Carried away on a red wave: Emily Green meets the working mother behind Cafe Rouge, which last week opened its 11th branch

KAREN JONES loves 'the business'. Not any old business, but the restaurant business, full of swagger, dash and hairy deadlines. And it is to the good fortune of up to 2,500 people every day that she loves her work. That is how many customers her restaurants can handle.

Some of them will have three courses, wine, coffee and armagnac, others just a black coffee and a croissant; they might spend pounds 2.50 or pounds 25. They will be spread across London, but the dining rooms will all look alike: marble- topped bistro tables, cane chairs, darkwood dressers, Fifties French posters. They could be in any of 11 Cafe Rouge outlets.

Co-conspirator in this red wave is Roger Myers: he is, according to Ms Jones, the entrepreneurial brains while she manages the business. They started the Cafe Rouge chain in March 1989 with pounds 100,000 and one 65-seat restaurant in Richmond, Surrey. Three years later, with branches in Hampstead, Notting Hill, Putney, Wimbledon, Highgate, Fulham, King's Road, St James and on the South Bank, theirs is a public company with pounds 10m annual turnover.

This would not be a bad performance at the best of times, but with the recession continuing to plague the catering industry, it is a dazzling accomplishment. It comes as no surprise to discover that they had a practice run. Cafe Rouge is their second empire.

They met in 1979, when Ms Jones was working days in an advertising agency and nights in Peppermint Park, an American-style cocktail lounge that Mr Myers had developed in the West End. She was fresh, a Yorkshire-born girl with northern mettle and southern polish, and a touch of continental elegance acquired from her Swiss mother. They clicked. By 1982, she had joined the company full-time and progressed through a series of management jobs.

Impressed by Mr Myers's cocktail bars, Courage approached him to rejuvenate some city-centre pubs. So the first Dome was born in Hampstead. Ms Jones came in to help develop them.

The look of the many Domes that followed was utterly calculated. For 18-year- olds, the long bars, vintage gum machines and splashy French posters positively reeked of continental panache. Detractors claimed they were no more than theme pubs. They might be disconcerted by Ms Jones's response to this complaint. 'That's exactly what they were. They were never intended to be anything else,' she says.

Three years later, Mr Myers and Courage split and he and Ms Jones became partners in a new company, Theme Holdings. Peter Langan joined the board, and it was through him that Ms Jones first tasted the verve and temper of the restaurant business. 'Peter was immensely interesting,' she says. 'He had me in tears, he drove me to fury, he was the only person to tell me to bugger off - at least in my professional life. But he knew how to put things together. Everything came back to sex, his restaurants had to have sex appeal. They had to make people look good and feel good.'

When she refers to Langan's fixation with sexy restaurants, she is talking about customer care. This was a subject that rang bells for Ms Jones. As a college student she had spent a year in America, where she worked in the Wellesley Treadway Inn in Massachusetts. 'It was not a place of great gastronomic note,' she says, 'but I learnt a lot there about satisfying people. You have to know how to do it, and want to do it.'

She and Mr Myers 'did' three restaurants with Langan, each called Langan's Bar and Grill, in the City, Mayfair and Hampton Court. Two years later they sold Theme Holdings. Next on the blocks was the Rouge empire.

It was to be more sophisticated than the Domes, with serviceable food and an older clientele. Influenced by Langan's auction-crawling to find things to decorate restaurants, she dug around Paris for posters. The rooms were meant to glow with burnished wood and paint, yellowed to suggest layers of Gitanes smoke. Again she used the marble-topped tables and bistro chairs they had popularised with the Dome, by this time a standard item in every Habitat in the country.

Four months after opening the first Cafe Rouge in Richmond, Ms Jones became pregnant. 'It wasn't exactly planned, but I was delighted,' she says. 'I'm not sure Roger was so pleased. He left a somewhat barbed message of congratulations for my husband on our answering machine.' She took 10 days off to have the baby before returning to work.

Not every Cafe Rouge was a success. An outlet that opened in Islington late in 1989 failed to woo locals or this paper, which reviewed it critically. Ms Jones said she agreed with most of the critical comments: 'But I think we lost faith in it too early.' They converted it into a Mexican- style restaurant, La Cantina. This, too, was a mistake. 'We didn't know enough about the food. We were wrong. We should have left it as a Rouge.' They sublet it six months ago and the new tenants appear to be doing well.

Yet across town, only months after Rouge Islington began to suffer, Marie Pierre Moine, the founder of Taste magazine, was utterly charmed by the new Notting Hill Rouge - until, that is, the chef left. She phoned Ms Jones to complain of falling quality.

'Marie Pierre came in and was very constructive,' says Jones. 'We have a very strong management training programme for the front of house. We devolve power, and it's very well-oiled and successful. But I have always found it much harder in the kitchen.'

She began what amounts to a catering college, with five senior chefs who take it in turns to give courses to the kitchen staff. 'We try to train them, then move them on carefully. It has had varying degrees of success, but we usually don't have to recruit from outside any more.'

When menus are revised every three months, the tastings begin. Ms Jones gathers with staff. A menu is outlined. Each dish is tested. 'We then cut the menu down and have another tasting,' she says. 'Then a final tasting for managers, so they know what they are serving.'

To keep tabs on the food, she eats in Rouges five times a week. For formal visits she will have a chef cook the entire menu for her. Chefs are intimidating. This takes guts.

Five months pregnant with her second child, last week she opened their 11th Cafe Rouge. Set in a post-modern development in Lancer Square, just off Kensington Church Street, it is a swish two-storey job with a huge shaded patio. If Ms Jones can make it work, she could form a guild of alchemists.

It is on the site of Cafe Kensington, which opened in September 1990 and closed by mid-January 1992. Ironically, if it succeeds, Ms Jones will have beaten the previous owners at their own game. One of them was Peter Godwin, owner of the hugely successful La Brasserie in South Kensington.

Strangely, he abandoned his steak- frites-and-Fitou formula to join the bandwagon of chef-led modern British food. Only five minutes down the road from the stars of the movement, Kensington Place and Clarke's, this proved unwise. Worse were the morose staff, at least one of whom begged for tips on top of a built-in service charge.

This will not happen at Rouge. You tip or you do not. And the owners nurse no illusions about gastronomic showmanship. The food will be edible, probably pleasant. The wines will be exceedingly well-chosen and only Beaumes de Venise will cost more than pounds 15. Coffee will be good.

Cafe Rouge is the sort of ubiquitous, civilised pit-stop that Londoners could only have dreamt of five years ago. We owe it in great measure to a rather amazing working mum.

Cafe Rouge, 2 Lancer Square, off the south end of Kensington Church Street, London W8 (071-938 4200). Taped music. Vegetarian meals. Children welcome; high chairs. Open Mon-Sat 10am-11pm for breakfast, lunch and dinner; Sun and bank holidays 10am- 10.30pm. Access, Visa.

(Photograph omitted)

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