5 Tips For Cooking Up A Successful Restaurant Business


03 JUNE 2019


Hester Lacey

The London restaurant scene is today acknowledged as one of the best in the world and, with 30 years of experience in the restaurant business, many of them at the helm of some of London’s top names, Des McDonald has been instrumental in transforming the city into one of the world’s top dining destinations. McDonald knows restaurants from kitchen to boardroom. After starting on the shop floor, he became head chef at London’s legendary Ivy restaurant in 1992. He then went on to become CEO of the Caprice Group, owner of The Ivy and other well-known London culinary landmarks such as Scott’s and J. Sheekey. After 20 years with the Caprice Group, latterly as managing director and group CEO, McDonald set up on his own in 2012 as a hospitality consultant. His own first restaurant, The Fish & Chip Shop in London’s trendy Islington, opened to great acclaim: the cod and chips is hard to beat, and arrive hungry, as it’s well worth saving room for pud (sticky toffee pudding features on the menu). His next two ventures, Holborn Dining Room and Q Grill, similarly build on his years of experience as a chef and restaurateur.

It’s notoriously tough to make a success of a restaurant so: you need a head for business as well as some of the best food in town …

Top restaurateur Des McDonald

Start at the beginning and learn the basics

“My father, two uncles and grandfathers were all in restaurants and bakeries so, from a young age, I was always involved in cooking. Even when I was just 12 or 13 I knew what I was going to do – and I knew I was going to be good at it, because I’m a disciplined, organised person and I’ve never found it hard to work under pressure. I like team sports and the kitchen isn’t dissimilar to the rugby pitch: it’s all about communication, discipline and structure. But I still went out and trained. My father got me in at the Ritz but I still went on a day-release course to get that structure, and my 17-year-old daughter has gone to Westminster College, because that’s where I went and I still firmly believe young people need that extra education and discipline. I see young chefs cooking burgers or cooking Thai food for four or five years and that’s all they ever know – they don’t have a broad knowledge of butchery, fishmongery and so on. Before you start refining your art, you need to do the hard graft in all areas. That also allows you to respect colleagues in areas you might not specialise in yourself.”

There’s more to running a restaurant business than cooking – the key word is the b-word

“When I talk to people I employ these days, at whatever level, one question I ask often confuses them, and it’s ‘Do you know how to make money?’ I’m constantly surprised that most people don’t have the faintest idea what you’re in business for. When I was appointed managing director of the Caprice group, I remember saying ‘No problem, I can do that’ and thinking ‘What did I just say?!’ But from the get-go, I was thinking I needed to learn those business skills. It’s about application and confidence. We all get things wrong but you need to ask questions, move forward. My father gave me some good advice: he told me to be a parasite, suck information out of people. I co-ordinated the sale of Caprice to Richard Caring, and then purchasing some other businesses along the way and franchising in the Middle East, so I did some successful deals along the way and managed to pull together a pretty forceful group. Running a company can be quite lonely when you’re used to being on the shop floor. That was an emotion I felt for a long time and I think other company heads feel the same. But I’m one of those people who always sees the glass as half-full rather than half-empty and I didn’t really dwell on what I could and couldn’t do personally. I try not to overcomplicate things; I do the basics really well and I employ people who are the best in their field. I’m not an accountant or an IT expert, but what I am good at is being a team leader, having the right people to work with me and allowing them to do their jobs.”

Don’t underestimate the hard work in setting up on your own

“It’s great working in a large company but it was always a burning ambition to do my own thing. The timing was right, I’d achieved what I could achieve with that group and I wanted to develop my own brands, single-handedly pull my group together, do something for myself. I’d always worked with someone else’s money, never my own, and the taste of success with your own money is very different to the taste with someone else’s. I had lots of people around me, investors who wanted to join forces, and luckily I’m fairly humble: I don’t mind rolling my sleeves up on the shop floor and being involved in the day-to-day running of my businesses. It’s different to being in the boardroom every day but it’s a good reality check and I’ve enjoyed it. You can get caught up in reading too much of your own press and sometimes you’ve just got to get stuck in and go back to basics. I used to talk to some of the celebrities who’d come in from the West End and I can only compare a restaurant service to theatre – the curtain goes up and there are 15 people working perfectly together, it’s very, very rewarding.”

Spot the gaps in the market – and fill them with flair

“I’ve always loved fish and chips – I like great produce, served in a simple fashion. Fish and chips is the British treat and I think some do it well – but there was a massive gap in the market for improvement, hence The Fish & Chip Shop. We serve good old fish and chips, or whitebait, sea bass, oysters, with a glass of Prosecco or a hand-crafted beer. I pulled the concept together very quickly: I didn’t invent fish and chips, but it’s something everyone knows and loves, a crowd-pleaser in fun surroundings. Holborn Dining Room I would class as a great British dining room with scale, with theatre, with warm, friendly, informal service – inclusive, not exclusive. You can have coffee in the morning, a meeting, a business lunch, stand at the bar and have a craft beer or a glass of Champagne after work, a deli conjoining the main room, fine food … a place that offers the best of British in a fun, lively environment. I think in the past five years, as we’ve started coming out of the financial crisis, people are eating out more but spending less. There are still business accounts, but people want to have fun when they go out, they don’t want to be in a room that sucks all the energy out of them. Q Grill also offers that thread of theatre, with its big open pit grill, natural coals and a nod and a wink to classic barbecue – with a lighter touch. I didn’t want to just pay homage to the Texas barbecue; we’ve got good, fantastically sourced food in a friendly environment, great protein, great fish – but I believe people want healthy foods even when they indulge.”