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.


  1. I think my Big Birthday dinner was the night you closed for the refurb. It was one of the nicest meals of my life, thanks to you & Alan.

    1. Thanks for the lovely comment Aoife. Plenty of great nights came flooding back to me as I wrote those posts.

  2. Loved the twitter meet up there with the tasting menu and companion wines. really good night. was also the best value / quality lunch for many miles around.

    Excellent bit of writing Pat. really good insite. best of luck with the new career direction. regards. Joe (BJ from d twitter machine) :)

  3. Thanks so much Joe, appreciate the kind words.

  4. Oh yes, the one and only night that BigJoe behaved himself... that was an amazing dinner too!

  5. Great craic...and Joe was indeed a model of good behaviour!