Where did the idea of opening your own place together come from?
Nieves Barragán-Mohacho: At Barrafina José and I had become very close, and during the last two years there we started to question where we were going, what we were going to do next. We asked ourselves if in five years we were going to still be in Barrafina doing more openings, or trying something else?
José Etura: At some point we personally started losing touch with the customers. The bigger you get, the more operational you become, and why we like this industry is to be in front of the customers. I like to work as a waiter, and Nieves in the kitchen. And we’d reached the top at Barrafina, there was nowhere else we could go. We both like a challenge and we decided the next one would be our own restaurant.
NBH: For me as a chef, I always had a dream to open my own restaurant. Barrafina was fantastic, I had worked at the group for 16 years in total, José for 11 or 12, and when you love something very much it’s difficult to say goodbye, but you need to move on and look for new things to do. We wanted to do something that we felt was missing in London.
How does Sabor do that?
NBH: We call Sabor a full journey to Spain – it serves food from the south of Spain in the bar and from the north and centre in El Asador (the upstairs restaurant of Sabor), which is a very traditional type of restaurant in Spain that we felt was something that hadn’t yet been done in London. Here we serve whole suckling pig, lamb ribs and Galician ribs of beef to share, which is different from London’s other Spanish restaurants.
You put your stamp on Barrafina. How conscious were you to not make Sabor seem like a copy of what you’d done there?
NBH: We had to rethink everything three times more than normal. We didn’t want people to think ‘they’ve worked in Barrafina and are doing something similar’. It was my food at Barrafina, so with Sabor I had to still keep it my food but make it different.
JE: That was in our mind in every single decision we made. It could not be a copycat of Barrafina, people needed something different. If you do a copy people will say ‘why go to the new one when I can go to the original?’
NBH: That’s why we decided to have a bar area as well as a counter. Like Barrafina, Sabor does not have a closed kitchen – that’s us, we can’t change that – so we worked on how we could make it different. We elevated the floor so people sit on chairs instead of stools. And El Asador is bringing something new as well. It was obvious we were not just doing something like Barrafina.
Has the restaurant panned out how you wanted it?
JE: It’s pretty much how we wanted it. This was the first and only site we saw. We walked in and fell in love with the place. There were many issues with the site itself, though. There is a floor hatch in the centre of the restaurant, which made everything a little more complicated – we thought we could move it, but we couldn’t. It was the same with the columns all over the restaurant. At the beginning the architect said we could move them, but then later told us if we wanted to we would have to move everything around. The windows were also a nightmare. There were a lot of challenges inside the building.
NBH: We wanted to do El Asador, so having two levels was perfect. The staircase is beautiful. One thing we wanted from the very beginning was for people to come in and feel like they are in a restaurant in Spain, and many people have told us that’s how they feel. That’s what we love about the restaurant.
It’s backed by JKS. How did that come about?
JE: We were speaking with a friend of ours and told them that we needed a new challenge and they arranged a meeting with JKS. There were many customers coming to Barrafina who told us that whenever we wanted to open our own place to let them know, but if we were going to do something it had to be with the right people. When we met JKS we saw straight away that they were right because they know what they are doing, they are not playing around but they also know their part. In every relationship things can go very well or very badly, fortunately things have gone well with them.
NBH: They made it very clear they didn’t know anything about Spanish food, so they trusted us with that. We had a perfect understanding; we need them, and every time they told us something it was valuable. But they let us be who we wanted to be, which was very important for José and I. We wanted control of how to create Sabor.
What was it like in the early days of opening?
NBH: When we opened people instantly got the counter offer, but it took a while for them to understand El Asador and the sharing element of the upstairs restaurant.
JE: There were high expectations and a lot of pressure. We were lucky that Sabor was awarded a Michelin star quite soon after opening – that told us that we were doing something right.
What impact did winning a star have?
JE: You get this kind of customer who goes to Michelin-starred restaurants and thinks you have to have white tablecloths and waiters with a bow tie and so forth. When they came here they would say they were expecting fireworks with the food and some people were disappointed. But it only lasted one month and that was it.
NBH: When we first won the star people were judging us before they came to eat, which was tough. But it has now changed.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
JE: For me it’s been staff. Whatever the reason, maybe more demand for staff because of a lot of restaurants opening, or maybe because people know they can have another job 10 minutes later when they quit because there are so many positions out there, but staffing has been quite challenging. Also, we are operating three different restaurants here – the bar, the counter and El Asador – and that means three different systems and three different menus and that makes things hard. And then when you’re the owner, you need to become a plumber and electrician as well as an operations director. It’s like having a baby; for the first few steps you need to be watching all the time, making sure he doesn’t trip over and crack his head. We are waiting for him to go to university.
NBH: In early days there were booking challenges. We were taking reservations upstairs but not downstairs and people were coming in and saying they had a booking but wanting to eat downstairs at the counter. It took a while for people to understand the way the restaurant works.
JE: Price rises are also tough. We get a lot of our products from Spain and the value of the Pound against the Euro has dropped. When we opened one Pound was 1.37 Euros, now it’s 1.10 and it’s going to go down more, so you can imagine how much that has affected prices. We cannot pass costs on to customers, so our GP goes down.
NBH: We have had to rethink our menus.
What changes have you made since launch?
JE: We are about to change our cocktail list. We’ve realised that people like cocktails, but we currently only do three, so we are increasing that side of our drinks offer.
NBH: In the beginning we didn’t serve the food from the counter in the bar, just the bar menu. But the counter only has 19 seats and there can be an hour wait, but people only have an hour for lunch, so we now give them the option to eat the food in the bar area instead. It’s something we now do because we feel comfortable about it – in the beginning we didn’t want to disappoint people.
And to the menu?
NBH: We change it all the time and add lots of specials, but there are dishes we can’t take off the menu. The pan con tomate can never change, nor can the lardo and anchovies or the suckling pig and octopus at El Asador. The chipirones with hake and alioli is also a classic, pretty much every table has one. Customers have said there was not enough seafood upstairs so we’ve listened to them. We are always listening to feedback, having an opened kitchen allows you to do that easily.
What have been the biggest surprises?
NBH: The way El Asador has worked is a surprise. We thought the counter would be the most exciting thing about the restaurant but at El Asador it can be crazy. We opened it one month after the counter restaurant with a different menu and it took us a while to develop it, but people now love it.
JE: We thought people would spend less money [at El Asador], and that it would be the cheaper brother of the counter, with faster food and people spending less time there. But it’s completely the opposite.
And the biggest learnings?
JE: If we did this again, to have much more control of the building work and to be more on top of the builders. There are things you only learn once things are built. And to be more conscious about timings. When someone says it will be four weeks it will probably be eight. Sabor was three months late.
NBH: We were told the asador oven would weigh one tonne, but it ended up weighing one and a half, meaning we had to make the floor stronger. But what we’ve learned here in this building will be different with another.
What are your ambitions for Sabor?
JE: For it to become an institution and when people talk about Spanish food they remember always Sabor, that is what we are looking for. There will not be any more Sabors though, never, ever, this is the flagship. But we could do something different, maybe more like El Asador.
What has been the most enjoyable aspects of running your own restaurant so far?
JE: When people leave happy, and you can feel it. It’s why I’m still in this industry.
NBH: In the very hard moments when you’re really tired and you wonder whether it’s worth it and then you see people and they give you a hug and thank the staff, that’s priceless. It’s what keeps you going.
JE: It’s been fun but hard. When you open your own place, it doesn’t require 100% of you, but 120%. We will have to wait until this kid goes to university – then we will have a break and be able to sleep at night again.
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the September issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.