Profile: Restaurateur who rides his fortune: Roger Myers - The seemingly happy-go-lucky head of the Cafe Rouge chain tells William Kay about his ambitions to be number one

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The Independent Online
THE BLACKBOARD notice advertising the special Bastille Day menu at the Soho branch of Cafe Rouge last week would not have looked out of place in Montmartre, except for one small point: the word 'Bastille' was missing the letter 'e'.

The sort of mistake a busy English waiter could easily make, perhaps. 'But they're all French here,' said a bemused Roger Myers, chairman of Pelican Group, the company that owns the Cafe Rouge chain of mid-priced Gallic eateries.

Myers sits at a table with a convincing air of a patron. Still sporting the beard grown on holiday in Venezuela last Christmas, he nurses a Perrier in silent penance for the portly figure his work has imposed on him.

The Bastille misspelling is the sort of minor mishap that the unflappable Myers, 46, takes in his stride. Like the time he organised a concert for the soul singer James Brown at the 4,000-seater Wigan Casino in Lancashire and attracted next to no one.

And then there was his idea for a New York-style deli with a Chinese menu. Called Cohen & Wong, it bombed.

Myers likes to tell these tales against himself, and he can afford a little self-deprecation.

On Friday, he served up a 175 per cent increase in pre-tax profits to pounds 2.5m, earnings 22.5 per cent higher and a 14 per cent dividend increase. And he has signed a deal to sprinkle Granada Group's 20 motorway service stations with Rock Island Diners. These are modelled on the snack bars of 1950s America, after a highly successful pilot venture of that name in London's Piccadilly Circus. Granada will run them, while Pelican takes a royalty on turnover. It is Pelican's first trading link of this nature with one of the country's mass caterers and opens the prospect of taking the group on to a new plane.

Said Myers: 'When I started, I thought we would either build up the company or get taken over. But now we are Britain's second biggest independent restaurant operator after City Centre Restaurants, the Garfunkels group. And I don't see why we should not go all the way to being the biggest.'

The hard steel of ambition took time to penetrate Myers' soul. Like many others before him, he entered the restaurant business almost by accident.

'In 1978, a friend of mine, Alan Lupin, had a Dayvilles ice cream franchise and he asked me to invest in a sit-down ice- cream parlour,' he said.

The ice-cream parlour idea turned into a cocktail bar, and the cocktail bar became a diner called Peppermint Park in Covent Garden.

The resulting pink extravaganza soon became the smart place to be seen - and that was before Paul McCartney chose to hold a party there to celebrate buying the publishing rights to Buddy Holly's music. One of the better-known guests, Keith Moon, the Who's wild drummer, went home and died. Pictures of Peppermint Park's frontage were plastered over papers throughout the world. That had queues going round the block for months afterwards.

'It was too easy,' Myers admitted. 'We were playing poker in the back room and getting drunk most nights. I didn't know anything about catering. We thought everyone was honest and that we were rich.'

He soon discovered that neither was true and that he was being ripped off as remorselessly as any other restaurant owner who has not trudged the hard road from washing-up bowl to front of house. But Peppermint Park's success was big enough to stand even such wholesale back-door leakage.

It was a happy-go-lucky style that had served Myers well ever since he left north London's Quinton Kynaston - in those days a grammar school - at the age of 16. He was born in East Ham, but his parents moved to Finsbury Park, where they lived over a sweet shop they ran. When he left school, he became articled to a firm of accountants, Goodman Myers Smith, where his elder brother was a partner.

Within a couple of years he became a partner, too. The firm specialised in minimising the tax liabilities of the Beatles and other renowned ensembles. It was handy to have a partner nearer the age of such clients, especially as he was happy to travel to the US at a moment's notice to meet them.

On his rounds, Myers met a record producer, Tony Visconti, who married the singer Mary Hopkin and handled such luminaries as the late Marc Bolan's T- Rex and David Bowie. This sounded much more fun than accountancy, so in 1977 they formed a record company, Good Earth Productions, and the concert agency that organised James Brown's disastrous tour. A year later, Myers and Visconti fell out and Myers headed off to Peppermint Park and its foot-long hotdogs.

He was rescued from any management shortcomings there by Courage, which noticed how much beer it was selling to the Park and the two other restaurants Myers and Lupin opened in central London, Coconut Grove and Fatso's Pasta Joint. So the brewer bought them and kept the pair on to turn pubs into something more lucrative. That turned out to be the Dome brasserie chain. 'All-day licensing was just coming in,' Myers explained, 'and I was attracted by the idea of French pavement cafes where women could have a drink without the male-dominated pub atmosphere.'

After Hanson bought Courage, Myers bought the Dome chain and his original three eateries and floated them on the over- the-counter market as Theme Holdings.

That was sold to Leisure Industries, and in 1989 Myers launched the Cafe Rouge chain in tandem with Karen Jones, a former advertising executive who had joined Peppermint Park as a receptionist and promptly displayed a talent for imposing order on the ramshackle management.

Cafe Rouge was a restaurant extension of the Dome idea that delivered the value for money people wanted in the recession. It still offers moules mariniere avec bifteck et frites for less than pounds 10.

Now Myers is turning his attention down under. In September, Pelican is to launch a chain of beer 'n' barbie outlets selling Australian lager and charred meat, the first in Soho. 'It only costs pounds 100,000 to open a new outlet,' said Myers, 'but the key is to keep it simple so it can be rolled out into a chain.'

He admitted that he and his wife, Lee, like nothing better than a takeaway from a little Japanese place they know in West Hampstead, to eat at home in front of a black-and-white movie.

But don't swallow too much of the laid-back image. As I left the Cafe Rouge in Frith Street, the 'e' had been discreetly added to 'Bastille'.

(Photograph omitted)