Alexandre Santamaria: “The curfew was worse than the lockdown”

By Joe Lutrario contact

- Last updated on GMT

Alexandre Santamaria Oro Cha Cha restaurant

Related tags: Alexandre Santamaria, delivery, London, Middle east

The co-owner of Notting Hill’s Cha Cha X Sister Jane on being an international restaurant consultant in the time of Covid-19 and his Japanese dark kitchen business Oro.

How’s the consultancy business going? 

Very well. I launched Aware Hospitality a year ago and have scaled up pretty rapidly. We have three projects in Saudi Arabia, a project in Dallas and a project in Miami. We come up with the concepts but importantly we do the execution as well, we don’t just create and leave.

How has the pandemic affected international restaurant consultancy? 

The beauty of a consultancy is that everything takes 12 to 18 months. We’ve been able to adapt. We’ve also taken on a lot of business because people are looking to open concepts in about 18 months when there’s going to be an amazing market for restaurants. Smart investors know they can get a great deal on a lease now. Everything is going to be reshuffled. 

And I suppose lockdowns aren’t happening at the same time in every country... 

Yes exactly. Many countries are fully open now. And lockdowns don’t necessarily affect countries in the same way. In Saudi Arabia, for example, there was a travel ban on people coming in and out but that was  good for most restaurants because a lot of the people with money were stuck there and ate out a lot. 

So you’re not designing new restaurants with the pandemic in mind? 

There’s uncertainty so we’re thinking about things such as social distancing and delivery offers. Customer habits have also changed and that needs to be factored in too. One key learning for me from Covid-19 is that you can’t put your ten bestselling restaurant dishes on Deliveroo. It just isn’t going to work. What people order to eat at home is not the same as what they order in a restaurant, in most cases anyway. You have to go back to the drawing board, find out what people want to eat at home and then give it a twist to match your concept. 

Tell us about your own delivery company... 

I founded Oro with Anthony Garlano (previously executive chef at Zuma) during the first lockdown. There were a lot of kitchens that were just too big in central London so we took over part of Chucs (an Italian restaurant group) Belgravia for a ‘dark pop-up’. Our hero product is the wagyu sandwich. It’s a Japanese menu but Anthony is Australian so there is some Pacific Rim influence too. That ran for three months and we recently restarted it in Earlsfield (a West London suburb). It’s gone really well so we’re looking at a permanent location and we’re also looking at making it even more sustainable by getting our own fleet of electric scooters. The plan is to reduce our delivery radius so we don’t have to work with third parties. The spend per head on Japanese delivery is high - around £30 - so the numbers would work. 

Tell us about your background... 

I was born in France but started my career as a private butler for the French ambassador in London - ironing newspapers and polishing teapots, that sort of thing. I went into restaurants and rose up through the ranks to GM before heading to Lebanon to work as an F&B director for Intercontinental Hotels. When I returned to London I ran the operations for Coya, opening restaurants in Dubai and Miami. Following that, I worked for Hakkasan Group as global brand director charged with creating new concepts and expanding into new markets. I would meet potential partners, carry out financially studies and adapt formats to local markets.

You re-opened Cha Cha in the midst of the pandemic (it was previously in Maida Vale). How was that? 

It’s been tough. The restaurant was supposed to open in March. We were all ready to go. As soon as the lockdown was lifted we opened. It went well, we were breaking even in month two. And then the curfew came, and it was worse than the lockdown. You lose covers after 10pm but you also lose the highest average spend spot because people tend to drink a lot more after 10pm. We didn’t switch over to delivery. Notting Hill is saturated and it would have required a big investment to do it properly. It was better to keep everyone on furlough.

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