Do they know it's a buyer's market now?
17 May 2008 by Nick Lander/FT

Recent examples of how several top London restaurants are thoughtlessly and unprofessionally treating their customers left me deeply disappointed.

The first concerns the treatment of two senior managers of one of Singapore’s most highly regarded restaurants Les Amis in Tom Aikens’ restaurant in Chelsea. They were made fully aware of the restaurant’s dress code, in particular no track shoes, when they made the booking in Singapore so they arrived suitably attired, they believed, with one of them wearing what he described to me as a pair of shoes ‘like Tod’s’.

This apparently wasn’t good enough for one of the waiting staff who promptly came along and told him that his manager had instructed him to tell him that as a result of what he was wearing on his feet they would not be served. They then asked to speak to the manager. He, although somewhat more conciliatory, refused to change his mind but offered to pay for a taxi to take him back to their nearby hotel, wait while he changed his shoes, and bring him back to the restaurant. Sensibly, the two guests walked out, leaving the restaurant probably unable to fill the table at lunchtime and, knowing this pair’s interest in food and wine, depriving themselves of enough income to pay the manager’s weekly salary. In addition to this is the ill-will this incident has caused in restaurant circles in Singapore and now beyond. I have, however, heard that Aikens is reconsidering the current draconian implementation of his dress code policy and was going to contact these two (potential) customers in Singapore to make amends.

While this is one specific example, there are more general cases of how restaurateurs are failing to respond more sensitively best exemplified, I believe, in that many are simply not informing their receptionists that they now have to respond more courteously and more considerately if they want to fill every last table.

Over the past month I have had really abrupt service trying to book a table at The Square in Mayfair and Roka in Fitzrovia, both in London. At the former I tried to book a table for two at 12.30 a week in advance only to be told the only available table would be at 2pm, without the receptionist’s bothering to take my name and number in case of a cancellation. I then phoned the restaurant’s PR to see if they could get a 12.30 booking for me which they promptly did. Over a slightly disappointing meal, I could not help but notice that no fewer than four tables for two remained empty all lunchtime.

The switchboard at Roka was even less forthcoming. All I did was mention that I wanted a table for dinner three days in advance and I was greeted with the immediate response that all that was available was 6pm or 10pm. There was no mention of how many would be in my party nor when I would most like to come, nor in fact whether there was any flexibility in my timing. I put the phone down and went elsewhere.

There are already signs that this current economic slowdown will follow the pattern of its predecessors: the inexpensive will flourish, as will the most expensive, while those in the middle will suffer the most as the majority of customers watch more carefully what they spend.

One important ingredient in this was explained to me recently by a successful New York restaurateur, “I’ve been in business for over 20 years now and this is my fourth economic downturn. As a result, I think I know how to manage this one better than the previous ones but an additional management challenge for me is that I’ve a lot of staff who’ve joined our company over the past six years and who have only experienced the good times. Now I have to curb their enthusiasm, I hope temporarily.”

Equally important is that while companies have sought to limit any extravagant expenditure there are still many wealthy individuals keen to eat and drink well. Tourists, particularly now that menus and wine lists in the UK and the US seem inexpensive if you are paying with euros, are filling the tables left by the former native high-spenders.

Certainly, this was the report from Mario Batali after he had reviewed the first quarter figures for Del Posto, his high-end Italian restaurant in West Chelsea, Ne York. “Obviously, I was concerned with any fall-out from Wall Street because initially we received a great deal of corporate business from there. So I was more than pleasantly surprised to see that our turnover for the first quarter was 7% up on last year and almost all of this had come as a result of a conscious decision by its management to concentrate on securing events and dinners from private individuals and their families rather than relying too heavily on companies.”

But a weak dollar is also playing its part. “What’s crucial here is that we are now attracting far more customers than before from South America and Spain who are more than happy to come along and have a drink at the bar and then eat around 10pm or even 10.30. This means we can now comfortably fit in a third sitting after those at 6pm and 8pm and this makes a big difference to the bottom line. It makes me feel good even if it doesn’t buy me too many euros for my next eating trip to Spain or Italy.”

A strong euro is obviously going to have serious implications for European restaurateurs this summer and also for the imported ingredients on British menus, wine lists everywhere and anyone budgeting to fit out a new kitchen with top of the range French equipment. An old friend, who specialises in supplying the wild mushrooms that are currently so popular with chefs, recently confided in me that he has barely been trading profitably over the past few months as he tries to absorb the rising costs for as long as he can.

The very top chefs and restaurateurs are, like top musicians and models, able to command their price in a currency to suit them, and demand for their services is still extremely strong in those countries whose economies seem unaffected. There is still frenetic development in the Gulf region; I have been told some but not all of the details of one of London’s top chef’s opening in Tripoli, Libya later this year while Handel Lee, a lawyer turned entrepreneur, is putting his finishing touches to the arts centre in the former Legation Quarter in Beijing which will also house restaurants operated by Daniel Boulud from New York and Claudio Sadler from Milan.

On the back of six years’ hefty profits, hotel companies in most major cities are still keen to make what must be very generous offers to chefs even if they seem to have not a shred of common sense to support them. The most depressing press release for a long time arrived recently announcing the appointment of the Paris-based chef, Hélène Darroze, to The Connaught Hotel now under the ownership of a group whose management must have a very short memory. For a long time when British produce and ingredients were virtually ignored and even looked down upon by many, this hotel trumpeted both. Now it has thrown all that away and with it, in my opinion, any claim to individuality and respect for the city and country in which it is located.

Experience will, I hope, guide many sensitive restaurateurs through this tricky period but those which will surely always flourish are those which show the greatest respect for their customers, the staff they employ and the produce they handle. Recent examples of how not to do it should be cause for careful reappraisal by the chefs and restaurateurs concerned.