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November 2, 2012 6:35 pm
Ten days before Will Beckett and his partner Huw Gott, both 35, officially opened their fourth and largest Hawksmoor restaurant on Regent Street, Beckett sent an email to his wife, Maria. It read, “I love you very much but sadly I won’t be seeing you for the next fortnight.”
I know this because I was standing beside Beckett as he sent it, an hour before the restaurant’s soft opening when they were offering a 50 per cent discount to family and friends (“And just watch how many lobsters we sell at these prices,” he remarked). The cocktail bar still looked like a furniture store, while the main part of the 230-seater restaurant was taken over by staff who were receiving the last of their numerous briefings.
I had taken up this position because I wanted to corroborate what I suspected, that overall service levels in most restaurants (certainly in the UK and the US) have never been higher.
There are numerous factors at work here. Competition, and the sheer number of restaurants today, play their part, as does the fact that so many good places are relatively inexpensive. Waiters treat customers differently if they know they can afford to eat in the restaurant on a night off.
And the best waiters can earn much better money than they used to. A good waiter at Hawksmoor, where the average bill is £65 per head, can earn £30,000 a year. It can be almost double that at Babbo in New York, Joe Bastianich’s stylish and frantically busy Italian restaurant. And even more for those who have worked their way up the ladder at Zuma, Knightsbridge, where the highest tippers in London reputedly congregate.
But what I wanted to learn from Beckett were the details of the more formal training that has to take place in their company, which now employs 380, of which 120 jobs have been created by this new opening.
My lessons took place in three different locations, the first two in rooms tucked away in this labyrinthine 10,000 sq ft site.
Inside a room marked “Cool Kids Office” were four thick manuals, marked “Floor”, “Bar”, “Kitchen” and “Reservations”. These were mandatory reading for all staff and, while they included predictable information on the cuts of meat and the relative prices of steaks in the West End, what struck me most was their openness. One section was headed, “How to make a small fortune in a restaurant – start with a large one”, that set out the financial reasons why neither Beckett nor Gott were going to get rich quick. You need a big pile of cash to withstand the low profit margins on food and wine.
I was deep in this when Beckett pulled on my sleeve, led me down at least three staircases and into a large classroom-cum-staff canteen, where J.B. Hall, their training manager, was urging his laptop to reveal his PowerPoint presentation.
His mission in the last 30 minutes before opening was to reiterate several home truths: that their role as waiters was to supply 49 per cent service, the rational processing of any customer’s order, and 51 per cent hospitality. And this sense of hospitality, he emphasised, “has to come from the heart”.
He backed this up with several service points such as that when serving customers who are sharing a main course they must always put the side dishes down first, to allow for what he referred to as “the big reveal” of the main dish.
As the waiters dispersed to the restaurant, Beckett and I followed. Over a distinctly unmeaty lunch of shrimps on toast and turbot with anchovy hollandaise (this outpost has a far higher fish quotient), I asked him what his major influences were in terms of service.
“I think the first has been the move away from the formal French model, where the food was revered above all else, to the American, more relaxed version.
“Then there’s the principle Huw and I firmly believe in, that if the waiting staff are allowed to express themselves by wearing their own clothes, then they are happier at work and therefore even better at looking after our customers,” he adds before jotting down both our comments on the food.
“But, finally, it’s the competition. Out there, there is a whole bunch of successful restaurateurs, far more experienced than we are, who have set exceptionally high service standards. And I almost feel that without boasting about it they do their job and say, ‘Go on, beat us, if you can.’”
And with a smile, he adds, “And that’s just what we have to do, seven days a week.”
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