Recently I had the good fortune to sit down for breakfast with André Mannini at M restaurant in Threadneedle Street. Breakfast is becoming an important time to socialise and do business and according to a recent survey 65% of us are dining out for our first meal of the day, at least twice a month. As I looked around I saw a mixture of those who had decided to work but in a more glamorous location than their office and some who were clearly there for the firecracker scrambled eggs (that’s the one with chorizo) and excellent coffee. But I digress, I wanted to talk to André about what is happening in restaurant industry at the moment and why M restaurants is bucking the trend and proving such a success with guests and the people who work there.
I asked André why there had been such a fallout of well known restaurants in the last 18months. Prezzo, Carluccio’s, Strada, Jamie’s Italian, Cau, Byron...it seems that every week there has been a new casualty in the casual dining industry. My perspective is that it isn’t just down to higher business rates, employment costs, over supply or ambitious expansion but more about the lack of differentiation between the different types of restaurants. André agreed entirely. “The midmarket is suffering badly because there is no personality, no bespoke offers, everything is standardised. There are too many chain outlets which people don’t like so much now because they don’t offer anything special or different. The restaurants that succeed will be the ones that have a personality, an identity. They have to be a concept that is giving you an experience.”
I wondered whether this experience had to be based around the food, or if in fact it was more about what I would term food, plus, plus. The food is central but a great dining out experience has to offer so much more and the décor, the ambiance, the way the staff tell the stories about the provenance of the food and drink, the music – all of these work together to create the individual experience that today’s customer is looking for. In M restaurants it is clear that the founder Martin Williams, (now you know where the M comes from!) has understood this and Mannini expands on the vision that the future of restaurants is multi-faceted. “In M restaurants we don’t want to be seen as either a restaurant or a bar, we are the hub of many different elements. You could probably spend the whole day in M and not get bored because yes, we have the M Grill with our renowned steaks, but we also have RAW, the gluten free restaurant, a wine shop, a bar and a private members club. The elements work together so that a guest who enjoys the wine he is drinking with his meal can buy a bottle to take home, or the customer who walks into the wine shop at the front of the building then notices that he could have a drink at the bar or stay for lunch. They are all complementary and focus on providing a beautiful experience. ”
It is clear that all of these different elements need to be orchestrated and brought together by motivated individuals who really want to deliver fantastic service. So many times I have had great food but the service and general attitude of the staff has really spoilt the experience. André leapt in to talk about the culture in M restaurants which all started with Martin Williams, the founder. Martin started M restaurants after successfully running Gaucho’s but he was keen to spread the start-up, entrepreneurial mentality among his staff and give them the space and trust to run the business. According to André, Martin is “a volcano” and an ‘inspirational leader” and he encourages the team to make things happen quickly and to employ others who have the same can-do attitude. The industry is hard work but ambitious and motivated people will be valued and have great development opportunities within the business.
André is himself an example of how individuals are given the power to introduce initiatives which can change the company. It has been clear that working in hospitality with its long hours and demanding roles is tough and for too long, the problems it creates have been ignored or simply regarded as a ‘rite of passage’. The chef as a ‘bully’ ruling his (and yes, generally it is ‘his’) kitchen is a well-known and even celebrated figure. But a growing realisation led by, but not exclusively, the millennial generation is resulting in a call for better conditions and more flexible working.
André has developed a number of initiatives to combat the problem of mental stress and overworking. For example M-indful days are (paid) days that are given to employees for them to choose to use how they wish. They could be used simply to rest / recover or for an out of work interest / hobby. This negates the need to ‘pull a sickie’ and it “incentivises good planning and a more responsible and mature behaviour.” These additional M-indful days are added to the staff member’s holiday allowance or paid at the end of the year if not used, so there is no reason not to take advantage. This has been incredibly well received by the staff and management and now other restaurants are taking note. Mannini hopes that looking after employees will not only be good for the industry as a whole but will have a broader impact in making it more appealing to younger, tech savvy, talented people who currently do not see hospitality as a great career choice. Given that there is a large proportion of foreigners in the workforce which is being impacted by Brexit, it is even more important to attract and retain employees. Ensuring that they are valued and recognised will of course be a positive step for individuals but may also go some way to minimising industry shortfalls and churn in employees.
M restaurants also encourages ‘sabbaticals’ for those managers who have achieved staff retention targets and great staff survey results. These additional paid days are added to the annual holiday allowance, with the suggestion of elongating the annual leave to make it a proper ‘switch off’ from work. Mental health is also enhanced with the availability of counselling where staff can ‘talk to someone before you need to talk to someone’. This uses chat based app called ‘Spill’ whereby employees can get counselling about problems whether at home or their work. The counsellor / employee relationship is completely confidential and the costs are borne by M restaurants. It is hoped that this will enable M’s people to be fully supported in their challenging roles and that other restaurant groups will also take up this idea.
The development of the skills of M restaurant’s people is also a key factor in motivating staff and encouraging them to stay. André is able to point to staff that have been mentored and given the opportunities to move into other roles within the business. ‘There is no reason why one of our most talented waiting staff will not one day be our Financial Director’ he says. ‘Through creating bespoke roles and jobs, we are able to train our people in different areas which give them new opportunities and challenges and also mean they actively want to stay with us.’
Looking ahead, M restaurants are also developing a ‘School of Hospitality.’ This will be part of their in-house training for current staff, but it will also be the link between some of the charitable collaborations that M restaurants is involved with. M has a partnership with the charity Clink which runs in HMP Brixton where prisoners nearing the end of their jail terms train in the prison kitchen to learn skills which they can then use in employment on their release. In the future, the School of Hospitality may offer short courses to people who wish to work in hospitality and who need an introduction into the workplace which is relevant and practical.
With a massive new restaurant location in Canary Wharf’s Newfoundland Development set to open in 2020, life is busy for the M team. I asked whether M had global ambitions? With a smile André remarked that eventually it would but currently there is enough to do and given the importance of maintaining a strong culture, it is key to get things right in the UK first, without diluting focus and attention. So for now if you are planning to dine out, you should head over to Threadneedle street, Victoria or Twickenham to enjoy not just the steaks but the M plus, plus, plus experience!