Friday, 30 May 2014

The Hipster Triangle

Anecdotal evidence in the restaurant business suggests that there is a two speed recovery happening. The Irish market can be segmented into two main categories...Dublin City Centre and the rest of Ireland. This is the a mirror image of the recovery in UK where London is experiencing strong growth and with a few exceptions, the rest of the country remains flat. While there are pockets of activity dotted around the Dublin suburbs and other parts of the country, the centre of the capital is absolutely booming. No where more so than one specific part of Dublin 2.

There is an area of Dublin City Centre which runs roughly from lower Georges Street to South William Street and across to Stephen Street which is known locally as The Hipster Triangle. The nickname is of course tongue in cheek ( although there are more heavy beards, skinny jeans & interesting headgear per square metre than anywhere else in the city!). This area houses many of the busiest bars and restaurants in the city, and I suspect, the country.

The mix of venues is quite diverse but there is a specific demographic which make up a sizeable chunk of the bums on seats in almost all of them. Twenty and thirty something professionals, many of whom escaped the property crash and have plenty of disposable income, are driving the seemingly endless demand for cocktails, small plates & cool tunes. These are people who know exactly what they want and are looking for an overall experience which ranks above all else in order of importance. Food, drinks & sevice must be up to snuff but the sum of the parts must also add up to a great night out.

It's very interesting to observe this evolution, the blueprint for which was drawn in London approximately five years ago. Places like SpuntinoMeat LiquorPolpetto and Burger & Lobster started a shift away from the usual dining experience. Young professionals who wanted more than a night in the pub but not the formality of a conventional dinner could now enjoy decent food, excellent cocktails, cool service and a rocking DJ. If the overall experience delivered on all fronts, then people flocked there in droves.

Meanwhile, the pace of new openings in D2 continues unabated and some substantial investment is clearly evident in many of them. It's fantastic to see savvy restaurateurs with their fingers on the pulse putting their money where their mouths are and creating such an exciting hub in the heart of the city. I've been out in this area a few times recently and have loved the vibe and completely get why so many people are attracted to it. I've tried most of the new openings and to be honest, there are highs and lows in the food offerings and prices reflect the high cost of doing business in D2 but as I've already mentioned, it's not about that. Almost all of them were packed and had an air of optimism about them which was generated by aspirational people having a good time. Once the overall experience hits the mark, minor glitches are overlooked.

Damson Diner

Super Miss Sue

No caption required!

777. Image courtesy of French Foodie in Dublin

Drury Buildings

There is currently a new shift in the London market as those who drove the scene five years ago come of age and look for new experiences. This change is also driven by the resurgence of the financial services sector in London and the return of a demand for good food but with a little more opulence. Stuffy fine dining is defeintely on the decline but people like Marcus Wareing and Jason Atherton are making fine dining far more accessible to the masses.

In my experience, we track London market trends and I will observe with  interest what direction the market takes here once the real economy finally picks up. In the meantime, I for one will enjoy the new buzz in the heart of my home town...even if I'm not nearly cool enough.

Friday, 23 May 2014

I'll have the heart & soul please...

As I mentioned in my opening post, I love eating out. I don't do it as much these days as I used to ( nothing like becoming a parent to put a halt to your gallop!) but I still follow restaurants and trends closely. I've found that the less I dine out, the more selective I've become. With opportunities more limited, I'm less inclined to take a gamble on a potential hit or miss experience.

This got me thinking about why I gravitate towards certain places. They may be a completely diverse cross section of restaurants but a common thread links them all together. The best way I can think of to describe this common denominator is that they put their heart and soul into what they do. Whether it's a coffee, a sandwich or a high end dinner, if it's done with care, attention and love it stands out.

I follow a lot of chefs on Instagram and Twitter and can usually tell in one image if someone is cooking from the heart or plating food that they think is on trend. The increase in Nordic style linear presentation on gun metal coloured plates & bowls is noticeable. So too is the use of foraged ingredients. Also, the majority of dishes seem to involve a water bath, a Thermomix, and lots of chemical compounds. Done properly all of these elements can make for a wonderful dining experience. The problem is that very few people can do it properly and majority are doing it because they see so much of it on television and in books. Most of the amateur cooks on Masterchef now even seem to bring a water bath, Thermomix, and Ultra-Tex as standard.

I'd eaten this style of food done well in other countries but the first time I experienced it in Ireland was a few years ago in Gregan's Castle Hotel when Mickael Viljanen was cooking. Mickael has since moved to The Green House in Dublin and is the only chef that I've seen in Ireland perfect this style of cooking. The reason for this is that he cooks from the heart and in every dish you can see his personality on the plate. This is never true of chefs who try to imitate.

Brill, sprouts, cockles, truffle, gewurtztraminer, sheep's sorrel. Source: Mickael Viljanen

If you look at the food of any great chefs, you can see their personality coming through. In a lot of cases this is because they are cooking food they love to eat. If I see a dish cooked by Garrett Byrne for example, I could probably identify it as one of his without knowing who cooked it. Another good example is Graham Neville . They both have an individual style because they are cooking the food they want to cook and not imitating what they think is the latest fashionable trend.

A Garrett Byrne original. Source: Campagne website

Although I hate the term, I love the concept of the Gastropub. It's a model that is done extremely well in the UK and one of the finest meals I've ever eaten was in The Sportsman in Kent. The food is all about great produce and is simple, honest and cooked from the heart. Our produce here is every bit as good and I often wonder why we don't have more pubs in Ireland serving quality Irish produce, cooked with a bit of love and care. Time and again I see chefs in pubs either making no effort or else trying too hard to recreate what they think is Gastropub fare instead of cooking from the heart. I went into a pub in the West of Ireland for chowder and a pint of Guinness a couple of years ago and was served an "amuse bouche" of "venison lollipops". There are a few notable exceptions of course. The food at Mulligan's in Stoneybatter never disappoints and The Wild Honey Inn in Lisdoonvarna is excellent and the food is certainly cooked with passion.

Smoked eel, beetroot & horseradish at Wild Honey Inn

Venison with trompette mushroons, kale & pumpkin at Wild Honey Inn

There is a real buzz about the restaurant scene in Dublin City Centre right now with lots of new openings over the last few months. There is a definite movement and from what I've seen and heard and I will start to try some of the newer places with some confidence that there is real substance behind them. I recently had lunch in Etto Merrion Row and it summarised much of what I've been trying to get across in this post. On the face of it the food is simple but it is clearly cooked by someone who loves to eat. Every dish was made with the pleasure of the diner in mind and every morsel brought a smile to my face.

Pic doesn't do justice but this dish was stunning. Underblade of beef with cabbage & mushroom duxelle at Etto.

Cod with clams, saffron potatoes & chorizo at Etto. 

So the moral of the story is this folks...if you're getting into a food business, put everything you have into the food you produce. No half measures. Check out places at the top of their game and get inspired. Get a sandwich in Juniors , a coffee at 3FE or both in Brother Hubbard. Enjoy an awesome pizza at La Cucina or the fish striaght from dayboats in Harry's. Thankfully there are lots more places all over Ireland now who put their heart and soul into what they do day in day out. Seek them out...we should cherish and support them.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Time to take stock...

Picture the've been packed all day for Sunday lunch and that dreaded last service of the week looms on Sunday evening. Not too many in the book but with last minute bookings and walk-ins you get slammed again! Like a heavy weight boxer in the 12th round, you stay on your feet just long enough to get the last main courses out. Then it's over with and just as your thoughts begin to turn to frosty beer you have an unexpected and not very welcome moment of clarity....end of week stock take!

This is not far from reality for many restaurants and for those who actually do a weekly stock take, the quality of the information gained can often be questionable. In my experience, this is one area which is absolutely critical for a restaurant but is a major weakness for many. Even those who go to the trouble of counting their stock accurately and regularly, many do nothing with the information except establish their re-ordering requirements.

So why is it so important and what should you do with the information? Well the stock on your shelves and in your stores and fridges can run into thousands of hard earned Euro in value and every item should be properly accounted for. In addition, you can not calculate your Gross Profit margin correctly without accurate opening and closing stock figures. Most importantly of all, you need to know if there are any stock variances and if so, why. This essentially means establishing if every item which you purchased was sold and if not, is it still in stock. I have found that the process also throws up a lot of other valuable yet unforeseen information. Over the years I've used the same simple method and have discovered employee fraud, supplier fraud, staff errors, and previously unknown glitches in POS systems.

As an example, here's another scenario. It's Saturday night and the room is full. There are lots of tables ordering drinks but the POS terminal has a queue of waiters already looking to key in orders. With customers getting impatient for their drinks, one staff member decides to show some initiative and shout his drink orders to the bar person with a view to keying them in once the terminal becomes free. Drinks are served and the staff member moves on and forgets to key in the drinks. Customers don't get charged and you will never know about it unless you calculate your stock variances at the end of the week. Items not being charged for, accidentally or otherwise, is a very common problem and if left unchecked can amount to thousands in lost revenue annually.

This may all sound a little obvious but in reality, very few restaurants are on top of this issue. The reason is usually because they are too busy. Chef/owners are up to their elbows in chicken carcasses and FOH owners are snowed under with paperwork and staff issues! It's an easy trap to fall into but a difficult one to get out of.

There is a very simple, user friendly weekly routine which helps ensure every item of stock is accounted for, down to a single bottle of water. In most cases this will improve GP% and will almost certainly highlight problems that you never even know you had.

For further information please email me at

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Art of Service

For my 18th birthday my girlfriend saved up and brought me to the old Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud ( when it was located behind BOI Baggot Street). I was working part time as a waiter in a good restaurant at the time and was a bit obsessed with the whole business. I read countless books about Michelin starred restaurants around the world and was beyond excited to finally get the opportunity to dine in one. 

The excitement was mixed with mild terror as we were about to enter the high church of gastronomy in Ireland. Dressed in my dad's jacket and tie, I was acutely aware of looks from other, more experienced diners as the hostess brought us to our table. The manager came over and I suspect immediately spotted us for what we were..a couple of nervous kids!
We needn't have worried. What followed was a master class in the art of service from the best in the business. Stéphane Robin was then, and in my opinion still is, the bench mark that all service industry professionals in Ireland should aspire to.

He immediately put us at ease. It was very clear from the outset that we were as important to him as every other guest in the room and he made us feel like we really belonged there. We ordered the tasting menu and he seemed genuinely impressed that we had such a detailed knowledge of the ingredients. We ate squab, veal sweetbreads, brill and scallops amongst other things and Stephane organised a special dessert for my birthday. We left on cloud nine and the whole experience has stuck with me vividly ever since. 

Stéphane Robin.
Source: Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud Website

Service has always been as important to me as food in a restaurant. During my time in the business, we had a service meeting every Saturday where any issues arising that week were ironed out. We also had a service training session every fourth Saturday where attention to every detail was covered. This included everything from the basics of greeting people through to matching wines with every dish on the menu. 

Nowadays when I go out, whether for a coffee or to a restaurant, I can spot trained staff straight away. Sadly it's the exception rather than the rule and it often baffles me why some operators clearly spend a lot of money on their fit out, put a lot of thought into their food and wine offering but completely overlook training their service staff. 

I've worked with two restaurants recently on their service and the key to improving the service in both cases was fewer staff.....but better staff. A lot of busy places think that flooding the floor with waiting staff is the way to go but it isn't. In most cases, staff will switch off if there are too many as they feel that someone else will spot what they don't. Careful selection of experienced, professional waiting staff, coupled with structured training, is the key to good service. A warm smile is the starting point. A smaller number of well trained staff will also earn more tips so the whole cycle generates a motivated, happy crew and a good atmosphere. 

The central focus of every talk or training session I give is the customer. Still to this day, I use the experience of my 18th birthday all those years ago as my inspiration. Trends will come and go in the restaurant business but qualities like that are timeless. 

Monday, 12 May 2014

The Alexis Story. Part 2

A random call one day from the owner of the local cab firm we used got me thinking. He was politely enquiring whether we were using another firm and if so what could he do to win back the business. He reckoned we'd gone from calling 20-30 cabs on a busy Saturday night to less than 5. I explained that we hadn't used anyone else and asked him if he could send me details of the decline in cabs called over the previous six months. At the same time, I examined our customers' spend per head over the same period. The accountant in me couldn't resist putting both sets of results onto a graph and the outcome was very interesting. Two very similar curves appeared. The amount of cabs called declined at a roughly the same rate as spend per head. I called it the taxi index.

Over the following few weeks I observed regular customers who usually took a cab home and noticed that many who usually enjoyed aperitifs and a bottle of wine, were sticking to one glass of wine as they were driving. I knew many of them well and from speaking to them established that they were tightening their belts either as a direct result of a drop in income or as a precautionary measure. 

This was the trend for the first few months of 2010. We were busy enough numbers wise but people were noticeably spending less. There was also a drop off in frequency of visits from those in the "squeezed middle" who made up a sizeable chunk of our customer base.

We set about trimming our overheads and planning how to generate more revenue. We trialled some dishes using higher end produce such as lobster & foie gras in small quantities and the reaction from guests was overwhelmingly positive. By now there were a huge number of local restaurants competing in the mid range bistro market. I read one journalist at the time who called it the "the pork belly wars". The feedback we were getting told us that people wanted something different and were happy to pay a little extra for it.

In mid 2010 we introduced a midweek tasting menu with optional wine pairings. It proved to be very successful and increased revenues from Tuesday-Thursday. This was a welcome boost as spend had started to slip further as the year went on since the emergency budget in April 2010 and the looming threat of the third austerity budget in December of that year.

Foie gras and crispy rabbit shoulder from the midweek tasting menu
Loin of veal with girolles from the midweek tasting menu

There was no doubt about it that the country was gripped by recession and austerity at this stage but heading into Christmas 2010 we had a very busy December to look forward to. Or so we thought. December started out like any other, lots of group bookings and office parties. Then it snowed, and it snowed and it snowed some more! All of a sudden the cancellations started and before we knew it, we'd lost over 2,700 covers. Like most other restaurants and retail businesses, Christmas 2010 was one to remember for all the wrong reasons.

Aside from the freak weather, our original business model was beginning to look vulnerable for the first time. There was simply not enough volume to support it and with further austerity budgets planned there was nothing to suggest that would change in the medium term. There was a risk of sliding into territory where no business wants to be - having a declining share of a declining market.

It was time for a new plan. We listened very closely to what our customers had to say and the same points kept coming up. The restaurant was too noisy when full, people wanted more of the new cooking we introduced with the tasting menu, and the room needed to be more comfortable.

With this in mind I did a new business plan and we set about putting that plan into action. We decided to refurbish the room and soften the acoustics and take our food, wine, service and coffee offering up a level. We would reduce the capacity to 80 and deliver a more comfortable dining experience. With the middle market now bursting at the seams with restaurants, we planned to create a new market for which there was clearly demand for a product that nobody was offering.

We got a designer and acoustics engineer to come up with a new look and upgraded the cutlery, crockery, glassware and table ware to fit the new plan. Over the following four months we met with new suppliers of top quality artisan produce and put together a new list of exclusively natural wines. This would be the first such list in Ireland if I'm not mistaken but more importantly, the quality of the wines right through the list was phenomenal. We recruited new staff to key areas and up-skilled existing staff. We also upgraded he kitchen with the new equipment needed for some of the processes the new menu would entail.

 It was an exhausting few months trying to make sure that every detail was right but the new energy gave everyone a lift. I had a strong social media following who were keeping up to date with the progress of the project along the way. Our staff training was far more detailed than before and we spent weeks going through the new sequence of service to make sure everyone understood what we were trying to achieve. We were lucky enough to have a fantastic team and everyone got on board with the new ideas.

Finally, after months of planning and tweaking, in late September 2011 we were ready to launch.

Ready for relaunch 22nd September 2011

We had a soft opening as I'm a firm believer that if you're not 100% right than you can not expect people to pay 100% of the price. We offered 25% discount for the first few days until we found our new rhythm. I'm glad we did because the opening night did not go well. It started with the electricians accidentally cutting the cables to the docket printer in the kitchen meaning the first few orders did not go through. We discovered this 20 minutes after the first orders were taken. This put us on the back foot and we never really recovered. It was one of those services that happen from time to time that you have to chalk down to experience and move on from. Thankfully, over the next few days we improved each day and after a week or so had the food and service at a level we were happy with.

Rabbit tasting plate from the new menu

Bitter chocolate tart with salt caramel ice cream and espresso mousse

Within the first few weeks most of the national critics had been in and thankfully the reviews were all very good. Bookings were solid and the new model was starting to take shape and hold it's own. Most importantly of all, the reaction from the majority of our regular guests was very positive. However, people are naturally resistant to change and we got it in the neck from a few for not having some of the old favourites like fish and chips on any longer! There was also some scepticism over the new wine list as many of the wines were new to most people but over time things settled down. A lot of new regular guests who had never been to the old Alexis started to come which was very encouraging.

Overall, we were going into 2012 with renewed optimism and a determination from everyone to work as hard as possible to keep improving. The start to the year was steady if unspectacular and we worked harder than ever to keep the figures right and the customers happy. As the year moved on, this became more and more difficult and it became apparent that the severe budget of December 2011 and the threat of the worst one yet still to come in December 2012 had made even those with plentiful disposable income more cautious. 

We were still busy but the spend per head required to cover the increased overhead of the new project kept dropping as each month of 2012 passed. We tried everything to generate new business and whilst there were short term peaks, it proved very difficult to get a sustained run. A business that was usually quite predictable had become the complete opposite which made planning very difficult. 

The second half of 2012 was very tough. It was new territory for us and with Dun Laoghaire now in terminal decline as a business town, many of our regular Christmas parties were either greatly reduced or cancelled altogether. We worked right through Christmas,closing only for the 25th and 26th to try compensate for the shortfall in pre-Christmas trade but it was too late. I prepared a detailed set of accounts in early January and it became apparent that the business was no longer viable and we'd have to close. It was absolutely heartbreaking and the hardest decision that either of us ever had to make but some times in life the right decision is the most difficult one.

We were devastated for the staff, suppliers and all of our friends and family who had supported us from the very beginning. For me personally, it was the most physically, emotionally and financially draining experience I'd ever gone through.

The whole experience, both good times and bad times, was hugely educational and I've taken a lot of positives out of it.  I've had many offers since Alexis closed to get back into the business in all sorts of different capacities. I'm now working in a consultancy role with a number of restaurant clients helping them to improve their businesses. It's very interesting to see the range of challenges facing restaurants in 2014 but thankfully I've been able to help solve a lot of their problems and put structures in place to make their operations run more smoothly. 

Without doubt, my experience in Alexis has given me a much clearer insight into all of the key areas which make up the big picture of operating a restaurant successfully.

As that guy said to me years's all experience.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Alexis Story. Part 1

Someone once told me that there is no such thing as bad experience, it's all just experience. I never fully understood what he meant until I'd opened a restaurant in the calm seas of Celtic Tiger Ireland and then had to navigate though the choppy waters of the recession a few years later.

The idea to open a restaurant came about in 2005 when my brother Alan and I were discussing the lack of decent places to eat in Dublin south of Ballsbridge. We both lived in the Dun Laoghaire area, and lamented the lack of a local spot that served good quality food but was affordable enough to drop into after work midweek if you didn't fancy cooking. 

The light bulb moment happened and after months of planning and fine tuning I'd a business plan done and we were on the lookout for premises. We found a vacant space for lease in early 2006 that ticked all the boxes. It could be quickly refurbished and had capacity for 120 diners. The only sticking point was a complex leasehold which took months to negotiate. We finally signed the lease in December 2006 and after a refurb and a new kitchen, Alexis was born. We named the business after Alexis Benoit Soyer the Victorian chef and humanitarian who's core belief was that you could eat very well for modest money with a little imagination. Alexis opened it's doors on February 25th 2007.

Waiting for the final coat of paint before opening

Final touches before opening 

Opening Day at Alexis 25th February 2007

The model was simple. Take the very best local, seasonal produce ( before it became a marketing cliché) we could get our hands on and create simple yet delicious bistro dishes for about €15 per main course. Fish was not listed on the menu but based on what was available fresh on a daily basis. In order to keep our food costs right we did a lot of butchery ourselves, making sure every part was utilised and used less popular fish such as gurnard, pollock, ling, whiting and megrim. 

Everything about the place was quite pared back and devoid of any bells and whistles. The project would sink or swim based on the old fashioned ideas of good food and service at the right price. The business model hinged on 600 covers per week to break even and we had allowed ourselves 6 months to get to that stage. 

We enlisted the services of wine consultant and Irish Times journalist John Wilson to put together a short list of interesting wines which would sit happily beside the food and service we hoped to deliver. The last few weeks before opening were a blur of late nights, early mornings, late tradesmen and staff interviews. 

The first few weeks trading were about finding our feet and quickly discovering that no matter how meticulous you think you think your planning is, there are always unforeseen issues which pop up once you go live. For example, equipment will almost always wait until the worst possible moment before deciding to sit down so improvisation becomes a skill that has to be mastered quickly!

Trade was building very slowly to begin with as we hadn't done any advertising. Our first review was a positive one by Angela Flannery for The Irish Independent in late March but one weekend in April 2007 the game changed. We received a stellar review from Tom Doorley in The Irish Times on a Saturday and from about 10am the phone exploded into life! The following day Lucinda O' Sullivan's praise was equally enthusiastic in her Sunday Independent column. 

Braised beef shin with Burgundy Alexis staple
Overnight the phone started to ring constantly and to be honest we struggled to cope with the demand. We had a huge problem managing the sheer volume of reservation requests and had to be mindful of the fact that we were still only open six weeks. We agreed that the quality of our food and service were paramount and limited the capacity until we were satisfied that we could deliver the quality we set out to achieve. We were full several weeks in advance which enabled us to plan accurately and build up the numbers over time. By August 2007 we averaged approximately 1,500 guests per week and most importantly, our systems had bedded down so the food and service were at a level we were happy with.

The profitability of the business so early in the project meant we could fast forward the works which needed to be done but were long fingered as they were not in the original budget. We built new toilets, staff changing rooms, a proper office and a drink store. The level of business continued through 2008 and we later added a patio area for outside dining and extended/refurbished the bar. 

The success of the venture didn't escape the notice of the awards people either and we were nominated for several. In 2008 we won Leinster Best Restaurant at the Food & Wine Magazine awards. It was all starting to feel a bit surreal but in a very nice way! 

Alan and I had both been involved in the restaurant industry for a long time before Alexis and we certainly did not get carried away. The old business idiom " beware of the good times" was firmly in our minds and the busier we became, the harder we worked to continuously improve everything we did and keep our systems right and costs tight.

There was little by way of local competition when we started off but by 2009 restaurants had began to mushroom around the area and there was a natural levelling of demand. We had built up a strong base of regular customers so were still full every weekend and midweeks held their own. We began opening for lunch and after a few months developed a steady trade with a nice mix of business people and locals. 

However, by the end of 2009 there was a definite sense that the recession was starting to take hold. Small businesses in Dun Laoghaire were closing with increasing regularity and many of those who remained open had made some staff redundant and implemented pay cuts for others. It was the same story nation wide and the media was awash with bad news. 

From our perspective business was not at the heady heights it had been but we were still ahead of our forecasts. The question on our minds at that stage was whether the original business model would continue to be sustainable once austerity measures began to bite. 

As 2010 approached we were about to find out......

Friday, 2 May 2014

Hi, I'm New Here.....

So this is my first ever blog post. My name is Patrick and I love food. More specifically I love eating it. Especially in restaurants.
I've been lucky enough in my life so far to have eaten in a lot of restaurants. These range from the local go-to places to some of the world's best and everything in between. Regardless of the experience, I've learned something from each and every meal I've ever eaten.
When I wasn't eating in restaurants I was usually working in them. As a teenager I peeled veg, scrubbed pots and bused tables. In later years I've managed and operated my own place.
You've probably guessed at this stage that I've a bit of a thing for the restaurant business and you'd be right. It can be a physical and emotional rollercoaster ride at times but I can think of no other business that can generate the sheer adrenaline buzz you feel when you've just finished a busy service and have a of a room full of happy guests.
So check in if you want to read my thoughts and observations about the business. If you feel inclined to give me some feedback, that would be much appreciated too.
I'd like to sign off my first post by saying a huge thank you to Aoife Ryan and Olwen Dawe for being so generous with their time and advice and a merci beaucoup to Ketty for final the push to get the blog moving!