This week, as the main set of contractors put the finishing touches to the Royal Festival Hall before it re-opens after a two-year £100 million refurbishment for its 'overture weekend' next weekend, other teams of builders will be finishing off four new cafes and bars that will open in the immediate vicinity.
By the following week there will be 12 places to eat and drink well around the Hall all run by different operators. Along the Queen's Walk facing the Thames are branches of Giraffe, which offers 'world food and world music'; EAT, for coffee and sandwiches and Strada, for pizza and pasta, next to wagamama's noodles. In the new building opposite the Box Office there is a run that comprises Las Iguanas serving Brazilian food and cocktails; Le Pain Quotidien, the Belgian bakery; the Japanese-inspired Feng Sushi; Caffe Vergnano, an Italian coffee and wine bar, and Ping Pong for Chinese dim sum. Facing on to the excitingly landscaped Festival Square there is the second branch of Canteen for keenly-priced British food while overlooking the Thames, Skylon restaurant and grill, named after the 1951 sculpture, has just opened with Finnish born Helena Puolakka as Executive Chef and is operated by the old Conran Restaurants team. Finally, there is the Riverside Café and bars operated by Company of Cooks who operate at Kenwood, The Roundhouse and branches of The Honest Sausage.
I can recite these names because for the past 14 years I have been the consultant to the Southbank Centre, which manages the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, the Purcell and Queen Elizabeth Halls. Alongside Anne Hynes, the Southbank's determined commercial manager and Stuart Fyfe of letting agents, Lunson Mitchenall, I have been involved in a process which has seen these cafes and bars financially underpin the Hall's renovation, keep the whole area alive while the Hall, previously the main attraction, has been closed. They have helped to draw in a much younger audience than the Hall normally attracted and establish what could be a financial model for other arts organisations to follow, certainly judging from the attention this generated in Tim Jacobs, the Chief Executive of the Melbourne Arts Centre, on his recent visit to London. And this entire process was set in motion by a former, greedy Chief Executive and the rise of the internet.
The former Chief Executive in question is Nicholas Snowman, now General Director of the Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg. Snowman, married to a Frenchwoman whose brother is the Head Sommelier at Maison Pic, the three star Michelin restaurant in Valence, had previously worked in Paris and was firmly of the opinion that a good working day involved a good lunch. But, sadly, in the early 1990's there was nowhere to eat well along the South Bank. Snowman called me in, showed me the enormous space that had been created as a restaurant unsuccessfully in the 1980's and asked me to find a restaurateur to run it before his Performing Arts Department took it over for their own use.
The challenge was more difficult than anticipated because no-one then seemed to want to go south of the river until David and Joe Levin of The Capital Hotel bravely opened The People's Palace. In the process recognised one of the particular commercial aspects of being so close to a concert hall: that it allows the restaurateur three bites at the crucial dinner trade. There is the pre-concert business which leaves the restaurant ready for the popular bookings around 8pm and then there is the post-concert business at 9.15pm/9.30pm conveniently earlier than the time at which theatres and opera houses empty.
After the two café operators we had installed on the entrance level had proved extremely popular, our attention focused on the space fronting on to the river when the plans to redesign the Hall gathered momentum and with them the intent to restore its interior to its 1951 elegance. Cafes were initially the second choice because this whole space was intended for retail with discussions in the air of creating Europe' biggest book and CD shop. But quite soon the biggest retailers disappeared as they began to appreciate the impact of the internet. Cafes, happily, do not face the same threat.
At that time this area was extremely unattractive, no more than a concrete jungle that doubled as a temporary coach park, a location made even more inhospitable, I seem to remember, by the fact that every time we met a prospective restaurateur it did seem to be raining heavily. But those with a vision did appreciate the number of visitors to the Hall (around 14 million a year) and the model of what the new Hall would look like with the new space between it and the river so inspiringly landscaped by Edinburgh-based landscape architects, Gross Max.
Our brief, never consigned to paper, was fourfold. To create a food offer that was as broad and international as possible, to mirror the range of performances on the various stages. To ensure a relatively inexpensive average spend so that those who regularly use the Halls would not find the overall experience too expensive once they had paid for their tickets and, perhaps most importantly, to attract a new, younger generation of visitors to offset the challenge that all predominantly classical concert halls face of an ageing customer profile (one of the stipulations in all the leases was the inclusion in all the cafes of a plasma screen relaying details of all forthcoming events which resulted in much better than expected pre-opening sales for the current Antony Gormley exhibition). And, finally, by creating the right mix between the different operators to ensure that there would be enough competition to maintain standards.
My particular role was to find the right mix of operators and in the early days to convince them that they would prosper even in the shadow of a major building site. The negotiated terms were either the full market rental or a percentage of turnover, whichever is the higher in the Southbank's favour, with the first 12 months rent free. The units on the river have become the busiest sites of each respective business with wagamama serving over 11,000 customers a week.
While there was much stronger demand for the units opposite the Box Office these incorporate railway arches and offices above so the logistics were more complex. I was relieved to spot the arrival of Ping Pong because having their dim sum produced off-site they could adapt to a spectacular corner site with limited kitchen space. And the rationale behind Feng Sushi was not just a personal propensity for their food but also because this was a space with a limited extract system, which dictated sushi, and seating, so their take-away service was an added attraction.
Ultimately and inadvertently we seem to have created a virtuous financial circle. The visitors to the Southbank seem to be as happy, if more relaxed, as the restaurateurs working there. For the Southbank these cafes now generate the lions' share of its annual £5 million commercial income, a significant contribution for the 'matched funding' it needs to unlock the Government's purse strings while the security of the long leases has proved valuable bank collateral.
In the medium term there are two more sites available in one of which we plan to address what is most obviously missing from the current range, which is a café/restaurant inspired by the cooking of the Indian sub-continent. But for Michael Lynch, the Southbank's Chief Executive, who came to London from running the Sydney Opera House and who therefore fully appreciates the pleasure of eating by the water, these cafes have served to whet the appetite of all those who have visited the Southbank . "From next week," he added with a smile, "they will be able to see just how wonderful the new Royal Festival Hall is."