Whose restaurant is it anyway?

I made a mistake. Not the sort of mistake which will end up in my being sued you understand, but nonetheless embarrassing for a lawyer, where accuracy is my stock in trade.
I said in a review that Yauatcha was owned by legendary restaurateur, Alan Yau. I hadn’t checked it out. I was wrong.

My subsequent research revealed the sale of Yau’s interest in Yauatcha and Hakkasan and others, to the property arm of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, for a reported £30 million.
The Yautcha shocker made me wonder about the underlying ownership of and investors in some of London’s more popular restaurants. We may think we know who owns them, but do we? And does it make any difference to the way we feel about them? The identity of the investor certainly made a difference in the case of Harris + Hoole , where the discovery that a quirky and seemingly-independent coffee shop was part owned by Tesco, to the tune of 49%, made many of their independent-minded customers choke on their flat whites.

So I thought that I would have a look at the 10 most recently reviewed/ blogged -about restaurants on the Urbanspoon London list, and see if I could find out who owns them, whether it yielded any big surprises and what conclusions we could draw from the information, if any.

And everything that I have found here is in the public domain, through the internet and in particular, Companies House, as at the beginning of September. And given more time and less day job, I would have been able to find out a bit more.

Number 1: Dinner, by Heston Blumenthal

The ownership is as complicated as one of Heston’s recipes. If you go to the website, the only company referred to is Tapestry Management Limited. One of the directors of that company is Ashley Palmer-Watts, the chef in charge of the restaurant.
A little digging around at Companies House shows that the parent company of Tapestry is a company called SL6 Limited. The parent company of that is something called Cape Proprietary Inc, and the parent company of that, is the Lowenthal Corporation, based in the Isle of Man.
A Mr Lowenthal, is a director of SL 6 and I am assuming, although I do not know, that he is the money. Certainly, the accounts show that, at the time of those accounts, SL 6 owned the shares in, amongst other things The Fat Duck Ltd; the Hinds Head Ltd and Snail Porridge Ltd. I’d expected to have seen Heston’s name splashed all over this, but no. The investor appears to be the Lowenthal Corporation. No, me neither.

Number 2: The Ledbury

Brett Graham is the star of the show here, but does he own it? He is a director of Bridgwater Entertainments Ltd, which company has entered into a mortgage secured over (inter-alia) the ground floor and basement of the restaurant.
According to their last annual return, the shares in this venture are held by as to 40% each by Nigel Platts- Martin and Brett Graham and 20% by Philip Howard, he of The Square.
There is enough in the press and in the world of restaurant gossip for this not to come as a complete surprise.

Number 3: MeatLiquor

There is very little about the ownership of MeatLiquor in the press. Again, a little sleuthing at Companies House shows the ownership position fairly clearly. The driving force behind the group is said to be Yianni Papoutsis.
He’s a director of Meatailer Limited. The last statement of capital showed a number of shareholders but the main ones are the Manalishi Group, Nabil Manakarious, Scott Collins and Ioannis Papoutsis (spelt this way at Companies House). There are lots of smaller investors as well. I’m not sure I was expecting to see an Oisin Rogers in there, but then again, why not?
So this looks like a company set up by Mr Papoutsis who brought in outside investmen, as he has expanded, by issuing more a more shares. Not unusual.

Number 4. Spuntino

Every fule no that this is operated by Russell Norman. Back to Companies House, where it is clear from the registers that his company, Ape 451 Ltd, is owned 75% by him and 25% by Jules Norman. And Polpo Ltd is owned 50-50 by Mr Norman and a Mr Richard Beatty. I can’t find out anything obvious about Mr Beatty other than that he is described variously as business partner, entrepreneur, and friend.
It would appear that there has been no substantial investment from outside and that the expansion has been based on bank debt and sound economic management. Russell Norman, darling of the fooderati, has clearly made good use of his experience at Le Caprice.

Number 5: Koya

Koya is where you will find Junya Yamasaki, noodle genius, but the owner would appear to be a Mr John Devitt, reportedly a former chef from Zafferano and director of a company called Sanuki Ltd. That company is owned as to John Devitt, 9467 shares and as to James Devitt, 533 shares.
There is bank funding to that company shown on the register, but it looks to be owned by the operators. It does look like this is the right company, because it has given a rent deposit to Soho Estates Ltd.

Number 6: Burger & Lobster

This appears, from all accounts to be operated by the owners of the Goodman chain. From my little bit of digging around on the internet, that chain appears to be owned by a Russian investor. I hadn’t picked up the Russian connection – it had appeared to me to be quite British in feel. How wrong can you be?
The Russian backing was something of a surprise to me. This is not the only high-profile Russian-backed venture to have hit London. Novikov, the Italian/Japanese “concept” in Mayfair is another very interesting venture. Loathed by the majority of on-trend critics but apparently regularly full, it makes no secret of its Russian roots and, like the slightly eccentric Mari Vanna, appears to be designed to appeal to your average homesick oligarch, of which there is no shortage in London.
I wonder whether the lack of any obvious connection to its Russian roots is deliberate.

Number 7: Duck & Waffle

Operated by a New York-based outfit trading under the name of Samba Brands Management, this is what it says on their website:
“Samba Brands Management was founded by Shimon Bokovza, Matthew Johnson and Danielle Billera. The company operates SUSHISAMBA restaurants in New York, Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas, London and Coral Gables In addition to SUSHISAMBA, the group manages SUGARCANE raw bar grill in Miami and Duck & Waffle in London. With over 13 years of experience, the company continues to expand their cutting-edge concepts. Their projects are unpredictable, their venues are impressive and their visions set trends in the industry for years. As the most sought-after destinations for cuisine, culture, music and design, their restaurants have garnered great critical acclaim, attracting the spacious grounds and appealing to culinary aficionados, critics and media alike ”
They are certainly not masters in the English art of understatement.
I am not sure exactly what the “concept” element of Duck & Waffle is. Is it the fact that it’s in a skyscraper? Is it the 24-hour opening policy? I’m not sure.

Number 8: Bocca di Lupo

Jacob Kenedy and the gloriously named Victor Hugo (first name: Werner) are the names always cited in relation to this very popular Soho hangout. A little search around Companies House shows that they are both directors of BDL Restaurants Ltd as well as BDL Properties LLP. These would appear to be the entities that operate the restaurant. Whilst they are the major shareholders, there are a lot of Cleevely family members who also own shares in the company.
BDL Properties LLP has given a charge over the premises at 12 Archer Street to a David Cleevely. He also has a debenture over BDL Restaurants Ltd. There are a lot of Cleeveleys involved with this venture. It looks like they may be the money. Without being too Facebook-stalky, it looks like it is a family concern, backed by David Cleevely, CBE, who appears to be a serial entrepreneur.

Number 9: Dishoom

I found that it was not so easy to find out the full story here. The names Kavi and Shamil Thakrar come up regularly, as do Adarsh and Amar Radia and The Gorgeous Group. The Gorgeous Group refers to itself as something that “creates brilliant stories with food” and shows Dishoom on its website. The annual return shows shares issued but not share ownership. So I’m not clear whether The Gorgeous Group have invested, or whether the Radias have, or whether it is a combination of all three. There certainly doesn’t appear to be any bank debt in relation to Dishoom Limited, which I’m assuming is the company operating the restaurant. You might be interested to know that Shamil Thakrar is a director of Tilda Rice. Interesting, that.

Number 10: Bone Daddies

Owned by Ross Shonhan, ex-head chef of Zuma and also Nobu Dallas, Companies House shows Ross as a director of Bone Daddies Limited. There is also a reference to a legal charge over the property housing the restaurant, which secures a loan of £139,500. The loan is in favour of a company called Desaru, the sole director of which is an Elaine Dorothy Gan. I can find nothing about her on the internet.

So what do we learn?
Seven of the top 10 appear to be independent, by which I mean not part of a large restaurant group. We’re not seeing the big boys in this list, operators such as D&D, or Caring and given that it’s a list populated by bloggers and critics, that isn’t entirely unexpected.
Conran and Caring et al cater to a particular niche and it isn’t the one inhabited by so-called foodies, who make it their business to look for the new and the interesting. The big boys aren’t going for pop-ups in Peckham. The bloggerati are always on to the next new thing; a shed in Dalston, an abandoned garage in Walthamstow, anything – desperate to be ahead of the culinary curve.

And it is interesting that none of the restaurants in the top 10 are
traditional high-end faine daining – maybe that’s a function of cost or maybe it’s just that they aren’t fashionable, in the same way as your new ramen joint or chicken shop. Although I sense a flight to comfort amongst some of us Otto’s anyone?

And it’s heart-warming to see that the majority of the restaurants in the list are UK-based operators with a fair number of small start-ups. No mean feat when you consider the risks involved, not to mention the capital investment. But given the money to be made in London if you get it right, many chefs will be thinking of going it alone.

And should we care about who funds our restaurants? It depends who’s asking.
I suspect that if Patty & Bun were suddenly to be given a slug of expansion money by McDonald’s, their burgers might leave a different taste in your mouth. I suspect for independent operators it’s safer to go for below-the-radar private equity. Sort of like Hawksmoor did recently. Sort of.

Their funders, Graphite Capital also invest in the King and Corbyn vehicle, Rex Restaurant Associates and were originally involved in Wagamama. The foodies won’t like that so much, I guess.

It is clear that some of the most successful restaurants in London have unexpected backers. And given the success of the restaurant sector in London in particular, it is not surprising to find many venture capital houses keen to get a piece of the action. But it is unlikely that they will be shouting about it. And it’s entirely understandable that successful restaurant entrepreneurs will want to cash in – they’re so often backed by friends and family and that isn’t a tap that keeps running for ever.

But Harris +Hoole is a salutary lesson in what happens when you get a divergence between the image of the venture and that of the investor and savvy operators will work hard to make sure that they stay firmly in the background.
As for your Carings and Waneys of this world? There’s no apparent divergence between their brand image and their ownership. They’re appealing to the London affluent – that group of people whose wealth often derives from business and finance, for whom dropping large sums in comfortable, safe, well–run restaurants, seated with people just like themselves, is their idea of an ideal night out. The food isn’t the main event.

London. Sometimes it seems like it’s a tale of two food cities; the big boys and the smaller, more trend-setting, adventurous operators. Only the very cleverest operators manage to combine the two.