SMALL TALK

Happiness Forgets founder Alastair Burgess on opening his first restaurant

By Emma Eversham contact

- Last updated on GMT

Happiness Forgets founder Alastair Burgess on opening his first restaurant

Related tags: Fast food, Quo vadis

Alastair Burgess, founder of bars Happiness Forgets and Original Sin, talks about his move into restaurants as he opens Petit Pois bistro in Hoxton Square. 

Your expertise has so far been in bars, so what led you to open a restaurant? 

I’ve been in the hospitality industry for 22 years, I started when I was 16 in a fish and chip shop, then when I was 18 and failed my NVQ in management studies - much to the disappointment of my mother - I got a job in a bar. I just fell in love with it and spent 20 years working in bars.

I worked in Guildford, Birmingham, then came to London in 2002 before heading out to New York. While all the places I worked in have been bars, some did food. Then, when I returned from working in New York I worked at Quo Vadis and after that was an F&B manager in a hotel, so I'm no stranger to food. We opened Happiness Forgets six years ago as a cocktail bar and it went from strength to strength, but we always said if the café upstairs ever became available we’d be fools not take it. We didn't know what we'd do with it, but just that we'd take it if it ever came up. 

By the time it did I'd had time to think about what I'd do if I came to do a restaurant, and here we are.  

So was a restaurant always in the grand plan?  

The grand plan was to open up lots of bars and be successful, we hadn’t considered opening a restaurant at the beginning, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. We managed to open Happiness Forgets on a really tight budget without having to borrow any money and although we've taken a bit of investment for Petit Pois and to carry out the odd revamp for the bars, our growth has been self-contained.

I went to Paris in 2012 and fell in love with the Parisian culture of sitting outside drinking wine and having nibbly bits then dining in a small bistro. Since then I've watched the food explosion happen in the UK and it's mostly been good fast food – burgers, pizzas, hot dogs and barbecue - or super fine-dining. I got sick of seeing the same thing, so I thought ‘I want to do a nice, simple short menu French restaurant, inspired by a French bistro' which is how we arrived at Petit Pois. 

What we have found with Petit Pois is, as a style and concept, it's something we could do elsewhere. The small, cosy and informal atmosphere would suit lots of different neighbourhoods and more central locations. At a time when the market is divided into lots of super fine-dining restaurants or junk food outlets, this fills a gap in the market which hopefully people are looking for. 

What have you learned from operating bars and how will you use that in restaurants? 

I've learned that it's important that you treat your staff well and they treat their colleagues with respect. We’ve all seen those TV shows featuring chefs and their intense working environment and I don't want that here. I'm calm and collected with the team and those who work with me need to have the same attitude.It's why we have an open kitchen. I love the theatre of it, but also it means the chefs are on show.

When I was working at Quo Vadis some of the chefs were old and grumpy and you can get that in kitchens quite a lot and there’s no need for it. We should all be behaving as we would if we were front-of-house.

In the bars I tell our staff that their colleagues are their internal customers. It’s been really important to ensure the team are working well together. Working in bars you’re always on show and have to be on your best behaviour, so that's something I am bringing into the restaurant. 

Why aren't you adding a service charge? 

It's my personal preference. I hate service charges. Since working in New York I've been against them. There's obviously no service charge there, but they have a tipping culture which is a double-edged sword. Waiting staff there know people will leave tips, even if they've made minimal effort, because it's part of the culture. In the UK the service charge has a similar effect. Customers know they could ask for it to be removed, but they hardly do because it's awkward. 

If you remove the service charge and just allow tips then staff know they have to work for them. You've got to be as helpful and attentive as you can be. I've almost proved it works, because the guys who work for me are getting closer to 15 per cent in tips, compared to the 12.5 per cent they would have got through the service charge. 

Our system is also really transparent. Staff keep their tips - they are taxed and put through the books, but they are theirs to keep. We also split them evenly between front and back of house, because I think it shouldn't matter what job you're doing, everyone has a part to play in the customers' experience.  No-one’s job works without someone else doing theirs. It’s a cheesy saying but you’re only as strong as your weakest link. That was something I implemented from the bar and will continue to do so. 

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