• Cyril McAree

‘Be A Great Employer’, Says Top UK Restaurateur

The most important strategy for a successful restaurant is to develop a reputation as a great employer, Fergal Lee, director of Corbin and King, the UK restaurant group, told Irish restaurateurs.

He was speaking to more than 50 invited restaurateurs and managers at ‘The Firm Talks’ in the RDS Members Club.

‘People’, he said are at the heart of a successful restaurant business, and therefore recruiting and retaining the right team is the recipe for success.

‘The teams that enable the restaurant to perform at its maximum include the kitchen, finance, procurement, training and development, staff welfare, your external partners including your suppliers. If you don’t have good relationships with them you are not going to get the quality you need. If you don’t pay them on time you won’t get deliveries when you need them.’

While the kitchen is responsible for the quality of the food on the customers’ plates’, he said, it doesn’t call the shots on what dishes are on the menu. ‘That’s a collaborative process involving front of house and others, but the owners have the final say’.

Back of house also needs to be performing optimally. ‘Otherwise everything grinds to a halt. Training and development matters; people want careers not just jobs. They also have lives outside of work. We have to look after their welfare and their work life balance. You need people of the right calibre to create the right culture. This doesn’t happen overnight. You need to build a reputation as a great employer. If you don’t get back of house right, nothing works.’

Stressing the importance of ‘first impressions’ when entering a restaurant, Fergal Lee said that the Maitre D plays a pivotal role.

‘In an initial five seconds the Maitre D has to convey the right level of warmth, empathy, and authenticity. It sets the tone for the rest of the experience. Maitre Ds are like gold and are people to be treasured. They put the right people on the right tables and build the atmosphere in the room. They have to be part Michelangelo and part Machiavelli in that task.’

‘During lunch you shouldn’t sit people from the same industry side by side, but you can do that during the evening when things are more relaxed. It helps to build the atmosphere. A good Maitre D’ has to be interested in people, a bit of a nosy character and have an extremely good memory. Customer recognition is a vital tool in their armoury. Customers expect to be recognised and greeted by name. Restaurants lose respect, trust and authority if they don’t’.

Pic Shows: Fergal Lee is pictured (third from left) with Peggy Kim, Micheline Corr, Linda McFadden and Fiona Larkin of The Firm

He said that customers frequent their favourite restaurant because ‘they trust that you understand their expectations, that the food will be good, and that you will look after them. You must have authority in service and delivery in order to ensure that the staff are knowledgeable and skilled, and that the service is of a high standard.’

Understanding customer preferences is also essential and is based on knowledge accumulated over the years. ‘You get to know their favourite food, wine, if they are married or divorced, where they like to sit’.

Restaurants have life-cycles, he said. ‘The start of the journey is like giving birth, a lot of pain but it’s worth it in the end. The first three months is all about winning acclaim and reviews. After that there is more of a commercial focus.’

Introducing Fergal, Micheline Corr, director of The Firm, said that Fergal began his career with Corbin and King as part of the opening team for the now-iconic Wolseley Restaurant in Piccadilly in 2003 and has played a key role in its development over 17 years.

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