Let’s cut to the chase immediately and dispel one industry myth, Richard Caring, the serial sector investor, former backer of Côte and current investor in Bill’s, does not sit in his spacious Mayfair office stroking a cat, working on world domination of the restaurant sector. If so, he would probably have picked a quieter period in his restaurant-owning life to launch The Ivy Collection, a concept that is not only more personal to him than any other, but one that has been a decade in the making.
As with most things, timing has been key. Caring had already made his mark in Covent Garden, backing the launch of Keith McNally’s UK outpost of Balthazar, when a further site a few doors down became available some months later.
At the time, according to The Ivy Collection’s executive operations director Yishay Malkov, Caring had a “number of plates spinning”, with Bill’s expanding at pace, his investment in Côte having just completed and restaurant concepts Grillshack and Jackson & Rye under development.
Too close to some of his other Caprice Holdings restaurants, but not wanting to pass up on the property, Caring realised that he had found a site for his long-mooted Ivy Café project, a more casual and approachable format of his iconic theatreland restaurant, The Ivy. As Malkov admits, it was all about “property and timing”.
"It is a heritage brand without
doubt and there was fear what
we would do with it"
“Richard had been thinking about this project for a decade, but timing wise it was always finding the right place, which happened to be in Covent Garden. That’s when The Ivy Collection started.”
Thus Ivy Market Grill opened in Covent Garden at the end of 2014, and Caring was already backing it as a winner. He had signed on a second site in Chelsea before the first had even opened – launching it four-and-a-half months after Covent Garden – and had no intention of stopping there. Since then the brand has, like its namesake, grown rapidly under a number of different guises across London and beyond.
“In hindsight it really gave us the ability to go ‘here’s another site, and another’, says Malkov. “Market Grill delivered and still does. It is the most distilled vision of what we envisioned the concept to be when we started out.”
It was the reception the brand got from the Chelsea set, however, that was the real impetus behind the rapid expansion of The Ivy name, taking off from day one, according to Malkov. “Chelsea was the reason we ramped up quickly from second to sixth gear, but Market Grill is the foundation for why we are here today.”
This foundation has been built and developed by Malkov, former restaurant director at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s and general manager at Roka Restaurants along with former Gordon Ramsay Holdings group executive chef Mark Askew, who has worked with Caring at Grillshack and Jackson & Rye; and finance director Sean Byrne. Long-time Caring lieutenants Andy Bassadone and Chris Benians were also drafted in to oversee the concept’s birth.
“Unlike the other projects, this is Richard’s. Andy and Chris were there at start with the technicalities and there to kickstart it but, more than any other project, I deal with Richard direct,” says Malkov.
“The Ivy name is associated with him more than anything else and is very dear to his heart. The level he works at here is at a chairman level, he’s not on the ground level hiring and firing, but it is his vision. It wouldn’t happen if he wasn’t saying ‘I need this done and that done at a certain time’. This wouldn’t have happened otherwise, because there was so much going on.”
Caring’s initial idea was based around The Ivy Café format, but as Malkov points out his vision of a café, and indeed people’s perception of one, differs wildly from that of others, particularly those outside of west London.
“Initially, when we were setting this up, Richard’s idea was based around launching The Ivy Café, but Covent Garden and Chelsea were too big for that vision,” says Malkov.
So, when a site in Marylebone came up, the company decided to do a distilled version of what it believed a café should be, namely a trimmed down version of its brasserie-style Market Grill format. However, in reality, it created the same concept, albeit with a different name.
“It is exactly the same thing,” says Malkov. “The expectations of the guests are the same and the offering is the same. The names are more a reflection of where they are, rather than what they are.”
"Richard [Caring] is keen to test
the limits of the brand and how
flexible this concept is"
So, each format sticks to a now tried-and-tested format that is characterised by The Ivy’s plush and stylish décor and a number of menus targeted at different day parts. The menus at The Ivy Market Grill were created by the group’s executive chef, Sean Burbidge, and are designed to offer ‘an eclectic mix of modern British comfort food and international dishes’ and this approach has continued throughout.
There’s an extensive breakfast offer with sections for ‘pastries’, ‘eggs’ and ‘light and healthy’, featuring the likes of omelettes, avocado on toast and a full English, and a vast à la carte offering of classic brasserie dishes that feature a number of mainstays from the original The Ivy, most notably its shepherd’s pie. There’s also a weekend brunch menu and a brunch waffle menu served between 11.30am and 4pm at weekends as well as afternoon tea.
Expansion has been swift. The company currently runs 13 restaurants, with up to double that number of sites either secured or in the pipeline for the coming 12 months. Pick an upcoming development in the UK and it’s likely that The Ivy Collection will be a confirmed name on the roster of incoming restaurants.
Malkov says the company currently has in place the infrastructure to double its estate over the next 18-24 months, and is already looking to put in place the people to make the leap to 40 restaurants across the UK and Ireland if the right opportunities arise, with each new site vetted by Caring himself. All the group’s openings are performing above expectations, he says, and all are “in the black”.
Malkov believes The Ivy Collection’s strength is that it has the ability to fulfil a lot of needs throughout the day for a lot of different people, but “still feel special”. “We are still learning what this business can do. We are at 13 now and will have a few more by the end of the year. There are a lot of things happening.
“Richard is keen to test the limits of the brand and how flexible this concept is, and that is the same with other brands he has. What we have found with The Ivy so far is that it is a lot more flexible and translates well to different cities and populations.”
With such promising rollout potential, how big could The Ivy brand become?
“There is a good tension between the entrepreneur and operator. The latter wants slow and steady growth, the former wants it to be quick and wants it now: Richard sees an opportunity and wants to go for it. If Richard had not been with us from the start, we would be at four sites, doing well, but only at that size, so there needs to be that tension to move forward.”
Is it a 400-site concept? “No I can’t see that. There is a radius around each site where cannibalisation will start and dilution of the brand comes into play. We have to keep polishing the halo, keeping the brand as shiny and new as it is now.”
Pressing the gas pedal
Malkov admits he would like to shift down a gear in terms of the speed the company is growing, but knows “Richard will be there, telling me to keep moving”.
“There are opportunities out there. It is similar to what happened with Côte in 2010 and its expansion as others pulled back. This is a time when we can’t stop, because if we wait it may be too late.
“This is our chance to get everything right, not just when it comes to property, but how we retain and train people, our product, everything.”
Malkov only has to think back to the furore over the opening of the first restaurant for a reminder of what he has in hand. “At the start it was all about how we were going to mess with The Ivy name and damage it,” he recalls.
“Richard said it would be fine and we opened the first and people said ‘OK you can do one but not anymore’, and then they changed their minds again when we opened Chelsea and so on. Part of it was the media and part was people waiting for Richard to fail.
“It is a heritage brand without doubt and there was fear over what we were going to do with it, but I look back now and it is a stronger brand now than it was then. I am extremely proud that we have safeguarded it.
“The original The Ivy restaurant is as strong as ever. We rode on its coat tails for a while, but I think we are now giving something back to the mothership.”