'Shaw's' is a carefully presented restaurant in a little brick pavilion on the Old Brompton Road in London's South Kensington. Sir Neil met the chef, Frances Atkins, last year in Scotland, when she was cooking at Pitt Castle on Strathspey, Tate & Lyle's corporate hospitality castle.
Having just discovered the potential of low-fat cooking at a health farm in Brittany, Sir Neil and his dining companion, David Banks, a Texan financier, decided that her sea-bass mousse and sweetbread ragout deserved a restaurant of their own. 'We called her in from the kitchen and said: 'When can you start?' She said 'Monday'.'
Sir Neil, Canadian-born, was paid pounds 361,000 last year by Tate & Lyle, and he eats out three or more nights a week in his corporate role, as former chairman of Business in the Community, and as a trustee of Kew Gardens. He liked the idea of his own restaurant and of spreading the word among his many business contacts. Compared to his other investments, which have produced the inevitable losses at Lloyd's of London and a successful chain of old people's homes in Florida, this was much more fun.
The potential profit was also appetising. On an investment of about pounds 300,000 (Sir Neil controls 42 per cent, with David Banks, Frances Atkins and their partners taking the rest), the return could be 40 per cent before tax, though Sir Neil says he would be content with 10 to 15 per cent.
According to his calculations, the numbers should stack up like this. A three-course dinner is pounds 27.50. If the 44 covers, or seats, are used at least once a day, and six are used twice, making fifty covers at an average spend of pounds 40 for food plus wine, that makes about pounds 2,000 daily. Six days a week, that totals around pounds 600,000 a year, or just under pounds 500,000 after VAT. Food is about a third of that, salaries for 15 full and part-time staff a little less, together making pounds 300,000. Rent on the eight- year lease and rates are another pounds 50,000, leaving a potential gross profit of pounds 150,000.
That's the theory, at least. But the risk is sizeable. About half the initial pounds 350,000 went on an eight-year lease. There is a small working capital loan, but otherwise the partners' equity is on the line. Sir Neil, as a director of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, knows that lenders put restaurants in their ultra-high-risk category. 'But you only go round the track once in life, and if you can have some fun . . . well, good.'
Shaw's took over the lease on 1 January. A complete break was needed with the previous restaurant on the site, the Chanterelle, which had become a gay rendezvous.
Sir Neil's wife, Pixie, a sculptor, took charge of the decor, and the result is gracious. The other half of the initial investment went on fitting out, and it shows. The ornate gilt mirrors, which flatter the room and its clientele, are not fake. The outdoor tables and chairs came from Harrods. The small contemporary landscapes on the wall are for sale through the Cadogan Contemporary gallery. 'Unfortunately,' says Sir Neil, 'my wife keeps buying them.'
By 14 March, the restaurant was ready. Shaw invited 24 friends to test it.
'It was like having 24 management consultants in. They pointed out the plates that were too hot, the plates that were too cold, and the waiter who opened a bottle of wine by gripping it in his crotch.'
Those problems ironed out, Shaw's opened. It is now in full swing. The film director John Schlesinger took a table for eight last Wednesday, Princess Margaret has been in, and so has Rowan Atkinson.
But it is not making money yet. To cover the slack months of July and August, it needs more two-dinner sittings and more lunches. 'People really like the restaurant, and they stay for a long time,' says Shaw, who is reluctant to tell diners their table is needed by 9.30pm. Meanwhile, he is punching through the roof to give an airier feel at lunchtime.
Trade sources suggest that the locale, which attracts holidaying Americans in T-shirts and weekday lawyers and bankers without time to cook, might prefer something less formal. Rory Ross, restaurant critic for Tatler magazine regards it as '. . . beautifully comfortable. The mirrors take 15 years off you. And, interestingly, it goes against the trend in London for noisy, high through-put places'.
Shaw is convinced the formula is right. With splendid confidence, he shrugs off the thought that a restaurant is a very visible risk for one in his position to take - especially with his name on it - and is already looking at sites for Shaw's II.
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