Richard Caring maintains he had never even heard of a CVA a year ago. “I thought it was some sort of qualification or something,” he says, from his office in Fitzrovia.
The restaurateur and chairman of Caprice Holdings, which owns and runs The Ivy collection of restaurants and high-end London dining rooms including Scott’s, Sexy Fish, J Sheekey and Le Caprice, is setting the scene for what he suggests could have been an easy option for Bill’s, the restaurant group he also oversees.
For much of the two years between September 2016 and 2018, Bill’s was trading negative like-for-like sales, and generally below the market. In early 2018, faced with ongoing tough trading, the company’s directors opted to double down on the concept and invest in the estate. “Yes, we could have sat back with everybody else and said, ‘OK, CVA’. But this is something we wanted to avoid at all costs. We’re fighters. We’ll make it work by investing into the business.”
Caring’s investment in Bill’s has been substantial. So far, around 20 restaurants have been refurbished as part of the company’s 2020 Vision programme, at a cost of around £12m, with a further four or five to be completed by the end of this year. The rework gives Bill’s a more premium, evening-friendly tone and sees the brand repositioned as a bar and kitchen, a move away from the more all-day grocer positioning on which the brand was founded.
A further £10m has been earmarked for the rest of the estate, with the remainder to be completed throughout 2020.
Since the programme was rolled out in September of last year, the impact has been almost instantaneous, across the wider Bill’s estate as well as the new-look restaurants. In positive like-for-like growth since the changes, the company is performing ahead of the Coffer Peach Business Tracker, while the refurbished sites are 11-13% ahead of the existing estate. With the most recent nine months of trading positive, a £10m-plus EBITDA business is forecast by the year end.
A key part of this is the revision of Bill’s as a more dinnertime proposition, something that was previously a weaker point in its armoury (the all-day restaurants have a strong breakfast focus and an interior design that gives them a more morning and lunchtime feel).
“We’ve got better at it over time,” says David Campbell, CEO of The Ivy Collection and executive chairman of Bill’s Restaurants. “Within a couple of weeks they’re all up and punching the numbers out.”
While many operators do refurbishment programmes, Campbell says few are on the estate-wide scale of Bill’s. “If you have an 80-strong estate, it’s quite difficult to make an impact with two or three. It needs scale.
“You have to make a decision reasonably early on those that are working or not working. We’ve made a few tweaks and they do work.”
Bill’s Restaurants has recently released its financial results, which cover 72 weeks to 30 December 2018 (an extended accounting period to bring it line with the calendar year reporting of other Richard Caring restaurant businesses).
Caring and Campbell are naturally keen to emphasise the investment as a positive story for the sector, but are well aware some figures could be interpreted as trouble for the chain. The company reported a £9.11m loss for the period, with adjusted EBITDA a “disappointing” £9.88m, down 31.6% from £13.6m in the previous accounting period. The losses relate to £10.3m in exceptional items, including £4.1m in impairment and property lease premiums, £2.5m in refurbishment costs and a write-off for an abandoned Bill’s-to-go concept.
Caring says he was unaware of the latter project, and scrapped it as soon as he found out about it (“It was a great surprise to all of us… one and a half million pounds of nonsense”).
With the accounts covering up to December 2018, they contrast sharply with the more positive momentum of recent months. “It’s not all doom and gloom, because this is where it was, this is where it is, and this is where it’s going,” Caring says. “It’s a good story in today’s market. It shows it can be done – it takes a lot of investment and talent. David is an old pro, or at least a middle-aged pro.”
Returning the compliment, Campbell recognises that under Caring’s stewardship, the senior management team can take a bold view in terms in investment. “It’s not just a slap of paint or a new sign in the front of the building,” he says.
Reluctant to go into too many details, Campbell is aware that other operators may take a page out of their playbook. Yet he says the interiors and branding work is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the programme, including the improvement of the evening proposition at Bill’s.
“It’s a lot more than just dimming the lights,” he says. “I know there’s a lot of people out there trying to figure out how we do it. Restaurants are all about detail.
“It’s a wall made up of many bricks, and you’ve got to be able to address each and every single brick in terms of what you’re doing within it. You have to look at the wall and say, which one of those things are appropriate for dinner?”
Bill front and centre
As well as hiring ex-Wagamama CEO Campbell, another key to the rejuvenation of the Bill’s brand has been reengaging the company founder and namesake Bill Collison. Collison famously opened the first branch of Bill’s as a small greengrocer-cum-café in the East Sussex town of Lewes back in 2001, and while he has remained active within the group in the intervening years, more recently he has been pushed to the fore again.
“He’s the heart of the restaurant,” Caring says. “He likes to do each one in a particular, peculiar sort of way to that area. He’s got a good eye, a good feel. He’s a good guy who works very hard. He runs around the country like a raving lunatic. He lives Bill’s.”
With Bill’s on the way to being “dressed up”, as Caring has described the approach in the past, can he foresee a time when he would sell it? “There’s always the opportunity,” is his calculated response. “But it’s quite close to our hearts. I think we’d like to keep it going, hopefully extremely successfully. Let’s take another year, see where we are, and then take a view.”
Last month it was, however, reported Caring had sold a 25% share of his hospitality empire Caprice Holdings to the former prime minister of Qatar, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, for £200m, a deal that could help fund further expansion of the group.
In terms of immediate growth, Caring is being bullish with his group, launching five Ivys in November alone and three Bill’s, starting in Manchester, an investment of £25-£30m. Last month the company opened the doors of The Ivy in Victoria, taking over the site that was previously a Jamie’s Italian, as well as the second of his Ivy Group’s Asia restaurants (the first was in Manchester) at St Paul’s.
With the Ivy Asia, the company is being even more flamboyant than usual (Sexy Fish aside), with the vast new London restaurant featuring a fluorescent pink onyx floor, panelled artwork depicting notable Japanese landscapes, and a pink pagoda, while the entire floor of the upstairs dining room is decorated with green, semi-precious stones.
Billed as ‘serving theatrical drinks and cocktails late into the night’, The Ivy Asia has more of an emphasis on fun than the more refined The Ivy restaurants, and likely to become a hit with the capital’s fun-loving restaurant goers. It will have a ‘calendar of vibrant entertainment and music, revelry and DJs’ and is open until 2am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with guests ‘encouraged to stay and play late into the night’.
Correcting past mistakes
Caring admits that mistakes were made at Bill’s, work that is only now being rectified. Previous management “took their eye off the ball”, something which he says you cannot do in a successful business. Prior to the current programme now being rolled out, an unofficial refurbishment was started without his knowledge, mimicking the look of The Ivy Collection’s brasseries and cafes.
“You can’t do an Ivy unless you’re spending a fortune, so it was a sort of cheap copy,” he says. “All of those were reversed and redone.”
While the new format still involves “a fortune of money” – it is a different direction, and set apart from The Ivy. “The Ivy and Bill’s are two different things,” he insists. “The image is different, the menus are different, the pricing is different. We’re trying to cater for two areas of the marketplace.”
Caring has previously spoken about his frustration with the political situation, but has now decided that despite the uncertain investment climate, his group of restaurant companies should press on with their plans.
“I’ve got to believe that politics can’t get any worse, or more confused, or more negative as far as this country’s concerned,” he says. “People are listening to all this nonsense, but it doesn’t mean they’re not going to carry on going out, and living their lives.”
While Caring has diversified international business interests, such as a Soho House opening in Hong King (“bad timing”) and a Sexy Fish in Miami, he regrets the political paralysis at home. “The way the world is looking at us right now, as far as continued investment in this country, there’s a big question mark over it, and I think that’s extremely sad. I think we have to go through a lot of pain before people realise really where we’re at.
“I don’t want pain for the country. I want people to eat, drink and be merry. I don’t want the tomorrow we die part.”
A version of this article first appeared online on BigHospitality and Restaurant magazine's sister title MCA. For more information visit www.mca-insight.com