Dominic Lake, one of the founders of both the London restaurant chain, Canteen, and restaurant, Merchants Tavern, always aspired to become an entrepreneur. Canteen launched in 2005 and now has four restaurants. Merchants Tavern opened in 2013. He has an MBA from London Business School.
This article is provided by the Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
I always thought I’d like to have my own business. My father worked for himself, he’s a product designer and I don’t know whether that had some kind of influence. It was always part of the plan to do my own thing.
There’s far less money involved and far more hours. It comes with a price but it’s a price absolutely worth paying. Being master of your own destiny and the massive responsibility of having people work with and for you means that it becomes less about you and more about you and your team.
When you’re working in a rat race it is hard to really take time out to think. I was working all the time, but then was led to think about what I’d like to be doing in five years. I thought I would like to be part of a team selling a business or, at least, running a successful business. I knew I wouldn’t be doing it on my own. Then I met my business partner, Patrick, who was coming out of a business and looking to do something else. We started talking and decided that we were going to do something together. It actually started off as a boutique hotel in Bath. Then I said why don’t we just do the restaurant side of it, because a hotel is obviously a restaurant and hospitality, two skill sets we didn’t have? Why don’t we just try one area of skill we don’t have, which is the restaurant side? He said there’s a friend of mine who’s a chef down in Brighton. He’s been a chef in London, was one of the chefs to watch in the early nineties, and that was that.
Being in London and eating out a lot there was a feeling about what was happening in terms of local sourcing, quality produce and British food. I felt that people go out for a Chinese or an Indian meal but you’d never go out for a British meal. We pulled those strands together. We felt if you wanted to go out and spend £20 and know that your meat was not intensively farmed and your eggs were actually free range organic eggs and your chicken was organic, there was a swelling interest in that among the mass market. Out of all of this we saw ourselves as raising the quality of food on the high street. This became our mission statement and one of our key drivers.
Selling the idea
Then we had to go and sell it. None of us were independently wealthy and we needed some money. That’s where what I had learned at business school really kicked in — in terms of structuring a business plan, doing your due diligence, writing it and presenting it. It meant I had the language; could define not only the strategic side of what sort of business it was going to be, how we were going to deliver it; and actually challenge the numbers.
There are something like 7,000 restaurants in London. It’s a ridiculous number, but any business is competitive. Actually, it’s a very complex and modern business because it’s not just about making great food, it’s about delivering a great experience, which means it’s about people. Behind the scenes it’s about technology and finance. The days of a single chef opening his own restaurant have gone because it’s become sophisticated. You’ve got an Electronic Point of Sale system, stock management, HR control; these are the things your business lives or dies by.
If you’re on your own you can’t look at everything. You can’t be sitting in the kitchen looking at the numbers, thinking about health and safety and delivering proper support to your team and training them so that they, in turn, give your customers a good time.
The people factor
We have about 140 employees now. The customer experience is totally driven by those guys. We always try and make sure that our core team understand that people come to Canteen in their scarce free time and we’re there to make sure it’s as good an experience as possible.
Managers in the restaurants do tastings with the team and they explain that, for example, our chicken comes from a farm where they catch them the night before so they are sent to us fresh. It’s constant, gentle pressure. You can’t tell people something once and think that it will sink in because there’s so much else going on.
We were raising money in 2005 and many investors were very focused on growth, quick growth. We said no, if that’s what you’re after you’re not the right investors for us and we’re not the right company for you.
The plan is to get 15 restaurants in the next five years. There comes a point where you can speed up your growth, but we always felt that it wasn’t within the first five or six units. You want to expand good business practice because it’s very difficult to retrench when you’ve got a set working culture and processes in place. It really is about people: The people side is a very satisfying part of the business when you get it right and when you get it wrong it’s quite painful. I was asked what was our most valuable purchase or acquisition this year, and I said it was our Operations Manager because she has had a massive impact.
What it takes
A lot of it’s attitudinal. You have to have the confidence and the ability to see beyond today and recognise that you can achieve what you want to achieve. You’ve just got to work out how to do it. It’s a combination of confidence and a willingness to try.
Living with the risk
We’re constantly reviewing what if scenarios. In our business cash flow’s very important so we monitor it closely. If it looks like it’s going to be difficult then you manage that situation.