Restaurateur Andrei Lussmann’s career in hospitality spans almost 30 years. After completing a degree in Hospitality & Business at Birmingham Polytechnic, Andrei joined PizzaExpress where he worked his way up from restaurant manager to operations director at PizzaExpress’s Channel Islands restaurants and finally to international franchise manager. He then worked with Fish Diner and Corney & Barrow until 2002 when he decided to launch his own business. The first Lussmanns Fish & Grill opened in Hertford in 2004 and Andrei has since grown his independent brasserie group to five with sites in St Albans, Harpenden, Hitchin and Tring. He talks to Hospitality & Catering News about battling the brands as an independent following the arrival of The Ivy St Albans Brasserie.
Our St Albans restaurant is very important to us and the first to have had to deal with the arrival of The Ivy Brasserie. When Lussmanns Fish & Grill St Albans first opened in 2005 we didn’t have Cote, Brasserie Blanc, Jamie’s Italian, Loch Fyne, Busaba Eathai or Bill’s – to name a few – operating in town, so over the years we’ve become accustomed to newcomers and can cope with bigger brands arriving. The Ivy is the latest incarnation of what the high street is throwing up.
What sometimes happens when a big player comes to town is it can create a level of excitement and some interest in eating out which almost inflates the eating out market. You have more people in town and then everyone does better. However, when it’s a very big brand like Jamie’s Italian or The Ivy, it invariably decimates the competition. We see ourselves as prime A grade competition to The Ivy and unfortunately in the past we’ve felt our revenues being diluted by similar brands.
When Loch Fyne opened in St Albans a year after Lussmanns Fish & Grill we lost 60% of our business overnight. When Cote opened in Harpenden we lost 20% of our business for five months. Now we’re back to where we were with both. We were expecting the same to happen with The Ivy in St Albans and although we’ve had a small drop off it’s nothing in line with what we’d budgeted for. In addition to that, The Ivy is best in class in many respects, so are a fantastic benchmark for us to follow and compete with.
We generally do small and frequent refurbishments of our restaurants, rather than very big and periodic ones. Our restaurants are very busy and when they have a lot of footfall they look a bit tired and like they’ve been knocked around a bit, so we know that small and frequent is the best approach to keep them fresh. St Albans has just had that treatment.
Lussmanns is a micro-group, and we’re growing. Whatever has arrived as the newest kid on the block we’ve always viewed it as an example of best in class premium casual dining and said we need to be better than they are. If we can be better than they are we’ve got a very good chance of being busy and remaining in business.
A few years ago we had a review by Giles Coren and he said we were everything a local restaurant should be. I’m proudly independent, but what we tend to forget is that chains have dragged British dining by the scruff of its neck into the modern day. PizzaExpress was a game-changer in the mid-90s, creating a classy but class-less environment and providing a consistent and ergonomically smart London design at a price people could afford. In the early 90s that was a good benchmark for others. There are good chains and bad chains but chains have got better and better. PizzaExpress ripped through the country and other pizza restaurants went bust because they couldn’t keep up with the quality and innovation and the focus on consistency and value. It’s the same with bistros and brasseries around the country – the likes of Cote and The Ivy have to a certain extent, proven that they are better than them. For all the bashing that goes on we must remember that it’s chains that we have driven the standard forward, so people like me – and I sit between a one-off independent and a chain – realise that the only way we are going to compete with them is do everything chains do while ensuring our staff are more charming and that the restaurant has more personality.
The ethics and sustainable ethos was very close to my way of thinking and the way I wanted to do things, but for the first 14 years we didn’t talk about sustainability. Although sustainability is imperative today, it was very clear that if we uploaded the entire restaurant with these ethics back in 2002 we wouldn’t have been able to make it work. Every year we added another layer and we’ve got to the point now where we can’t do much more. When we started sustainability was originally all about the provenance of where the food came from, but with the SRA’s help we now look at the way we manage our staff and support them and our waste and therefore have a far more holistic approach to what we do, rather than say the chicken is free-range and organic or the beers are local.
With Lussmanns we never try and reinvent the wheel, we just try and create an ethical alternative but actually that was the quiet part of the agreement, the other part was to create a consistent alternative to chains. At Lussmanns we take advantage of our size. We can be nimble, move quickly and have lots of personality and make decisions on the flip of a coin. We have far more passion about what we do and can connect with our customers and staff immediately. So there is a reason why we should try and be better than the big beasts on the high street who have lots of money and lots of marketing have lots of economies of scale and support. We have none of those things, so you have to use what you have got and make it work.
I wanted to be a pilot. However, I was told quite clearly that I couldn’t fix a plug, but I could make a gin and tonic, so from the age of 14 it was decided that I’d go and work in a hotel. By that point I decided ‘fair enough’ and did my degree in hospitality. Out of all those on my course I think there are only two of us left in the industry.
In the old days we worked many hours and people didn’t know how to manage their time, so there was a problem with drinking and smoking. Today, we manage that and it has improved, but with the rise of social media and competition on the high street, the industry doesn’t let go and that’s why there are mental issues. It’s a tough and hugely relentless business that never lets go. You’re on call all the time. Now, with the advent of media it means that the few moments you would have had away previously, you now can’t.
This is a very fast-moving and energetic business and you’re naturally kept fresh and inspired by the people around you. Seeing people who work with us improve and grow is inspiration for me, as is knowing that every time we open a Lussmanns we are stealing customers from the bland, homogenised chains that don’t care about sourcing and have no recognition of waste management. You’re also in an industry where you can see the product of your hard work enjoyed by the customers. There aren’t many places where you get that immediate impact.
We need to grow Lussmanns to make us a better company in a number of ways. That needs to be measured growth. We are answerable to a board which has Luke Johnson on it. He has been a very positive influence to the business and he shares the view with me that we should grow the business in a measured and pragmatic fashion to ultimately give locals somewhere they can enjoy eating in.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor