Woks are hard to miss at a Tiger Lil's restaurant. Mounted on the wall outside, these traditional Far Eastern cooking instruments are alight with flame - a continuous greeting to customers. Inside, chefs theatrically cook diners' chosen ingredients in woks before the customers.
"I wanted to put the chef centre stage and get rid of the divide between front and back of house, so you have a relationship with the chef and an interaction in how your food is cooked," explains Alan Lorrimer, co-owner of the restaurants with partner Chris Turrell.
Inspiration, he continues, derives from the roadside food stalls of northern China. But the noise and dust of a Chinese pavement have been replaced by stylish and distinctive interiors - to provide a unique East-meets-West eating station.
The concept has proved successful. On 5 November, Lorrimer opened his third Tiger Lil's restaurant in Islington, adding to his sites in Clapham and Chelsea. The 100-seat Islington restaurant, formerly a bank, was transformed in 13 weeks and is set to turn over £1m in its first year.
Crucial to the success of the restaurants success is the authenticity of their food. The wok chefs come from Burma, Thailand and other parts of South-east Asia and are trained over four weeks to perform safely. Lorrimer relies on the skill and dexterity of these chefs to provide a spectacle as well as quality food.
As a fan of the sharp, clean flavours of South-east Asian food, Lorrimer is disappointed with traditional English attempts at Chinese cooking. "So often in English-Chinese food they use cornflour and monosodium glutamate, and then the sauces are held for some time. I aim to offer freshness, quality and flavoursome food which retains its colour," he explains.
The serving method also differs from a traditional approach. Customers are invited to select food from a display of raw ingredients: chicken, squid, wind-dried sausage and 16 vegetables - including Japanese seaweed, and three-coloured peppers with sesame and shaved carrot. Diners then move to the woks where their ingredients are cooked by a wok chef in any one of a choice of sauces. There are no starters and a meal is available for a set price of £11.
Customers can go up to the food bar as many times as they like. Beers, wines, exotic fruit juices and sake are available, as well as desserts of sorbet in a lotus flower basket, or tropical fruits dipped in a pot of hot chocolate - all priced at £3.50. This has built an average spend per person of £16. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, tables will turn over three times.
Marketing for the Tiger Lil's restaurants takes various forms. A recently launched week-night initiative invites customers to free wok lessons. The chefs give advice on choosing, using and seasoning a wok, as well as on oil temperature and the cooking process. Lorrimer believes the lessons build and reward customer loyalty by offering something of genuine value. Any financial outcome from the lessons remains to be seen.
Previously, promotions have tended to concentrate on generating new customers and consequently more revenue. One example is the all-you-can eat-and-drink for £25 at lunch-time throughout December, which Lorrimer trialled last year. The all-you-can-eat approach balances out overall, with a gross profit of 68%.
While this menu approach appeals to a wide audience, Lorrimer has set his sights on a clearly defined target market - the 18-30s age group, who are most likely to try something new. "They make up about 20% of our customers but we focus 80% of our effort on them," admits Lorrimer.
"The aim is to establish the restaurants with this age group, and the secondary targets - the dual-income-no-kids and the chattering classes - will follow," predicts Lorrimer. Ultimately, he believes the latter categories represent the future market: "they are more numerous, constant and loyal".
To make marketing easier, Lorrimer has located his restaurants in areas of London where his target markets live. Tiger Lil's has been promoted with stylised postcards dropped through local letter boxes. The design of the restaurants is easily recognisable, so the arrival of Tiger Lil's on the high street does not go unnoticed. Large, flaming woks on the wall are hard to miss.
Inside, Lorrimer's designer, Mark Tungate, has aimed to make the best of the space and the light available in working towards the brief for an East-meets-West eating station. The result is a stylish but welcoming environment.
The design of each restaurant also takes into account Feng Shui - the ancient Chinese art of arranging surroundings so the occupants can harmonise with their environment. "Essentially, Feng Shui is about stopping blockages and balancing positive and negative energy," explains Lorrimer. He recognises that this may raise a few eyebrows, but believes it adds to the overall concept of the restaurants.
Following Feng Shui principles, great attention has been paid to details. The tables have rounded edges, mirrors are positioned to reflect "positive energy" into the restaurant, and Chinese symbols for air and water adorn the lightshades. The aim is to create an environment that has a positive effect on customers.
Lorrimer believes that ensuring customers have a positive experience is the key to success. And it is details that matter. "It takes a million things to make up a restaurant; if one thing is wrong, it stands out and it creates negativity."
He has relocated his office to the Islington site to nurture the restaurant through the anticipated three-month build-up before it makes a profit. And he has appointed Mary-Jane Brook, previously with bar-restaurant chain All Bar One, as operations director.
Her role is to ensure standards are maintained at all three sites. "Success is about the detail that is put into it. If we don't look after each individual customer there is no future," says Lorrimer.
In the future, Lorrimer, a veteran of 14 restaurant openings, will be focusing on what he really enjoys - the opening of more Tiger Lil's sites. He knows the concept works in inner London and would like to prove it works further out. He aims to set up four to six new sites within the M25 in the next two years.
And he will be using a Feng Shui consultant to assess new sites. Feng Shui worked at the Clapham restaurant, which has what is considered a lucky north-west facing doorway: the restaurant made money from day two.
The Islington restaurant site - as a former bank - has a history of holding money. If the omens are proved right, Lorrimer and Tiger Lil's look set for a harmonious future.