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......


  1. I know this may not be a useful comment but I really miss Alexis :( The hard work & dedication put into the place was so evident during every dining experience.

  2. Very kind of you to say so, thank you :)