Richard Bigg is such a larger than life character that even his name could have been dreamt up by some Hollywood talent agency. Which is quite appropriate as his life would make for one of those cracking biopics, such are the wide and varied things he has done in what is still only a relatively short career. We might all know him as arguably kicking into life the whole Spanish and tapas dining scene in the UK, with his Camino group of restaurants, but, as Richard Siddle discovers there is so much more to who on the surface seems so quiet and unassuming.
Welcome to the very truncated Richard Bigg story. For the rest you really could turn into a mini series to discover how he has managed to fit into his life buying and selling, as well as racing classic cars and bikes. That’s not even to mention his career as a music festival organiser, giving the likes of Glastonbury a run for its money.
Richard Big is not alone in having an early career in the City on his hospitality CV. But he is probably one of the very few who made so little money as a commodity trader that he had to work in bars to make ends meet. Even though, he says, he did come up with a future trends modelling system that he’s sure would have made him his fortune if the company he worked for had taken him seriously enough.
In fact the only part of a restaurant or bar he had not worked in before opening his own establishment at the age of 30 was the kitchen or the MD’s office.
“Over the years I have done every job there is to do in a restaurant other than be a chef. I have cleaned toilets, emptied ashtrays and worked behind bars,” he says.
Spanish love affair
In his early career he was able to combine his love for travel, including riding a motorbike across the US, with picking up bar tender jobs in the likes of the Hamptons and Aspen (where he even did a spot of construction work waiting for the ski bars to open in the winter). But for all his long distance travelling, including long stints in South America, it was much closer to home and Spain that really got under his skin. The country, the people, the culture, the art, music and, of course, the wine, beer and food. A passion that eventually presented itself on the London restaurant scene as Camino.
All of which he has crucially discovered not through the eyes of a PR or generic tourist board or on prescribed wine trips, but through his own get up and go. Or to more accurate the staying power of an over heating Mini Cooper that first helped him travel all over the country, picking up influences, ideas and hangovers as he went.
Appropriately enough there is a picture of the very same Mini sitting on the wall just above where are sitting at Camino’s most recent opening, last October, in Shoreditch, east London. It’s a subtle, but also important reminder that Camino is not a chain.
Time to expand
Bigg says he still has ambitions for more Caminos, but only if he finds the right venues at the right time.
“When we started in March 2007 I expected to expand more quickly than we have,” he admits. “It’s not that easy. We have four now, the original in Kings Cross, Monument, Bankside and now Shoreditch. I have had a target of 10 for ages. I think that’s the right amount of restaurants where you can still have the Camino DNA in each one.”
The only outside funding that Camino has had came five years ago from the Business Growth Fund, which Bigg describes as the ‘friendlier face” of private equity. Otherwise Camino is very much Bigg’s vision along with co-founder, Nigel Foster who holds a 50% share.
TheShoreditch restaurant, for example, has pots, pans, jugs and all sorts of other cooking utensils hanging from the ceiling, and down the walls that were all picked out by Bigg in an antiques fair on a recent trip to Madrid.
“I love going out to Spain to source our food and wine. It’s a great part of the job. It’s important for me to go and see our suppliers for myself. Find out how we can all work together.”
Thankfully we are able to enjoy the Iberico pork and Asturian beef that Bigg talks about with such passion and enthusiasm you would think he had raised the pigs and cows himself.
The Mini Cooper is just one example of the personal touch that makes Camino stand out on the restaurant high street even more so than it would have done say five years ago.
The casual dining sector may have brought premium, aged burgers and Calabrian influenced pizzas to the masses, but the restaurants behind them have all too often become characterless, identikit copycats.
Which has left a very convenient gap for restaurateurs with a real passion for what they are cooking and creating to really stand out. Restaurants that go the extra mile to find the best quality, at the right price for their customers. If it means spending a bit more to get the best value Rioja, or pimento pepper then that is what Camino does, stresses Bigg.
The same goes for its wine list, one of the most extensive and well curated Spanish wine lists in London never mind the UK. Bigg has a straightforward way of deciding what wines should go on the list: “They all have to be good and I have to like them for a start,” he quips.
But beyond that it has to be quality first, price second. Bigg explains: “I then look to get the best quality wine at that price and work with suppliers who can find those wines for me. I used to have eight suppliers, but have dropped two, who were still very good. I work with our drinks buyer, Hannah Duffy, who has been a huge help.”
He added: “We recently did a massive blind tasting and challenged our existing suppliers to send in any new wines they thought would interest us. We had 145 samples and ended up with a list that meant we did not have to put our prices up. We would pull back a wine that we thought would cost about £12 and found it was only £8. We have ended up with a list of 14 whites, 17 reds. It’s very tight but means we are buying more from our suppliers. You need a commercial hat on as well or you won’t be in business.”
Suppliers that are clearly willing to work with Bigg on issues such as price rises so that “they work for us all”. “It has to be a team effort,” says Bigg.
Which means it is up to Camino to treat its suppliers in the way it would like to be treated. So, for example, if a driver from a supplier arrives with a heavy load of wine to deliver then Bigg would expect his staff to remember his name and at the very least offer him a cold drink.
Camino would be better suited to a relaxed, rather than casual, dining criteria. The key, for Bigg, is to have an offer that is relevant to as many people as possible, whatever their budget. He explains: “You can eat to a budget or blow your budget here.You can have a fantastic meal for just for £10, a fill yourself up with a couple of plates of tapas and a glass of wine, or you can be a bit punchier. It’s up to you. There’s no drama. But if you don’t like sharing your food then it’s probably not the right place to come to. We also don’t do discounts or vouchers of any kind.”
Putting staff first
To get that right also means having the right atmosphere and the right staff. Bigg says they spend a lot of time making sure the staff and team at Camino are all not just on the same page when it comes to presenting a quality food and drink offer, but that they are also having lots of fun doing so.
“A good rule when running a restaurant is to remember your number one priority is first to your staff, second is your customer, third your suppliers, fourth the landlord and then fifth your investors, ” explains Bigg. “You have to make your staff feel they are your number one priority. That way they will treat your customers better.”
Take the EU Referendum vote in June 2016. Which for a restaurant group based on working exclusively with Spanish producers and importers and where so much of its staff are Spanish has made a for a very difficult time. Then and now.
“We are after all a European concept restaurant. I sent everyone in the group after the vote to leave a letter to say how important and essential they all are to the restaurant. But it’s incredibly difficult for a lot of them. It’s already hard to find the right people. It’s not the time to make big plans and grand statements,” he says.
Camino works hard to ensure its staff get the chance to take part in and go on as many incentive trips throughout the year. It’s good for team spirit, but also helps them learn more about the food and drink producers it works with, says Bigg.
“It’s also great to work with our suppliers on staff trips and incentive trips. We used to pay for them ourselves, but now we work with our suppliers to say which wines do you want us to push, we work to a target sales lift and then the extra sales on those wines pays for the trip. So everyone wins. It’s really helped keep our staff turnover lower and helps our suppliers to get more involved with us as a company. We usually do three good staff trips a year and take 10 to 15 people from different restaurants and the head office away.”
Bigg also often sits down with new recruits to have “Lunch with the Boss” so that they can hear first hand what the echo and values of Camino are. “It’s important they get to hear our story,” he says.
To ensure those standards are being maintained Camino also runs a regular fortnightly mystery diner programme which it uses to both benchmark staff and encourage them to do better but also to highlight and reward those that are doing particularly well. Bigg is pleased to say its average score on mystery dining sits at around 92% satisfaction levels.
He is also happy to pick out Hawksmoor as a comparable business that he thinks “totally gets it right between the product it offers and the people it has and the way it markets itself”.
He says he also learnt a lot from venue to venue about the design and layout about what works best. Where possible, he explains, he likes to make the actual restaurant and bar space as flexible as possible. By having the bar at the front of its Shoreditch restaurant it means it can either offer more drinking tables at the front or eating tables at the back, and vice versa, depending on how busy the restaurant and bar is.
“We’ve always been a bar, restaurant, it’s an essential part of our DNA,” he says.
It also means guests don’t dismiss you as a choice for a night out, adds Bigg, as they might initially want to just go out for a and then end up staying for food. Or go out for dinner and then end up staying on in the bar.
Bigg has also not been afraid to close a restaurant when he felt it was for the good of the group as a whole. It’s Blackfriars site, for example, fell by the wayside as it was just draining too much time and energy from its other sites.
He has particularly high hopes that the Shoreditch site can go from strength to strength as it will soon have Amazon’s London headquarters on top of it. Quite a coup for Bigg and the reputation of Camino with the developers.
It also marks a return for Bigg to Shoreditch where his bar career first started out when he opened up the hip and fashionable Cantaloupe in 1995, at the age of 32, followed by Cargo in 2000.
“When I first opened Cantaloupe I was doing 120 hour weeks,” he recalls. But it was here that all that time travelling and working in bars from London to South America, to Aspen and the Hamptons in the US he was able to call on to create a bar and a reputation for himself.
The Big Chill
Then there is the Big Chill experience. Bigg was part of the shareholding team that first started the Big Chill music festival that grew to become one of the biggest of its type at the time, going from a crowd of 8,000 to 40,000 at its peak.
Bigg could possibly write a book on his Big Chill Festival experiences alone as he keeps the anecdotes flowing of how he somehow managed to keep 11 bars in all parts of the site stocked with just enough booze to sell.
The Big Chill, he says, was as much about learning how to work with stewards, security guards and cars parking attendants as it was putting on a music and food festival. “Talk about learning by your mistakes,” he recalls.
The brand still lives on today in the Big Chill bars, in Brick Lane and King’s Cross, it still runs and is where the Camino’s head office is based. Bigg being managing director of both operations. “It’s a very different business model. We sell very little food there, but it’s also a vey efficient business.”
Not that Bigg shows any sign of chilling out himself any time soon. In fact you would not be at all surprised if the Camino experience is only part of the story of where Bigg takes his personality and talents next. Who knows, perhaps it’s time to get that Mini Cooper out of retirement…