Why launch a Wok School?
Until around six months ago, staffing wasn’t causing us a particular challenge. We had kept all of our teams on board during the pandemic, and that put us in a strong position as we pushed ahead and opened new sites. What caught us out was when things ramped up last summer, we suddenly found ourselves faced with a hyper-competitive landscape with some staff being poached. That put us under pressure and, with the hit of Covid and Brexit driving competition, it became a lot more challenging for us to think about going forwards maintaining quality while still wanting to meet our growth aspirations. The Wok School is a solution that allows us to train new recruits and also provide opportunities for promotion for internal team members.
How does the Wok School work?
It’s open to candidates of all levels and offers a guaranteed full-time chef role at Rosa’s Thai for each applicant upon completion of the course. All participants are paid £11.45 per hour [including service charge] for the duration of the course, and there are three programmes on offer of three, five and 10 days. Cooking with a wok is a critical skill in a Thai kitchen, and this flexibility in the programmes allows us to have shorter durations for people who are coming to us from experiences in other restaurants, right through to those with no experience that we can take and develop from the ground up. We’re based in the lower ground floor of our Fitzrovia site on Warren Street, and the training kitchen has an attached restaurant space that’s open to diners Monday to Friday from 12-3pm. The menu changes daily according to the training programme and includes dishes such as pad Thai, red Thai curry and chilli and basil stir fry.
The Wok School went live a few weeks back, has it been a success so far?
Yes. We’ve already had our first graduates that have completed their two weeks, and there’s two more cohorts that are at different stages of their course.
Rosa’s Thai has a large, nationwide estate. Why did you choose to run the Wok School out of the Warren Street site?
There were a few key factors. Some of our sites are quite tight in terms of the size of the kitchen, but Warren Street, which is split over two levels, had ample space; meaning there’s plenty of room in the kitchen for both the trainees and their mentors. We’re putting a lot of attention into making sure the training team are there to provide support and feed back, so having plenty of room was crucial. Warren Street is also just a good location with strong transport links and large catchment area that contains both a university campus and local hospital. All food served by the Wok School in the downstairs restaurant will have a 50% discount to those who eat in. And we’re also trying to partner with the hospital and other key worker groups to offer either heavily discounted or potentially free meals, which will give trainees further opportunity for real world training.
Offering a 50% discount on normal menu prices must be popular. How have you made sure the trainee chefs are not overwhelmed?
We’re setting the site at a capacity that avoids that. As I said, the site is split over two levels and we’re going to trade the upstairs restaurant as normal. Then the Wok School has restricted capacity and a tighter menu, with tables available for NHS staff and some held for walk ins. It guarantees that the staff are going to get the training they need without us wasting food.
Rosa’s launched a retail range last year, how is that doing?
We’ve had great feedback and take up, so we’re delighted with progress so far despite a few temporary challenges caused by well-documented industry supply chain issues. This first phase has convinced us that retail is something we should explore further, and perhaps most importantly that it’s something that can complement rather than distract from the fact we’re a restaurant business first and foremost. We’re looking forward to doing something bigger and even better later in the year.
What have you got coming up in terms of new openings?
We’re fortunate to have been able to grow through the past two years that Coronavirus has been with us, both in terms of opening sites and developing a pipeline of future sites. The next 12 months will be a busy period, starting with launches in Cardiff, Kings Cross and York in the next few months and further openings in London and further afield to follow.
Now that Plan B restrictions have lifted are you beginning to see an uptick in business?
We saw a bit of an uplift before the restrictions were lifted. Nothing dramatic, but there’s definitely some indication that demand is increasing. In London we’re seeing more people out and about day to day. It’s a good sign. We’re feeling very positive.