Food: Word of mouth

Deals and meals: Luke Johnson, the man who is gobbling up our favourite restaurants.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Last week, a Bierodrome, a high-concept prototype of a Low Countries bar serving 200 Belgian beers, opened in Islington. Earlier this month another Belgo, the witty mussels- from-Brussels bar and restaurant with waiters in monk habits, opened in New York. When a fourth London Belgo, in Ladbroke Grove, and one in Dublin open in the next few weeks the group will have doubled in size in 18 months. Yet the 37-year-old who made this growth possible, and who cut his teeth on the eating-out business by overseeing the expansion of Pizza Express from a dozen branches to 200, describes himself as only a part-time restaurateur.

Although the original ideas are not his and he remains in the background, Luke Johnson has had, and will almost certainly continue to have, a far- reaching influence on where many of us eat. Belgo also opened in Bristol earlier this year and Oxford and Brighton are among the 20 planned for the next five years, along with as many Bierodromes - developments made possible since the financier took the group public. He's not peddling junk food - "I prefer being mid- to upmarket because that's where there's money to be made," he explains - but Johnson arouses suspicion among the purist wing of gastronomy, including the enthusiastic amateurs he believes tilt the playing field: "I'm not keen on the idea of restaurants as a hobby or self-indulgence. You want to compete against intelligent money that has to make a return." And when, last summer, the Belgo Group plc, of which he is chairman, paid pounds 13 million for The Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey, the shock waves set panna cottas across town trembling.

Johnson also has stakes in an employment agency, Topps Tiles, Tecno Retail, Integrated Dental Holdings and Cash a Cheque Holdings Great Britain - a chain of pawnbrokers. Deals, not meals, are his business and have made him a great deal of money along the way, yet he insists the description restaurateur fits.

"This business is about organising, finding ideas, the site, recruiting the people, raising the money, deciding on the timetable, launching it and making sure it runs properly. To a greater or lesser extent I am involved with all these." To critics he says: "I defy them to tell me that Pizza Express has deteriorated in the six years since I've become involved. There was never any question of altering the menu. It was all about making sure customers barely knew ownership had changed." The shareholders must have been agreeably aware that it had. Shares multiplied in value more than 20-fold.

Nor will the A-list regulars at The Ivy and Le Caprice have any reason to remember last summer's sensational takeover. Johnson works in partnership with the founders whose vision and dedication have made their businesses the assets he's after.

Son of the right-wing fulminator Paul Johnson, this clear-blue-eyed ascetic who flirted with the Referendum Party in the last election started hosting clubs and bars when he was a medical student - hardly what you'd call rag-week prankster material. He operates from a bare Mayfair office and wears a shirt so unnaturally creaseless it must have flown out of the packet without touching the sides. He admits that "up until now, I've been seen as not part of the gang" but was drawn to the restaurant business, "because it's good fun. I love restaurants and go to them all the time. It's a growth industry. We've become a service economy."

Any other restaurant groups he has his eye on? If there were he wouldn't say, and it's as likely to be carpets or prosthetics that attract him with their potential for making a profit. "To come up with an idea as coherent and inspired as Belgo or Pizza Express is very hard." To take them national isn't as easy as he makes it look, either

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