the kitchen and on the dining room floor. It may no longer be her place, but Wrethman isn’t one to forget.

As a disillusioned 15-year-old schoolboy, he used to get off the train at Ealing Common and take the long way home so that he could walk past the window of Charlotte’s Place and watch the staff tucking into their pre-service family meal. “They’d be eating a big tray of something like macaroni cheese and have a jug of squash on the go, like that given on away matches for sports, and I was mesmerised by it,” he recalls.

Sometimes, after playing football on the common until late into the summer evenings, Wrethman would also catch the staff enjoying leftovers and a bottle of wine after their shift. For him, the first notion of hospitality was one of togetherness and camaraderie rather than the feeding of strangers, and it was this sense of belonging that drove him to where he is today.

“I was 15 years old and pissed off with school,” he says. “Charlotte said she’d give me cash to wash up, so that was my first job. And I was shite at it.” So bad, in fact, that Wrethman was still washing up while all the other staff were drinking that glass of wine he’d always coveted.

“Julie, the head chef, told people not to help me as I wouldn’t learn to get any quicker at it.” 

Julie proved to be right. Over the next few years, Wrethman upped his pace, working his way from plongeur to commis, before trying his hand front of house at the restaurant, although not without making a few mistakes on the way.

“On my first day working front of house I read the set-up list and asked ‘Is the cutlery Polish?’,” he laughs. “For the rest of my time there everyone would tell me to Polish the cutlery.”

A well polished CV

Wrethman’s dyslexia might not have worked in his favour that particular morning, but he believes the hospitality industry is suited perfectly to his idiosyncrasies.

“Hospitality is really good for people like me, who are a bit dyslexic, incredibly impatient and who like talking to people. My parents were bloody furious about my career choice – I was supposed to go and study law – but I’m quite romantic about the hospitality industry. I wouldn’t want to sit at a desk all day. I like that my job is about giving people a nice time.”

That he ended up owning the restaurant in which he spent many hours of his formative years making garlic butter for snails and scooping out melons, and then subsequently a group of restaurants, is owed much to the late Tim Bacon, co-founder of Living Ventures. After leaving London and heading to Manchester to do a business management degree, Wrethman was instantly drawn back into the world of hospitality, this time bagging a job at Bacon’s thriving bar The Living Room.

Showing his impatience, having already tried his hand in the kitchen and on the restaurant floor, he applied for a job as a bartender, although initially found himself once again elbow deep in soap suds as a glass-washing bar back.

“I had the opportunity to decide whether I wanted to be a chef or not. I liked seeing and tasting the food, but I preferred the whole operation. For me, guest interaction was more important than the food. Working behind the bar gave me that interaction.”

Wrethman finished the first year of his business degree while full time at The Living Room, his enjoyment of the job, twinned with the money he was making, convincing him that a career in hospitality was what he wanted to pursue. Years later, when Bacon decided to open up in London, he returned to the capital with the company, and it was then that he once again felt the pull of Charlotte and her restaurant.

“I said to my girlfriend that she had to meet Charlotte. We went for dinner and stayed late for a few bottles of wine and that was when she told me she was trying to offload the business. She and her husband had been ill and they had been paying salaries they hadn’t accounted for. I was 23 years old, my parents had just sold their house and I had some money saved up, so I put a business plan together and convinced them to invest in it.”

A trio of operations

Wrethman took on Charlotte’s Place in 2004 and reopened it a year later after giving it a refurb. He has since created a restaurant with a strong reputation for its food and a loyal local following, prompting him to take the plunge for a second time. Charlotte’s Bistro opened in Chiswick in 2010 on a former FishWorks site, with Wrethman doing a deal with the private landlord after spotting the site on another of his walkabouts.

Charlottes

In keeping with his approach of opening a restaurant every five years or so, the biggest venue in the Charlotte’s portfolio opened earlier this year, also in Ealing. Located in the new Dickens Yard development, Charlotte’s W5 has broken new ground for the company in more ways than one, not only in the fact that it is its first new-build site, but also in the style and overall feel of the operation.

With Charlotte’s Place and Bistro, Wrethman stuck to the traditional à la carte formula with evenings the busiest time for trade. At Charlotte’s Place, the average spend per head is about £50 for dinner, £35 for lunch, while at the bistro it is about £40 for dinner and £30 for lunch. At W5, however, spend is lower still, with Wrethman ripping up the rule book for service style.

Instead of serving starters, mains and desserts, W5 has a wide-ranging menu that can be tailored to the individual. Every dish, with the odd exception, is available in either a snack (£3-£6), small (£7-£11) or large portion (£9-£16), meaning that diners can choose to have a selection of small plates or one large dish, depending on their preference, time of day and who they are eating with.

Dishes on the menu range from octopus carpaccio; guinea fowl with spaetzle; and pork belly and cheek fritter; to cauliflower and Montgomery cheddar tart; and truffle and artichoke risotto.

“The idea was to do bar snacks, kids’ food and a tasting menu all in one – we got rid of the sides,” says Wrethman. “There is no separate kids’ menu and therefore no chefs getting pissed off that they had to have frozen chicken nuggets next to their Pacojet ingredients.”

This is not a restaurant

So far, so unconventional. Especially given W5’s position as an all-day, neighbourhood restaurant – indeed, it isn’t actually a restaurant at all, Wrethman asserts, but rather a ‘third place’.

He explains: “It’s a 200-cover local hub, not just a restaurant. There is no need to eat. The first thing we put on the website is that this is not a restaurant. There is no cutlery on the table. It’s really important for us to have created a hospitality space where you can eat, but you don’t have to.

“We hand out a postcard along with the bill encouraging people to use W5 as a co-working space. We are trying to preach the message, but not sound like wankers in the process.”

Here the average spend is about £30, which Wrethman has settled on especially to enable W5 to be eligible for Michelin’s Bib Gourmand rating. “You can have seven small dishes for £28, which is the price for Bib Gourmand, or have one large risotto for £11. People go to Franco Manca around the corner and then come here and have three puddings. We have designed it around the neighbourhood.”

W5’s unconventional approach isn’t the only risky thing about the project. The 6,000sq ft site required more investment than the previous two restaurants, although at £1.3m – for the site, the fit-out, legals, recruitment and marketing – Wrethman believes it’s still a very good deal.

He also negotiated an excellent five-year rent deal, with former employer Tim Bacon having a hand in this.

“I realised the reason I was being offered the site wasn’t because the landlord thought I was great but that I had value – they wanted to buy into the story behind Charlotte’s.”

Looking for advice, he contacted Bacon, who had undertaken similar projects in Manchester. “I sent him an email saying ‘You’ll probably not remember me, but I used to work for you. Can you give me some help?’.”

Indeed, Bacon didn’t remember him (as he admitted in his response), but that didn’t stop him helping out. Wrethman recalls being sent an incredibly long and detailed email from the Living Ventures co-founder with lots of useful information and advice, which he used to his advantage.

As well as vital intel, a touch of subterfuge on Wrethman’s part also played its role in the creation of W5. He had initially told the bank his plan was to do a bigger Charlotte’s Bistro, with the company’s database of 22,000 customer email addresses clinching the deal. Only after he received the funds did the concept morph into the ‘non restaurant’ it is today.

“Once we’d opened, the credit manager came in and said, ‘This doesn’t have a lot in common with the bistro in Chiswick. In fact, it is completely different’. I asked him if he’d have given us the money if I’d told him we were going to do a place with three sizes of plates and no steak and chips on the menu and he said ‘absolutely not’. But by the end of the meal, he was convinced and was asking what we wanted to do next.”

Embracing a cashless society

It’s clear Wrethman isn’t afraid to go out on a limb and do things differently, even if not everything is a success. At Charlotte’s Place he introduced different pricing for different week parts, so a three or five-course meal Monday to Friday is £5 cheaper than the same one on the weekend.

“In my head, three years ago, it made sense. It’s demand-base pricing. If you fly easyJet at 6am or 10am the price is different, even though the destination is the same. I thought the same would work for restaurants.”

He admits now that he wouldn’t do it quite that way again. “It is awful business. If you pay the lower price for the menu, you are never going to believe the more expensive price is good value. I hate myself for that.” W5, by contrast, is Wrethman’s attempt at the same philosophy, with customers given much more freedom over how much they can spend at each visit.

Another gamble that, so far, has appeared to pay off, is the move to go entirely cashless at W5. The decision to accept payment only by card or through Apple Pay has had some detractors but, in the main, it has been welcomed by customers and staff alike.

“It was a risky decision, but with a site the size of W5 if we took cash we’d spend an hour in the morning counting out the floats, another hour after breakfast shift for the handover and the same after lunch. At the end of the night, we’d then have to reconcile everything. This way there are no discrepancies. At the end of the day, even if we’ve taken £15,000, you just walk over to master till, press end of day and
then walk out.”

Not only has the move away from cash reduced the company’s insurance premium, but it has also enabled it to keep its menu prices down by about 10 per cent and saved two-and-a-half hours of one of the highest-paid members of staff’s time every day. “When you tot that up that’s half of a full-time manager’s salary saved every week, and it’s the bit they hate doing. Managers hate cashing up for an hour-and-a-half on a Saturday night.”

Wrethman’s latest leftfield move is in regard to Charlotte’s Place, with ambitious plans to completely change where it all began for him two decades ago. The intention is to turn it into a more personalised, destination restaurant, with a new dining space on the ground and first floors, and a change to its overall approach. 

It will introduce a Clove Club-style ticketing system whereby customers pay in advance for their meal. Wrethman also wants to get rid of the wine list and instead serve a set menu with either alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink pairings.

“It’ll be like buying a ticket to the theatre – one set price. There will be no need for a wine list and there’ll be no wastage.” There also won’t be a service change, which is significant given Wrethman’s position on tipping. He is spearheading the Tipping Point campaign calling for all restaurants to answer a questionnaire on their tipping practices and to make these answers public. The restaurant will switch to seven services a week so that it can run with just one team, with dinner on Wednesday to Saturday night and Friday, Saturday and Sunday lunch.

“I want it to be a destination restaurant, a place where it feels like you are coming over to someone’s house for a dinner party. People will pay in advance so there’s no need for the awkward payment at the end and we’ll ask guests the names in their party in advance, so when they come they will have pegs for their coats with their names on. It will be a much more personalised experience.”

Moreover, Wrethman intends to crowdfund the move and is confident that his loyal following of customers will rally round his next venture. “All we need to do is sell 10,000 tickets at £100 each to raise £1m. We won’t be offering any equity, people will effectively just be paying for a meal in advance.”

It’s yet another ambitious and unconventional chapter in the story that is Charlotte’s Group. Its matriarch figure would have been proud.

Related topics: Business, Venues, People, Restaurants

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