Founder Simon Prideaux spoke to BigHospitality about the brand's expansion plans and running a restaurant that never closes.
Your new Notting Hill restaurant is your first non-24-hour site; why did you decide to change the opening times?
In order to trade 24-hours you need to obtain a full late-night refreshment licence, and that’s always a challenge with the local authority and the residents' associations. So if we keep to that model it’s going to slow our growth, and we want to expand at a more rapid rate.
Our plan is to try and open 10 new VQ’s by the end of 2019, with a bigger mix of 24-hour sites and those with the latest trading hours we can get.
VQ underwent a major rebrand 2012, how has this impacted your expansion plans?
Though I’ve personally been involved in VQ its whole life I haven’t been working with the group the whole 21 years, so I was asked to come back in 2012 and head it up. The Chelsea site was trading well but it was a little tired and a frayed round the edges, so we redesigned it and since the relaunch four years ago we’ve seen over 40 per cent growth.
We opened our Bloomsbury restaurant at the St Giles Hotel in 2013 as we thought the hotel avenue was a way we could open more 24-hour sites. We want to accelerate our growth and to do that we need to push the café diner aspect.
Will opening in hotels be the main route for your expansion?
It’s not the main route but it is one of them. I think hotel dining is changing at a rapid pace, as more hoteliers outsource their F&B offering. In this country people tend not to think about going in to a hotel to dine unless it’s Mr Ramsay with a Michelin-star restaurant in Claridges, but that’s changing. Hotels have fantastic spaces and are putting more independent restaurants in. They have an immediate customer base right above the restaurant, so it’s a great avenue for us.
We’ve built up a fantastic relationship with the St Giles guys and there are certainly other opportunities being discussed with them. We’re also in chats with other hotel groups as well as looking at high street premises.
Do you think VQ would work outside London?
We’re keen to focus on London at the moment as we’re building a brand, but I think [VQ could open] in every major city because there isn’t that late-night offering available. The standard meal-times aren’t so much in place nowadays. People want convenience and to eat and drink whenever.
The casual dining market is growing at the rate of knots. Manchester has a thriving restaurant scene, Brighton is somewhere opportunities have arisen, and I think Birmingham is changing dramatically - there’s so much investment there. We keep our eye open for opportunities, but we’d like to do another three or four in London.
How does staffing work in a 24-hour restaurant?
In Chelsea we’ll have two chefs and a kitchen porter working overnight for 60-covers. It may be a testament to the business that our head chef has been with us for 20 years, and our sous chef has been with us for 19. So our two longest serving employees are both on the night team. For some people that kind of work fits in to their lifestyle very well.
Do you employ bouncers?
We do, it’s a condition of our license. We want to have them to protect our business and our staff. We are very strict with who we do and don’t let in. We’re not a bar or a nightclub, we’re a restaurant offering a service at a time when most restaurants aren’t. We do very well from shift workers, though we do get the clubbers at the end of the night. But we don’t want to sell ourselves just as a place for those who’ve been out partying, VQ is for everybody.
What will the Night Tube mean for your business?
The Night Tube is a long time coming and is going to be a huge boost to the night-time economy. Two of our sites are on the Central line, so we’re excited to see what sort of effect it has. It’s not just helpful for getting to and from venues, it will be great for night-time workers who would struggle to get home.
What’s the secret to your long-term success?
Being unique, and having a USP. London likes to claim it is a 24-hour city but it does tend to shut down at midnight and there are still a lot of people around.
We like to see ourselves as a lifestyle brand more than anything else. In our existing sites we have a lot of regulars, and a lot of lone diners. In Chelsea 70 per cent of our customers don’t actually look at the menu. They come in and find their favourite thing and have it every time, and I think that’s a great compliment. We hope to make VQ a third space for people, away from home and the office. I think driving forward the most important thing in this industry now is service, and that is where we hope to put ourselves ahead of similar operators.