The head of the Groupe Chez Gerard chain of restaurants has had career experience in industry, market research, government and consulting. Here, he re lates a lesson learned in his early days in the restaurant business.
The head of the Groupe Chez Gerard chain of restaurants has had career experience in industry, market research, government and consulting. Here, he relates a lesson learned in his early days in the restaurant business.

My big mistake came in my early days in the restaurant trade. When my partner and I started up in 1980, we had come from totally different backgrounds. I had been at the Department of Trade and Industry and a management consultant, while Laurence Isaacson for many years had run an advertising agency called The Creative Business.

I had created a specialist mail-order wine company, Les Amis du Vin, which, while successful, was finding it hard to make money out of selling wine, so Laurence suggested, why not set up a restaurant.

We opened the Cafe des Amis du Vin in Covent Garden in 1980, when it was a dead area. I believe it was really the first French cafe we had in London, and the idea has been copied many times since.

Everybody asked at the time: "Who would open a restaurant in an old banana warehouse in Covent Garden." Nobody would come, they said. Covent Garden was nothing like the vibrant area it is today.

We tried to sell shares in the enterprise to our friends. Some believed in us; some questioned our sanity. But we raised the finance and started up.

We didn't know anything about restaurants. But, maybe because of our marketing and management expertise, it was an immediate and incredible success. We had to turn people away at the door.

We were feeling very pleased with ourselves - until, after a few months, we saw the first management accounts. In the first six months we had lost £60,000 in the operation of a very successful restaurant.

We realised that allowing professional restaurateurs to run it from a distance - as we had been doing - didn't work. Money seemed to be going out the back quicker than it was coming in the front. I remember once sitting in my car watching the place at 3am in an attempt to find out what was happening to the profits.

We quickly learned that the hard part is not in creating a restaurant - the real art is in its control. We decided somebody had to go in and run it. Laurence was still involved in running the advertising agency, so I became managing director. We then found we were able to make it not only successful but also profitable. It was serving an estimated 2,500 customers a week and was one of the most popular restaurants in the area.

So we developed another, called Cafe Fish, and the two, along with the wine company and a retail food business, eventually were sold in 1984 to Kennedy Brookes for more than £2m.

We remained committed to the London restaurant business as main board directors of Kennedy Brookes. I continued to develop Amis du Vin and was responsible for the operations of about 30 cafes, bars and brasseries, as well as group purchasing, Laurence looked after the group's gourmet restaurants and used his background to oversee brand marketing and public relations.

Our mistake was in believing we should leave the running to people who had been in the restaurant business all their lives, and we ended up losing a lot of money. We dealt with it by putting in proper controls. And we were able to build on this when we became directors of Kennedy Brookes.

Then, in 1986, after policy disagreements over how the restaurants should be run, we set up on our own again - by acquiring the leases and goodwill of two restaurants, Cafe Fish and Bertorellis, from Kennedy Brookes for £800,000. From that we were able to build up a collection of restaurants in the West End. The group now also includes the three Chez Gerard restaurants from which the group takes its name, and Soho Soho.

Our aim from the start was to create a group of high quality and good value restaurants based on the idea of professional management and marketing skills. We combined a passion for food and wine with the desire to use best management practice, particularly by marketing individual restaurants to create a strong identity and brand for each type.

The group was recently floated on the stock market with a value of more than £20m, and has acquired the well-known English restaurant Scotts in Mayfair.