Adam White is co-founder and managing director of Village London, which includes Village East in Bermondsey, the Riding House Café, and the recently-opened Rail House Café in London. The restaurateur was born in London, but grew up in New Zealand, moving back to the city of his birth in 1994 with plans to work in industrial design. However, he caught the hospitality bug through a two-year stint serving pints in a Covent Garden pub and went on to successfully manage The Castle in Holland Park, The Stonemasons Arms in Hammersmith and The Masons Arms in Battersea. He opened Village East as his own venture in 2006, before going on to open the hugely successful Riding House Café in 2011. His latest restaurant – The Riding House Café – opened in March at the Nova development in Victoria.
It is six months now since you opened the Rail House Café, how are things going with the business?
I haven’t done a new development before so it’s been a learning curve and emotional at times. All being said, we have to be very thankful we have been busy, but there have been unexpected challenges – they didn’t finish the pavement until the day we opened, for example, and most of the offices are still to be occupied so the development hasn’t reached its full potential yet. The restaurants here have certainly got the ball rolling for the developers, although I’m not sure if that’s the right way to do things.
Your restaurants have always championed all-day dining, a style of dining which has grown in popularity the UK over the last few years, do you see it as a format that will continue to be popular?
Most certainly, opening from breakfast until dinner and cocktails is great for diners as well as operators. Breakfast, for example, is not a service you have to cram in to one hour and, in the right location people find a breakfast meeting easier for many reasons. Tables are easier to get hold of, and as a customer, you can have a breakfast meeting for 45 minutes which is a comfortable time and may otherwise seem rude for a lunch meeting. It’s also more affordable, less formal and can be healthier.
Being available for our regulars all day for any occasion means we can still offer lunch, somewhere for coffee, drinks or snacks in the afternoon and still attract the evening crowd. I feel it’s what people want from their local restaurant. With a significantly lower spend per head you have to be busy to make it work as an operator.
What is it you love about running neighbourhood-style restaurants?
The atmosphere, the relationship between the restaurant and guest is very personal, it’s very special. For the same reason, you have to keep on your toes. Consistency is incredibly important when your customer base is almost entirely regular. Imagine if you had been going to your local three times a week for years and one of the team approached you asking if you would like still, sparkling or tap.
The Riding House Café won Tatler’s Best Front of House award in 2012. What are your thoughts on service, does it get enough of the focus in the industry?
Certainly a relevant question today. With the growing popularity of online feedback I think service gets quite a lot of focus, though not always from the industry. It’s a very personal thing so it’s not quite as simple for the industry to measure and analyse it. Guests in my experience are more offended by poor service as it’s personal. Serving good food is skill-based, so feedback is usually much more animated when it comes to service.
How do you define good service?
Delivering a genuine smile and not leaving the guest wanting. In restaurants like ours, it’s more about enjoying a healthy relationship, and like all relationships that takes work, right?
Your restaurants have so far all been in London, would you ever consider opening anywhere outside the capital?
Not in the UK, at least not at present – the success ratio is just too small for London migrations. We seem to do better overseas. It’s a real shame as I think everyone outside of London is getting a bit fed up of London getting so much attention in our field. I can understand that they want their own identity so can be a little resistant to London imports. Saying that, there is quite a bit of movement in that area at the moment from people braver than I, and I hope it works out.
Restaurateurs face so many pressures, yet we still see many new restaurants opening. What are your top tips to making them a success?
It’s going to slow down, the market hasn’t been close to this hard before. 2009 was nothing compared to today. Sure, more restaurants are opening – but it’s very important to look at how many are closing as well. Established and experienced operators are finding it very difficult at the moment with every cost base increasing significantly and busy restaurants close to us have surprisingly been closing down. Therefore, I would advise anyone starting out to be wary, very wary. You need to be confident in the financial aspects of the business to make it work.
Everything will re-balance as it always does, so perhaps just be patient.
What one industry issue would you like to solve and how would you solve it?
It’s difficult to pick just one this year, as I say there are so many. Saturation of the market is obvious and it contributes to the other major issue which is that there just aren’t enough people, let alone skilled people, to go round. Councils can solve it by ensuring areas have mix use. They should give retail a hand as they have been hammered by online shopping and we could certainly do with more shops about.
Where do you find your inspiration?
In my eternal search for the healthiest tastiest food, I eat out a lot, and thankfully so does the rest of London. When it comes to décor I look at pretty random things, not restaurants. Rail House was a mix of turn of the century luxury train carriages and conservatories.
Where do you like to eat out?
In town I’m loving Blanchette in Soho, at home in Clapham there’s a great little restaurant recently opened called Minnow and I’m lucky enough to live round the corner from the Dairy. I haven’t had a bad mouthful, let alone dish there in years. Robin Gill, Clapham thank you!
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor