They say you should not go back to previous roles where you have enjoyed great success before. The conditions that allowed you to thrive first time round can be very different when you return. Martin Williams, chief executive of the Gaucho group of premium Argentine-inspired restaurants, is proving to be an exception to that rule. Since he took over the failing chain as the head of a new private equity-funded hospitality group, Rare Restaurants, that also includes Williams’ own M Restaurants, it is going from strength to strength with new openings in Liverpool, Newcastle and from this month in Covent Garden, with Cardiff waiting in the wings. Richard Siddle catches up with Williams to find out what made him want to go back and to hear more about what he calls his vision for premium, event and occasion driven dining.
The Rare Restaurant Group wants to create venues that offer a premium food, drinks and wine offer across its now 19 Gaucho restaurants, two M Restaurants and the Crane Tap in Twickenham.
If you could be transported back to 1994 then you could witness Manchester United winning their second Premier League title, Nelson Mandela becoming president of South Africa, and an unknown chap called Jeff Bezos start an online retail company called Amazon.
It was also when a new restaurant concept was unveiled to the great British diner. A premium Argentine steak restaurant called Gaucho, complete with its breakthrough cowhide banquettes which quickly become a guilty pleasure for many a business lunch or special occasion.
Up to then if you fancied a fancy juicy steak for dinner you would have had to track down your nearest Berni Inn or Aberdeen Steak House. It’s hard to quantify just what impact Gaucho had on the UK dining scene. It is fair to say it created the premium steak dining scene that is now so prevalent not just in the UK, but around the world. It was a good 12 years later, in 2006, that Hawksmoor first appeared on the scene.
It’s also some measure of the Gaucho brand that nearly 30 years later you could argue its best days are still ahead of it. Particularly as there is now so much more demand, and awareness of what a modern, premium steak restaurant can offer.
What’s more in a restaurant sector that has been pulled inside and out over the last few years Gaucho can reflect on what it says is a ‘record breaking year’ for the group in 2022 with annual profit of £10m and 24% like-for-like growth across its estate with turnover now hitting £73m, up from £55m in 2022 and double digit earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and EBITDA. A performance that saw it named Business of the Year at the City A.M. Awards, beating the likes of Rolls Royce and Lidl along the way.
The business is “unrecognisable” from when the new management team took over in 2019, says Martin Williams, pointing to revenues up 80% and minimum 20% growth every year.
“We came back with huge objectives to achieve and we have set about achieving them. We just want to keep that momentum going. The brand was not loved and we have worked hard to bring that love back.”
You can see now why he was so keen to go back to a business where he had first made his name, working his way up to managing director during his initial time there between 2005 and 2014. Not that the picture was quite so rosy when he was asked, in April 2019, to head up a new private equity backed company, lead by Investec and distressed debt specialists, SC Lowy, that helped take Gaucho back out of administration following the collapse of Cau, its failed casual dining chain.
For Williams it was a wonderful opportunity to go back and re-introduce many of the principles and hospitality must haves that the chain had lost during his time away. It was also the chance to take some of the premium dining concepts, ideas and menus that he had delivered at M Restaurants, with culinary directory, Michael Reid, into Gaucho in a bid to revive, relaunch and rekindle what Gaucho had been all about. A premium dining experience full of fun, great service and personality.
“We started in 2019 repurposing and reinvigorating the brand and then Covid came in 2020 and we had to put many of those ideas to the side,” says Williams.
Not that its expansion and growth plans had to take a back seat, he stresses. So whilst the rest of the country remained mostly in lockdown, Williams used the time to travel the country to check out potential sites for new Gauchos in Newcastle and Liverpool when it could fully re-open. Often finding himself as the only passenger on a train up to Liverpool.
“A lot of our competition spent that time navel gazing and feeling sorry for themselves,” he says.
It meant that when the restaurant sector did come back in 2022, Gaucho and Rare Restaurants Group were able to quickly open three new sites, Gaucho Glasgow and Gaucho Liverpool and a new M Restaurant in Canary Wharf, London. “That is what has helped us take market share.”
Deciding where and when to open a new site takes a lot of time and understanding. One tool is the sales and people trends data from CACI that can help do a “chimney pot” analysis of certain areas within cities to plot average spends per demographic group. “It can help us identify where there might be a gap in the market,” says Williams.
It’s certainly chosen the right city in Liverpool. Williams says he has been blown away by the response to Gaucho there. “Liverpool is flying. There is a real resurgence of fine dining in the city and it is interesting to see Hawksmoor has followed us there.”
Liverpool is also returning some of the highest average spends per head outside London which shows the latent appetite and demand there is for a premium offer, says Williams.
But he admits it is a risk, particularly if there is not a strong history of premium dining in the city. Newcastle was arguably even more of a risk, he says.
‘Not just a steak restaurant’
Crucial to that is widening the appeal of Gaucho away from being a male dominated steak restaurant group. It has worked hard post Covid to really open Gaucho’s appeal to female diners, particularly younger women, with its carefully created cocktail lists, and a menu that now offers a wide selection of fish and sea food alongside its traditional cuts of meat.
“When I came back around 99% of what we were selling was meat and steaks. Now it is under 90% and falling. We are now very much not just a steak restaurant,” stresses Williams.
The menu has been designed to offer regular diners multiple choices they can turn to that does not involve settling for a steak. “We have a good range of vegan and vegetarian options now which helps widen the restaurant’s appeal.”
All of which is reflected on dining sales figures released to Rare Restaurants from American Express. Its quarterly report shows that up to 50% of it card owners spending money in Gaucho and M are female.
Williams and his team have also looked to adapt its offer and menus to make sure the average spend is “accessible” and it is not just seen as somewhere to go for a “special occasion”. Particularly for its non-London venues.
“We have a set menu that is a little cheaper that takes about £8 off your bill, so we are being price sensitive. So the average spend in London for a steak and a side sauce is £40, it would be £32 in Liverpool. We also do a three course set menu for £25 which is great value. You have to keep your value proposition and we are doing a lot of work on pushing that,” he explains.
Keeping menu inflation down is an increasingly hard task when as a chain it is faced with 20% and more food inflation. But Williams is proud it has been able to keep price increases down to around 5% this year, despite the pressure to raise them by more, whilst maintaining the overall quality offer.
If you are familiar with both M Restaurants and Gaucho then you can quickly see which brand is influencing the other.
“People do see the similarities there are now between M and Gaucho. M is influencing Gaucho hugely,” says Williams, with key members of M’s operational team now working in Gaucho, and across both brands.
For Williams it is all about offering a certain level of “premium hospitality” that you simply do not get in other venues. A restaurant that will remember your name, likes, needs and preferences from a previous booking. The small details that mean so much, he adds. “That it was what we awed able to create at M and are now bringing over to Gaucho,” he explains.
He says when he moved away from the more corporate world of Gaucho to start M, he switched his management approach to a more entrepreneur approach and welcomed new thinking about where he could take a business.
“I was forever looking for new opportunities. It gave me the freedom to do that.”
M Restaurant was the new restaurant concept that Williams started in 2014 on leaving Gaucho first time round. Starting at M Threadneedle Street in the City in 2014, it then saw a second site open in 2016 at M Victoria, a smaller site in Twickenham, now renamed as more of a gastro pub offer, the Crane Tap, then last year it opened M Canary Wharf.
Although it has decided not to renew the lease on M Victoria, in response to the amount of businesses, particularly banks and finance houses, that have moved out of the area post Covid, Williams is adamant the M brand is still strong and the response to its new site in Canary Wharf shows the demand for its breed of hospitably and customer service.
It is through the M brand that Williams has been able to able to create his own community, offer private membership and run a series of events based around sport, celebrities and special occasions. He even attracts dog and pet owners with special pet fashion shows.
He is also very thankful the new Investec-backed private equity behind Gaucho has also helped secure not just the future of M but all its team, many of whom have been with the group for a number of years. Keeping their loyalty, experience and expertise within the group has been vital, says Williams, in the recent success of Gaucho and M.
Both he and Zack Charilaou, operations director, for example, have worked across Gaucho and M for close to 20 years
Gaucho and wine
Wine has always played a crucial role at Gaucho. It can, after all, proudly claim to have helped bring premium Argentine wine to not just the UK, but inspired lots of restaurants across Europe too – driven for so many years by its head of wine, Mr Argentina himself, Phil Crozier.
It has helped provide a platform for countless Argentine producers and helped, in turn, give them the confidence to innovate, invest and look to make better, food friendly premium wine.
It’s not just the producers who have been able to build up their businesses on the back of 30 years of Gaucho, but a number of Argentine specialist UK importers, as well as the major distributors, have also been able to grow and develop their ranges on the back of the opportunity that Gaucho has provided them.
An opportunity that, in fairness, had started to wane in recent years as the overall Gaucho group lost focus, and its position in the market, particularly in face of new, fresh, competition that made the Gaucho offer look tired and pedestrian.
It is now, with Williams at the helm, looking to win back the respect and credibility of the Gaucho wine range. It has come a long way in a short period of time, first with Matthew Clark and now Enotria&Coe as its lead supplier, developing a range, under the stewardship of Andrew Maidment, former international head of Wines of Argentina, and wine director, Marina Diaz, that still has Argentina at its heart, but is being expanded to other parts of the world.
A range that better reflects the new Gaucho and a menu that is still largely inspired by Argentina, but now takes in other modern international influences across South America and Europe. Williams says the list is now around 70% Argentine wines, and 30% the rest of the world, particularly Europe which is also reflected in the Argentine offer too. A change in direction that was recognised last month when Andrew Maidment won Restaurant Buyer of the Year at the London Wine Fair Wine Buyer Awards.
Williams says he is keen to introduce more exclusive Gaucho wines to the range that allows the group to work directly with producers and help create and blend wines it knows are going to right for its customers and work with its new menu. This is also a way to reinforce the message that the new Gaucho is also not just about Argentina with partnerships already in place to source a wine from Ken Forrester in South Africa as well as another project from Napa, with others in the pipeline.
Williams says he is looking to get the best of both worlds by working with Enotria&Coe to cherry pick the right wines from its range, whilst having the freedom to do its own thing where it makes sense to do so.
Adapting to the times
“If a restaurant brand like Gaucho does not evolve it is going to struggle. That is what we are looking to do in order to be interesting to a new generation of diners – particularly females under 40 – and wine drinkers,” says Williams.
That’s why he is still confident about the overall restaurant sector, despite its constant issues and high costs of doing business. Yes, he fears some casual dining chains without a clear, unique offer are going to struggle, but for those operators with a tight, efficient and genuine restaurant offer there are still huge opportunities to be had in an increasing number of “hot spots” around the country – particularly for those that can get CAPEX support.
He says he is particularly encouraged to see what he calls a “new breed” of truly professional restaurateurs and chefs who are not only helping to create their own successful brands, but have the time and inclination to help others and act as mentors to up and coming stars in the sector. That is what the overall hospitality sector needs. Greater collaboration and sharing of expertise and talent, he adds. “I think it is a really exciting time for the food and beverage sector.”
Gaucho is now very much a national chain. Whilst the bulk of its restaurants are in London – out of a chain of 19 it has over the last few years opened up ambitious new sites in Glasgow, a 200 cover restaurant in Liverpool and earlier this year in Newcastle with a new site in Covent Garden opening this week, the first new London Gaucho in 10 years, and then a 220-seat restaurant in Cardiff later in the year.
Whilst the Gaucho name and concept is well known to London diners it has had to work hard to introduce the name, and its premium dining concept to the main regional cities. It has slightly adapted its menu, pricing and offer to match the dining expectations in key cities like Liverpool and Newcastle.
Williams is also working hard to set up partnerships with the major football and sports teams in each of its non-London venues – Manchester City, Liverpool, Newcastle United, Birmingham City and Aston Villa and Glasgow Warriors – so that guests and football fans can take advantage of hospitality packages that include dining at the restaurant and tickets for the game. He is working the respective football clubs to see what else it can offer as the official restaurant partner, with, for example, special discounts and offers for season ticket holders and members.
“It’s all part of how we want to show how we can offer a unique hospitality experience,” says Williams and is something he first introduced to Gaucho with its venue at the O2 Arena in London that allowed guests to enjoy a meal and then go a concert.
“It gets you into their communities and helps you to engage directly with their fans and means we can also invite past, present and legendary footballers to the restaurants and to our launches and special events.”
Strong and proud
Williams is rightly proud of where Gaucho has got to in its now near 30 year history. “No other up market restaurant group has had the level of success that Gaucho has had, or its longevity.”
He is also pleased to be in a position where, thanks to the private equity backing, he has been able to give the near 2,000 team a strong, hopefully healthy future. “I want to be able to support them as much as I can. That’s my motivation.”
That’s not to say it is not impacted by the current cost of living, but it is important as a business it stands by its team and makes sure it is paying them the right level of money for them to meet their own personal needs. “If you do that they want to stay with you. It’s why when we re-opened after Covid we were fully staffed and ready to give the best proposition we have ever given.”
It’s not a position that other major restaurant groups took during Covid and they have suffered major staffing issues as a result, argues Williams. “That was the time when they needed our support.”
Doing the right thing is also at the heart of what Rare Restaurants, Gaucho and M stands for.
Throughout the business it has multiple initiatives all focused on helping its staff, but also the planet and the impact it is having on the environment. It’s why Williams and his team are constantly looking at ways it can, even for a steak restaurant, hit its target of being carbon neutral. Whatever the investment needed. He claims the work it is doing with the cattle farmers in Argentina, where Gaucho sources its beef, means its steaks have 50% lower carbon footprint than buying meat in the UK.
“We want to be the most sustainable business and the best employer,” says Williams.
He adds: “We have been able to create an incredibly like minded family by merging two brands, M and Gaucho, together. Everyone in the business understands the values we abide by – people and the planet. I want to be the mirror of everyone involved in the business. M was a business based values and we have now been able to apply that to Gaucho too. We all have an obsession for hospitality and they are driving that every day in our restaurants.”