I have a theory that in a restaurant there are so many moving parts that to run a successful one, owners, like football managers, need a lot of luck. You can study how restaurants operate, minimise the risks and learn which pitfalls to avoid, but even the best owner, the most sober, analytical operator, can come unstuck due to a poor location or unpredictable external factors (Brexit, the economy, staff shortages). Meanwhile, on the next street, an odd, ostensibly shambolic restaurant can flourish.
Sometimes there is no logic to hospitality and, as this year of calamitous casual dining closures has shown, there is no such thing in restaurants as a sure bet. Every operator is only a few bad moves from disaster. This is not a science. It is a skill. One of riding a wild stallion, rather than something you coolly control.
BBC2’s Million Pound Menu has recently sought to present a very different narrative. But for some (hastily overdubbed?) references to tough trading on the high street, each episode of this Apprentice-with-avo-toast opened with a Fred Sirieix set-up that, laughably, described the restaurant scene as a jackpot money-spinner.
The show’s budding restaurateurs, we were told, could make a “fortune” turning their concepts into “national brands” guided by “the UK’s most respected investors”. The implication? That opening a restaurant is a methodical process, where any entrepreneur with a clever idea can insert tab A into slot B and cash in. In reality, to paraphrase Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, no business plan survives first contact with the enemy. That is, real life, customers, actual trading.
There was some wisdom to be gleaned from the show and the low number of investments in the competing concepts tells its own story. But that central get-rich premise is absurd and, at an abstract level, damaging in the way it sucks much of the inspirational joy and personality out of hospitality. At its most exciting, the restaurant game is less a hard-nosed business than a way in which creative people can express themselves through the medium of food, drink, interior décor, music, service. Making a profit is essential for such small businesses but that profit, most accept, will be modest.
Million Pound Menu drives a corporate steamroller over that romantic notion. Narrowly and speciously, it defines success as rolling out a national brand. To do this, the show’s investors explained (if not in so many words), you have to take a concept, smooth out its kinks, idiosyncrasies and rough edges and reshape it as a relatively bland, mass-market idea, tightly focused on the bottom-line. How boring!
The sums bandied around to fund these start-ups were also bewildering. The first 10 competing concepts were seeking an average of £311,000 each (only one wanted less than £100,000, four wanted £500,000 or more), sums which the investors talked of as chicken feed. What message does that send to future restaurateurs? A dangerous one: that you must take on huge debt (and pressure), to ‘make it’ when, particularly if we are talking about stand-alone restaurants, the best way to proceed is often bit-by-bit, buying second-hand and watching every penny, while offering a great hospitality experience.
Such DIY venues are, often, our most influential and durable – restaurants that achieve success almost by accident, on their own uncompromising terms, rather than by design.
The last reason to get into restaurants is to make a million and those chasing that near-impossible dream – with cautious, crowd-pleasing concepts – add little to the gaiety of restaurant life. British food needs more inspired mavericks and fewer aspiring millionaires.
Million Pound Menu will return for a second series next year.
This column first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here. Follow Tony on Twitter @naylor_tony