Five minutes with… Martin Williams

Martin Williams left his role as managing director of Gaucho in 2014 after nine years there to open his own restaurant under the M Restaurant brand.  The group now comprises three restaurants – M Restaurant Victoria Street, M Threadneedle Street and the M Bar & Grill in Twickenham, which opened last year.  Martin talks to Hospitality & Catering News about building his own restaurant brand, why he takes inspiration from private members’ clubs and hotels and his beef with ‘dated and rightly dying‘ restaurant chains. 

M Restaurants reported record growth (group sales up 19%) in 2017, what made it such a successful year?

Part of it was just the natural growth of a new brand.  I think our reputation has grown and grown and then, particularly in the last year or so, has really blossomed. It’s funny the amount of people who say ‘oh there’s a new place called M Restaurants you must try it’. It’s taken us two-and-a-half years to become the new place!

It took longer for people to discover us than we anticipated, but I think our reputation has grown because, from the start, we set out to give a better value experience to guests and I think that’s appreciated more and more now. We deliver a higher quality product for the same price, or with heightened hospitality where we make a huge effort to recognise all the guests and make them feel welcome. That stands out at the moment in an industry where there’s lots of pressures on cost.  It’s very easy to save money on wages or cost of sale and give a worse value experience. I think that’s created an opportunity for us to go the other way and enhance the experience, which has given us a point of difference.

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You went from running restaurants for large restaurant groups to running your own, what was the steepest learning curve you encountered in doing so?

Historically I had always joined companies when they were already established. I joined Gaucho when there were six (sites) and took it to 16. Likewise, the other restaurants I’d joined before had gone through the initial period, so the steepest learning curve was realising how long it takes to build a brand.

When I was at Gaucho I had an operations team of 10 and when I set up M it was me and a fax machine under my bed. It was quite a contrast and I think all of us at M now are over-qualified for the positions that we’re in, but that gives you great strength because it means that whether they’re the executive chef, the operations director or the restaurant directors they’ve all got a lot more experience than people usually find in those positions. That reflects on the experience that we give the guests.

The opportunity to delegate disappears very quickly when you’re a start-up, everything is all hands-on-deck and what that does is create an entrepreneurial spirit for all the staff. It makes you a lot more flexible, but it’s a lot harder work. Ultimately you have to have somebody to do it and ultimately that person is you.

M Restaurant Food & Interiors Twickenham

What led you to into the hospitality industry? Did you always want to work in restaurants?

I always enjoyed cooking. I’d cook with my mum from when I was about three and we’d have these big family Saturday dinners and Sunday lunches together when we’d take it in turns to cook. I worked in hotels when I was a kid growing up and did everything from pot-washer to being a (terrible) waiter and then when I came to London to study I carried on working in restaurants. Eventually that ambition and love for them took over what I originally came to London to study.

Which companies in the industry do you most admire and why?

I learn more from hotels and private members’ clubs than restaurants. That’s where more of my inspiration comes from, particularly internationally. I think they give a better all-round experience and understand hospitality.  My first operations manager at Gaucho said ‘you don’t understand just how amazing the guest experience can be, go to the Four Seasons and experience it there’, so I did. It was like a Eureka moment when I was walking down the corridor and the cleaner gave me eye contact, a smile, a greeting and my name. It was like ‘wow, how did they achieve that?’. That’s the fun and the puzzle of what we try and do in the restaurants, we try and figure out how to join the dots to give a great experience.

I still watch the Four Seasons and Soho House are interesting. I like what they do internationally. I always enjoy going to Home House in London. You find a cross-section of people from different businesses and sectors, not just from, say media like the Groucho. It’s a mixture and is like proper London, which is what we try to emulate in our lounges in Victoria and Threadneedle Street.

From a food perspective I like what Street XO are doing at the moment – really high quality Michelin-background food which they make it fun and exciting. The fact that you’re physically eating in lots of different ways is interesting, but most of my inspiration comes from abroad. I’ve just got back from South Africa and went to a great Ethiopian restaurant where you eat with your hands. That was fun. In South Africa now they’ve got high quality food but in a casual environment. That’s what inspires me the most.

With figures showing more people are turning vegetarian and vegan and eating less meat do you feel nervous specialising in steak?

When I was at Gaucho 91% of the main courses were steak, whilst at M steak only makes up  50% of the main courses, so I think people recognise that we’re a restaurant that specialises in steak rather than a steakhouse.

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Mike Reid our executive chef also makes the other dishes very attractive. That has been part of our success, because I agree, there’s always a veto vote with customers. If you’re only known for doing steak and one person is vegetarian they won’t come, so having a broader menu that has very attractive options on it, other than purely a selection of steaks, gives you a point of difference. At M Victoria we have two restaurants – the Grill and RAW, which is 100% gluten free. A lot of the food we serve at RAW Is also vegan and vegetarian, so if a customer asks for those options in The Grill, we’ll just bring the menu through.

You’ve just launched your second Young Chef of the Year competition, which gives one chef under 29 a title and chance to run a five-day pop-up at M RAW in Victoria Street. Why is it important for M Restaurants to support young talent?

We came up with the idea about 18 months ago and it stems from the staff shortage in the industry. For years I have been a lone English man with half a brain in an industry surrounded by people from international countries. When I started in the industry  it was full of South Africans and Australians and then it became much more Eastern European and South American and more recently it has become a more European workforce.

The competition therefore is to encourage young British chefs into the industry and also to nurture the talent that’s already here. We wanted to build on what we had last year, where it was predominantly people from in and around London. This year we’re doing a regional final in Manchester which hopefully will encourage chefs from the North of England and Ireland to enter as well.

There are a number of competitions which are just about the food, but many chefs also have an ambition to open their own restaurant, so hopefully this competition alerts them to the fact that it’s not enough to just cook great food, you need to have business acumen, you need to have marketing initiatives and that’s why we’ve created it, so that yes, you won’t get through unless your food’s outstanding, but it’ll have to come within a certain cost of sale.  We give help in how to run the pop-up, so it’s totally a really well-rounded competition that skills young talent in a way that they haven’t been challenged before.

M Restaurant Food & Interiors Twickenham

You recently hit out at ‘dated and dying restaurant chains’ do you think the industry has become too complacent?

From a consumer perspective complacency has set in. If you go back two decades the only choice on the high street was a chain restaurant (usually an Italian restaurant) and then another chain would come along and another which would be a bit better. Ultimately they were a similar price point offering a consistent product. Now you’ve got brands enter the market like The Ivy where – whether they achieve it or not – they’re aiming to offer a better experience, better surroundings and a sense of belonging for the same money that you used to spend at a chain restaurant.

What you notice when you go to chain restaurants now is a lack of management on the floor, so you’re in the lottery of ‘do I have a good waiter and do they care about my experience or am I just a number?’. I think for too long now, chain restaurants have offered a bog standard experience and it’s a bit of a lottery of whether it will be nice or not. Compare that to a young company that is desperate for every guest to walk away as an ambassador, like M is then, you have a stark contrast. It applies equally whether it’s a high end chain restaurant or whether it’s a mid-market chain restaurant and you see that they are struggling because they don’t have personality, they don’t have guest appreciation and they’re not desperate to give an amazing experience to everyone who comes through the door. The people who are trying harder are the ones succeeding. It’s not enough to just have a name above the door anymore.

Where do you like to eat out and drink in on your days off?

I live in Clapham so I go to Trinity. I think what Adam Byatt does is great. He also has his Bistro Union which is good. Then, I’ll choose different places in town, I mentioned Street XO and I enjoyed going to Red Rooster in Shoreditch. I like the live music there.  I’m always looking for top chefs and where I can go for a Michelin-starred experience too.

What does the near future hold for you and M Restaurants?

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We are looking at what opportunities are coming up, we just need to be looking at them and be open to it. We’ll do another M Bar & Grill this year, using the Twickenham model. That might be another commuter-belt location or it might be closer to town. We’re also doing a partnership with (possibly) two retail brands about doing something in their stores – one would be branded under the retail brand, the other M at. We’re also in conversations with two different hotel groups on doing something within the hotels – one in Europe one in the UK.

In our existing restaurant, we will look at what we can do, particularly at Victoria. We’ve got two or three pop-up restaurants opening there – either charitable events or with guest chefs. There are just lots of opportunities and we’ll see how they go.

After this interview, Martin Williams announced he had put in a bid for the two Barbecoa restaurants which had been put up for sale by JamieOliver. However, when the restaurant at St Paul’s was bought by One New Change Ltd, a subsidiary of Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group, Williams said he was no longer interested.

He said: “Our interest in Barbecoa was for a ‘full group’ purchase which incorporated both venues and the entire brand: As a whole business it has great potential. Split by the controversial Pre-Pack Administration deal, it is no longer an interesting proposition and the Piccadilly rent is twice what it should be. However, as we grow the M brand, we will seek new opportunities as they arise and welcome the cream of hospitality talent to join us on that journey.”

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