Many top people have the same dream: to quit their high-powered job and open up a smart restaurant.
What better way to combine a passion for good food with well-honed business skills?
Helena Hudson has done just that. She spent many years in a media-buying agency. When it was sold she saw this as a perfect opportunity to open a restaurant in her hometown, Brighton, which also featured a delicatessen and bakery (she had seen places like this in London).
This is a common pattern. Sahar Hashemi wondered why she could not get a New York-style skinny latte in London and Coffee Republic was born. Simon Woodroffe saw conveyor-belt sushi in Tokyo and brought it to London, founding Yo! Sushi.
Helena had always been passionate about good food; her favourite bedtime reading material was Cordon Bleu cookbooks. She combined this with her business skills, first undertaking meticulous research into potential properties, then likely footfall and the competitive landscape in Brighton — anything she could study and analyse.
Eventually ‘gut feel’, the prime driver for most successful entrepreneurs, took over; she walked into a former art gallery in Hove, and knew at once exactly where everything was going to go. The Real Eating Company was born.
The best thing about starting your own business is that you can choose the right job for yourself. Helena decided she would be best running the operation, not working in the kitchen, running the floor or serving in the delicatessen.
The first hire was crucial: the Head Chef. Next, she sensibly found a bookkeeper (most early start-ups fail due to cash-flow problems), and then a General Manager to run all of the day-to- day operations.
But it was not all plain sailing; the Head Chef left after 18 months, and she has had several General Managers in their 4 years of operation. Helena explained that the restaurant business is characterised by significant ‘churn’ in staff, a pattern I have seen in many other customer- facing businesses.
This must be very difficult and time-consuming for the early-stage restaurant entrepreneur. In our Beermat entrepreneurship model we talk about the need for ‘cornerstones’, people who are vital to the business and who probably should have a significant share in the business.
This is not always feasible in the restaurant business unless the chef themselves is the entrepreneur, like Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver. In Helena’s case, she has to find the right person with appropriate skills and persuade them to cook in the style which she feels is right for the Real Eating Company. She then expects that in 18 months or so they may want to leave and start their own restaurant.
The rest of the staff pose an even bigger problem. They tend to be young, ambitious and personable, but they have the terrible power to destroy your brand in an instant by falling out with a customer.
All this means that the restaurant entrepreneur probably has to spend as much time using their people skills in attracting, training and retaining their staff, as in the intricacies of the business operation.
It seems that everyone learns how to do this the hard way, a step at a time, learning from their mistakes. Helena has done this and successfully moved to the next stage, scaling the business.
When I worked in the telecommunications industry, we often spoke about Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of the users in the system. The same proportionality unfortunately applies to the amount of hassle in a person-based organisation.
Still, Helena Hudson appears to have what it takes to meet this challenge. So far she has opened restaurants in Hove and Lewes and cafes in Horsham, Bournemouth and Brighton.
Helena Hudson spent 16 years in marketing and media communications working with blue-chip clients at major advertising and media agencies, the last 8 years as a board director, managing a company with a turnover of over £75million, with a staff of 95.
During her career, Helena’s clients have been varied and include Ford Motor Co, Argos, Golden Wonder, L’Oreal, MGM Home Entertainment, Somerfield Supermarkets, Elizabeth Arden, BUPA, Toys R Us and the Central Office of Information.
She now owns and runs the Real Eating Company. www.real-eating.co.uk
This article is a chapter from ‘This Is How Yoodoo It’ – a collection of Financial Times columns written by Mike Southon. You can buy this book in hard copy and in Kindle version here: http://tinyurl.com/YoodooBook