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Fat Duck slim: Nigel Sutcliffe on future-proofing Heston’s restaurants

Fat Duck Group Chief Operating Officer Nigel Sutcliffe has turned the microscope from gastronomy to operations in a bid to prepare for the challenges ahead

With just six restaurants to his name in 25 years as chef-patron, no one could accuse Heston Blumenthal of reckless over-expansion. But even such a judiciously grown empire isn’t without its faults, as Sutcliffe discovered when he took over the role of Chief Operating Officer of the Fat Duck Group just over a year ago.

He returned to the flock after an 18-year absence (having helped Blumenthal launch the Fat Duck back in 1995), in the meantime running his own restaurant consultancy business Truffle Hunting. He’s now using the considerable experience and skills he’s accumulated to optimise the Fat Duck Group.

Sutcliffe was initially brought back on a consultancy basis by Hind’s Head shareholder James Lee, to look at the Michelin-starred pub, which Sutcliffe said “was full of staff but has no customers in it”.

He explained: “What we realised was the product was incredibly strong, but the perception of it was that it was a bit old and stuffy. There were 14 members of front of house and 14 members of kitchen staff waiting for coach-loads of people to fall out.”

Tools Restauranteurs Can Use
Sutcliffe, who says he’s in contact with Blumenthal, now based in the south of France, on an almost daily basis, added: “It was essentially educating restaurant manager Lowri Jones and chef Pete Gray and bringing the team together, so they become responsible for the unit. Then we put in place all the tools that they need to be able to deliver, then they feel a sense of ownership.”

Those tools include Tenzo, a restaurant management and sales forecasting app, and Planday, staff rota software.

“At the end of the day, they’ll have the data that will tell them how efficient they were in today’s business, rather than waiting a month for the accountant to tell you. You can adjust things on a day-to-day basis and become more efficient, without taking the focus off giving great service and looking after people, which is the fundamental point of what you do. I don’t believe you make a success of a business from a P&L: it’s all on the floor, it’s all in the kitchen. If you stay involved in it, you can see it every day and you can make it better.”

I don’t believe you make a success of a business from a P&L: it’s all on the floor, it’s all in the kitchen.

At the Perfectionist’s Café in Heathrow Terminal 2, Sutcliffe discovered that over-delivering from a gastronomic point of view meant that 1,000 covers a day weren’t producing a profit. Out went, for example, Tahitian vanilla in the ice-cream and an alternative was found through a service of blind tastings.

“You don’t compromise the quality of the product, that’s not what it’s about. But when you’re in an airport, you’re not expecting to be taken on a gastronomic journey. You only have to make a few pence on everybody, and then focus on spend per head, for it to become very profitable.”

Streamlining Staff
Covid has caused a reduction in staff numbers with international staff returning home, either temporarily or permanently, but Sutcliffe says the furlough scheme has meant he has been able to retain a majority of employees working on a week-on, week-off basis.

However, there has been some “streamlining”. “I’m a firm believer that the Hind’s Head should be run by Pete and Lowrie. They don’t need any support from a head office and they shouldn’t lose any of their profitability by having something they don’t need. The same at the Fat Duck – Jatin Parmar is the restaurant director and Ed Cooke knows how to run that kitchen.

“They’ve got a phenomenal support team by a creative bunch, including Heston. It doesn’t need anything else.”

Although Sutcliffe has achieved a lot in a short period of time, the unpredictable trading conditions caused by Covid mean he’s not about to rest on his laurels any time soon. “Having the worry of not knowing what business was going to be like and then reopening and having reasonable business has given us some confidence. But we’ll have to see what it all looks like in October. I’m not taking my eye off of it.”

Photo: John Scott Blackwell

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