Ask Anthony Demetre and Will Smith what they want for Christmas and you're met with a cheeky grin and a shrug of the shoulders. The pair, who launched their first solo project, Arbutus in London's Frith Street in May, have had such a sensational seven months they don't feel they could ask Santa for anything more.
The new-found proprietors have racked up just about every gong going this year, including Hardens/Remy Martin Excellence Award, Time Out Best New Restaurant, the Good Food Guide's London Newcomer of the Year, Decanter magazine Newcomer of the Year and Square Meal/BMW Best Newcomer of 2006. "It's been phenomenal," says Demetre. "The success has exceeded all our expectations."
Having previously held the positions of chef-director and general manager, respectively, at Putney Bridge, where they had received marginal recognition, support and interest from the trade and consumer press, Demetre and Smith didn't anticipate the universal applause they've received. "Putney was a huge struggle," adds Demetre. "The boys [in the kitchen] asked me recently why we as a team didn't get this recognition at Putney when the brigade was largely the same. I think it's lots to do with pricing policy and location, but probably more so on pricing."
From a trade point of view, each award has brought with it its own distinct market. "Time Out's very London-based," says Smith, "Harden's has been fantastic nationally, so now people from all over the country are hearing about us, and then there's the power of the Good Food Guide, which seems to dissipate a little more slowly. Decanter will appeal to the wine aficionados of the world, and Square Meal is city-based - we certainly saw the impact of that."
Although the pair work extremely closely with one another, they rarely sit down and discuss how well they're doing. "I remember after about six weeks us saying to each other 'this is going brilliantly', but I can't think of anything since," says Smith. "We knew what we wanted to do, but it's fantastic when other people recognise it."
Arbutus has certainly taken off at breathtaking speed. Having set out to deliver 700 covers a week ("in an ideal world"), they're now delivering up to 1,400. "From the moment we step in through the door, we don't have time to catch five minutes. We're hectically busy," says Demetre.
But the pair have managed to cut back from their original seven-day weeks to five or six days a week, which is just as well because when Demetre was on a recent day off he managed to see his 16-month-old son Max take his first step.
"It was on my 40th birthday and it was the best birthday present I could have had," he says. "We can't work seven days a week forever. Even six days is too much at 16 hours a day, but we are hands-on operators."
Customers certainly seem to appreciate the personal touch at the 60-seat restaurant. "It's crucial that we have a maitre d' people can relate to in Will, and it seems to be so good for repeat business," says Demetre. "I think people particularly like to see the owner-operator on the floor. But what amazes us is the number of people who ask whether Anthony's cooking tonight. I understand where they're coming from if they go to other restaurants and the chef isn't there."
While the opening and first few months appear to have gone swimmingly, I wonder whether they have any regrets? "My slight regret is that we're a bit small. But I only say that because of the level of business we're doing," says Demetre. "I wouldn't be having this conversation if we were doing 500 a week, but we turn away so much business. I'd have liked another 20 covers."
One headache has been staff - not in the kitchen, where Demetre was fortunate enough to hold on to the core team from Putney Bridge, but front of house, where the team has turned over twice. "The problem with the catering industry in general is that it's too chichi," he says. "They want a 60-cover fine-dining restaurant, they want an easier life. The majority of the industry are unrealistic. They're star-chasers rather than seeing somewhere like Arbutus as a potential tool for their own business."
So why is it different back of house? "They were keen to move to Arbutus," Demetre says of his team. "The timescale was a bit of a problem as it ended up being a year in the planning, so some went to Spain to work and others went to France. But I explained that we were doing something completely different, that it wouldn't have the formality of fine dining yet we still wanted to create a great eaterie, and I put across to the more experienced guys that hopefully one day this will be a prototype for 'your' future business - and if we do expand, the carrot is there, you'll play a part."
Demetre describes the industry as "a huge, vacuous pool of candidates". He adds: "Having just turned 40, I still see the same people flitting from one job to another, only wanting to work in one-, two- or three-star restaurants. I can't see their objectives, they're just drifting - this industry is full of drifters."
When Smith and Demetre were establishing their concept, they visited restaurants such as the River Café and studied how the operation worked. "You look at it and see it has a Michelin star, the furniture and fittings are not the best, staff are wearing their own clothes," says Smith. "Hang on a minute, this is a thriving business with all the plaudits it could possibly have."
"Chefs have to be realistic and I would encourage all chefs to go to the Chez Bruces, the Ivys and the River Cafés of this world, look around and see the level of business and ask themselves what makes it successful," says Demetre. "For me, the food is a maximum of 40%."
The first week of January will see Arbutus close for a week of essential maintenance. "Because of the flow of traffic, the restaurant has been battered," explains Demetre. "We need to repaint throughout, and 'we' means we'll be doing it. We had a drain problem, and ended up with two inches of water in the kitchen, but instead of calling Dyno-Rod, I bought the rods and did it myself, dressed in my gloves and wellies."
Looking ahead, they're coy about what January could bring with the publication of the Michelin guide. They won't be drawn on any predictions, but for what it's worth, my tip is that Arbutus will add a much-deserved star to that fast-growing clutch of accolades.e_SClB
Ask an expert
Retention specialist Jane Sunley of Learnpurple offers some advice regarding Arbutus's high turnover of front-of-house staff
Right now the most important thing to do is discover why staff are leaving. It would be worth having a third party sit down with the current team (and some leavers) to ask some simple yet "killer" questions, eg, "What would make Arbutus a really great place to work?"
Every individual will have different expectations, wants, needs and desires. It's really important that Will knows from day one what each person's aspiration is and manages towards that. The fact that Arbutus is a great "prototype" for people wanting to run their own show is only an attraction if it matches an aspiration.
Setting up an effective two-way communication system enabling people to share their aspirations will give competitive advantage and may well uncover talents and ambition they hadn't realised were there.
I'd also look at the development plan - today's mobile, confident, talented employee will go elsewhere if they don't have a training plan that fits their needs. It's clear that Anthony and Will are watching costs, and rightly so, though it's important also to make sure the right investment is made in the team and there's a proven ROI (return on investment). It's got to be more cost-effective than turning over the team twice in less than a year.