A culinary empire: The man who ate Britain

He is the serial entrepreneur behind Belgo and Pizza Express ­ and yesterday Patisserie Valerie became the latest restaurant chain to be acquired by Luke Johnson

Jonathan Brown Reports
Thursday 22 September 2011 05:19

It was one of the most exquisite moments in fly-on-the-wall television making. Millionaire businessman Luke Johnson dominated the London restaurant business, commanding a glittering portfolio of interests that included the gastronomic landmarks Le Caprice and The Ivy, the ever-popular hangouts of celebrities from Sir Elton John to David and Victoria Beckham.

Flanked by a BBC camera crew after being convinced by his business partner that this was a no-lose way of drawing attention to their less glamorous business interests, he had decided to find out what life was like "back on the shop floor".

Gamely dressed up as a monk, the no-nonsense tycoon with the fiery temper peeled onions and dished out plate after plate of mussels and chips to an insatiable public at the Covent Garden branch of Belgo.

But as the tourists hordes waited ever-less patiently for their Trappist-themed dining experience, the restaurant's head chef turned on his boss and bemoaned the loss of six previous chefs, unhappy at poor conditions and low salaries.

Johnson lost it. Blasting his beleaguered employee for being a "whinger," he ripped off his microphone and stormed out, telling the film crew they were welcome to "stick your programme".

It was a rare and uncharacteristic setback for a man who, at the age of 44, has built an estimated £100m fortune most of it through the restaurant trade. For many, his greatest success remains the PizzaExpress chain, which he helped make the popular middle class dining phenomenon of the 1990s.

Today, after having astonished the media world by being appointed chairman of Channel Four, he owns businesses ranging from fashion to greyhound tracks.

And yesterday, it was announced that he had added to that portfolio by acquiring yet another company, Patisserie Valerie. Opened in 1926 by its Belgian-born founder Madame Valerie, the café is a Soho institution. It was destroyed by the Luftwaffe and relocated to Old Compton Street, where it remains largely unchanged, still boasting the fading Toulouse-Lautrec cartoons enjoyed by generations of cake and coffee lovers.

Johnson bought his £6m controlling stake from the Anglo-Italian brothers Robert, Victor and Enzo Scalzo who had built the original into a chain of eight cafes and three franchises in central London, having acquired it in 1987.

According to Peter Harden, co-author of the celebrated restaurant guides, Johnson is doing what he has done with quite spectacular success for nearly 20 years, spotting the next big thing.

"The upmarket patisserie is very much a coming thing. The British have in recent decades put up with fairly crummy bread and bullet-like croissants. If you look around town there is an absolute explosion in quality baking concepts," said Mr Harden.

Or, as one anonymous City source remarked two years ago when Johnson was appointed to a Channel Four emerging from the most parlous period in its history: "Success in life is all about timing and Luke has had more than his fair share of luck on that front. The bastard is getting in at the bottom again."

Johnson's eye for the main chance began in earnest while reading medicine at Magdelen College Oxford. Here he discovered not only his surefire entrepreneurial touch, but formed one of the defining relationships of his business life, with fellow medic Hugh Osmond.

Johnson, the third son of radical leftie turned right-wing polemicist Paul Johnson (who ironically blasted Channel Four chief executive Michael Grade as "Britain's pornographer in chief") found that Mr Osmond, too, had little taste for the Hippocratic life. What both "Hughie and Looey," as they came to be known, enjoyed most was making money. The study of physiology came a poor second to their youthful success putting on hedonistic club nights for fellow students in bars and nightclubs in Oxford and Bristol.

It is said that one of his most influential experiences came while interviewing Richard Branson for a student magazine on his west London houseboat. Exhibiting the kind of admiration for private enterprise shared by his father, Johnson came to see the Virgin boss as a role model. "If Britain had 50 Richard Bransons, we'd be a hell of a lot better off," he later said.

Moving into "real life" as Margaret Thatcher won her second term, Johnson set out on a career path more conventional than his early adventures as an impresario might have suggested.

There was a job as an account director with an advertising agency, a stint as assistant to the yet-to-be disgraced Tory MP Jonathan Aitken at his ill-starred TV-AM. But all the time he continued to "moonlight" in the twilight world of eating and drinking. He was in the right place at the right time.

By 1986, the London restaurant industry was beginning its long match out of the culinary dark ages. The opening of both The River Café and Bibendum in that year marked a step change in eating-out culture, recalls Richard Harden.

By the end of the decade, Johnson and Osmond, through their quoted shell company Star Computer Group, had begun eyeing the then under-performing chain PizzaExpress, founded once again in Soho in the 1960s.

"If you had been asked to invest in pizza at the beginning of the 1990s and told this was the next big thing, you would have just said 'pass'," said Mr Harden. It was not a view shared by those at Star, who launched a £20m reverse takeover of the company. Johnson became its head in 1992 - just as big money was flooding into London to take advantage of the capital's recession-ravaged property prices and low labour costs.

By the time Tony Blair and New Labourcame to power in 1997, PizzaExpress had 250 outlets and was valued at £700m. It had been enthusiastically adopted by the middle classes who found themselves in the grip of a dining-out boom.

By then, however, the Johnson-Osmond relationship was beginning to unravel, but not before one final deal together, offloading the American-diner chain My Kinda Town which they had bought for a modest £15m for a lip-smacking £57m to Capital Radio.

According to Mr Harden, it was at this time that Johnson hit on his second great idea- the creation of a portfolio of "crown jewel" restaurants that he assembled under the auspices of Signature Restaurants, which he chaired and majority a controlling stake.

It was an idea that had worked in the US and France but hadn't been tried with any conviction in Britain for more than a decade. In 1998 - the year he quit as chairman of Pizza Express after floating the company five years earlier - Johnson went on a buying spree, snapping up theatreland favourite The Ivy and its equally classy sister Le Caprice across town at St James'. He also acquired the more understated celebrity canteen J Sheekey's near Leicester Square.

That was in addition to a clutch of other plush restaurants including Daphne's, The Collection and Pasha, which he had bought from Mogens Tholstrup.

As well as targeting the top end of the market, Signature also catered for the less starry dining crowd, buying Belgo, where Johnson made his miscalculated return to the shop floor, and Strada.

Last year, Johnson sold most of his holdings to rag trade entrepreneur Richard Caring. The Ivy, which had been attracting increasingly negative feedback, and Le Caprice fetched a reported £31m.

Mr Caring later bought out Signature's remaining chains, Belgo and Strada, for a reported £57m. Through his investment vehicle Risk Capital Partners Johnson retains an interest in Giraffe, a 12-outlet family restaurant based within the M25, three greyhound tracks and, recently, a fish supply business.

To Peter Harden, Johnson will always be a money man rather than a fully-fledged restaurateur, albeit a highly successful one. "Any history of London restaurants written in 50 years time would have to include a significant chapter devoted to Signature. In a low profile sort of way there are very few people who have had more impact than Luke Johnson."

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