Jeremy King: "For things to remain the same, everything must change"

By Finn Scott-Delany

- Last updated on GMT

Jeremy King Corbin & King co-founder on dealing with landlords, embracing change and customers behaving badly

Related tags: jeremy king, Corbin and King, Restaurant

The Corbin & King co-founder on dealing with landlords, embracing change and customers behaving badly.

Impeccably polite, intellectually-minded and always smartly dressed, Jeremy King turned to an epic historical drama when discussing the current challenges in the restaurant industry at last week's Restaurant Conference. Made famous by Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of Prince Tancredi, an aging Sicilian nobleman caught up in the turmoil of Italian unification, King drew parallels with how his group had been forced to adapt in order to deal with Covid-19.

The Corbin & King co-founder cited the decision to close The Wosleley on Mondays in order to give over-worked staff a break as the group struggled to fill job vacancies. “It was a turning point,” he told delegates. “Staff didn’t think I would do that, but we had to change the way we do things. As an industry we’re really resistant to change.

“It’s something we have to take in to 2022. We are a very reactionary industry. But in one year of hardship we made about five years of advancement spiritually, technically, philosophically.”

Strong post-lockdown trading

At a micro level, King said trading has been “remarkably good”, up on 2019, and “considerably up” in venues such as The Delaunay. “The appetite to go out is massive,” he said. “We’ve not even put all our tables back in and we’ve seen a 30% rise in spend per head.”

The downside, however, is that a small minority of customers are behaving badly and abusing staff, King said. “It’s not just here. Danny Meyer [Union Square Hospitality] told me he’s never consoled as many waiters and waitresses in all his life. I’m not sure what it is – maybe it’s insecurity.”

The benefits of turnover rent

Corbin & King’s current landlords are evenly split between estates and private landlords. King said most of the estates, as well as the private ones that act likes estates, have been “fair, generous and supportive in so many ways”.

A problem was that most of the private landlords were over-leveraged, and under pressure from various borrowers, something he said may require government intervention with lenders.

He also called for turnover rents, in order to shift the “old paradigm”. “With fixed rents either the tenant is unhappy or the landlord is unhappy. If you can share it, there’s a much better understanding. I would like landlords to feel they have a relationship. Too often landlords look for a covenant and the highest rent. This is why we get a homogenisation across the high street, which has been very very damaging.

On rent competitiveness, he accused “one or two unscrupulous operators” with deep pockets of outbidding everyone and doing deals under the table, which was “pricing out a lot restaurants”.

“It’s wrong and we need to change it,” he said.

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Issues with The Wolseley's landlords

Following reports of difficulties in reaching agreement with the landlord of The Wolseley, King told the conference that they were not being evicted. He said the landlord had been “very keen to get every penny” during a stand-off, but that agreement was now close.

“My position would have been stronger if we had some sort of indication from government over what they’re doing with this moratorium. They say binding arbitration, but I’m not sure anyone has a clue what they’re talking about.

“’Only pay if you can’. What does that mean? The government needs to step up and explain very quickly what’s going on, because there will be a lot of evictions.”

Calls for a dedicated hospitality minister

King said a lot of operators were continuing to trade while fully expecting to lose their lease at the end of March when the moratorium ends. “They’re taking money out now, and who can blame them?”

The Government has “stepped back too often”, and he made renewed calls for a dedicated hospitality minister who understands the sector.

“Are we really properly served by having the services of hospitality divided between two separate ministers? We’ve seen how that works in football clubs.

“I do not understand why we don’t have a dedicated minister for hospitality. We wouldn’t have these terrible misunderstandings with furlough, and have people who don’t understand the industry at any level making these decisions which have a massive impact on hospitality, often on the staff.”

King also described what he said was the “window dressing” around business rates that appeared good until the details of the limits were more closely examined. He also called for VAT to be maintained at a lower level.

“The sector is shrinking in terms of what we’re giving to the government. They should be more bold. But they stood and decided whether to jump or whether to hold back

“They’re working on old principles, they’re not embracing change. Life is very different.”

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Embracing change

According to King, Corbin & King is now a “more efficient, better organised” business following the pandemic. Quoting motivational author and speaker James Clear, he said: “’The strategies that made you successful in the past, will at some point reach their limit. Don’t let your previous choices set your future ceilings. Your willingness to try new ideas allows you to keep advancing.’”

While the superficial appearance of the group’s venues might purposefully evoke a different era, the workings of them had changes drastically.

“If a grand café restaurateur from France or Germany from 100 years ago came to one of our sites through a time machine, they’d think nothing much has changed. But if they spent two hours with us, they’d see everything has changed.”

King said contrary to assumptions, the digital revolution had had a “massive impact” on the business. “There was a time I would never have dreamt of having part time workers. We now use [people management platform] Stint which fills in the hours very efficiently.

“We have a handheld ordering system. I would have point blank refused that 10 years ago. There was a point when I never would have done delivery, but now I know it’s the right thing to do.”

People and pay

King said the industry as a whole needed to treat staff better, which would see a “massive turnaround” in the staff shortage situation and that there was too much of an ‘us and them’ mentality between staff and management.

He also believed the Government was now covertly conceding that chefs are skilled workers, and there were schemes being drawn up to bring in kitchen staff from overseas, but said "no one’s talking about it because they would be going back on what they said during Brexit.”

He said the industry needed to show more flexibility when hiring. For instance, mothers should be shown more accommodation with childcare responsibilities. On pay, there was space for better numeration, but it was not necessarily the solution.

“I’ve seen people leave us to get 25% more but only to come back. Money is not everything, it’s the whole package.

“They way to get more money through is through the tronc. The more customers there are the money through the tronc.”

Jeremy King was in conversation with BigHospitality editor Stefan Chomka at the recent Restaurant Conference, organised by MCA ​in partnership with BigHospitality.

Related topics: Business & Legislation, People

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