Operator interview: D&D London

Operator interview: D&D London

The restaurant industry has been under pressure to be more mindful of the impact it has on the environment. Last year saw discussion around using ingredients that would have otherwise ended up in the bin; letting the public use an outlet just to fill up their water bottles for free; and reducing the amount of single-use plastic they use, whether in-house or for delivery.

One of the first groups to ban plastic straws was D&D London, following London Evening Standard’s The Last Straw campaign. With restaurants such as German Gymnasium, Bluebird and Coq D’Argent within its portfolio, which sit on the higher end of the casual dining scale, I couldn’t help but take notice. Would its guests really want to drink a gin and tonic through a paper straw or go without one at all? As we have simultaneously seen the British public wake up to the impact of single-use plastic, it turns out the answer is yes – there was barely a murmur or a grumble.

D&D London continues to challenge its guests – and its staff – on how far they are willing to be environmentally-friendly. This January, the group made the issue of food waste its focus via the Waste Not, Want More campaign, which included special upcycled dishes and encouraged customers to use doggy bags if they were unable to finish their meal. On the day that I spoke to D&D London chairman and CEO Des Gunewardena, Fiume in Battersea was hosting a Ready, Steady, Cook event using misshapen or out-of-date produce. The following week, I headed to 100 Wardour Street to celebrate the new lounge menu, which includes an upcycled dish of roasted cod loin, banana, chickpea and bean curry, made with banana skins.

“Waste is a funny thing for restaurants because we’re not like supermarkets – we don’t create a lot of waste. A good chef really doesn’t have a lot of waste,” says Gunewardena. “You know roughly what your customers are going to order and if produce isn’t quite right you can put it into a special. What’s more difficult to control is customers coming into your restaurant, ordering too much and leaving stuff – you can’t do very much about that!”

While the group puts a focus on these initiatives in January, Gunewardena is keen to stress that these efforts don’t just stop once the month ends – awareness and wellness run throughout the business, year-round.

More than just food and drink

Waste Not, Want More wasn’t the only campaign that D&D London announced in January this year. For the entirety of 2019, the group is encouraging people to Live Your Lunch Break, raising awareness of a number of charities that aim to improve the quality of people’s lives, with a line-up of speakers and lunch break activities. And, as we all know, a proper lunch break is vital to work/life satisfaction.

Looking back on when it eliminated plastic straws last year, this was in conjunction with its Mindful City campaign, which encouraged people to be mindful of their impact not only on the planet, but on their own lives. Meditation and fitness classes made up a part of the campaign and are regular occurrences (albeit more so in the summer) at sites that suit, such as Bluebird, Fiume and East 59th.

The addition of such events is practical for D&D London – if its restaurants have the space, why not use it? It also provides guests with more than just a place to eat and drink.

“The idea is that customers can combine it with the food – they can do yoga and then have brunch,” explains Gunewardena. “We’re restaurateurs, but we offer lifestyle things because we see restaurants not just as places to come and eat food, but where you come to meet people. Restaurants are much more social venues compared to 20 years ago when you went to pubs or wine bars to meet people. Now, you go to have lunch and dinner, not just because you want to eat, but because you want to meet people in a pleasant environment.”

Gunewardena gives Quaglino’s as an example, which opened back when D&D London was still Conran Restaurants, in the way that it plays on the idea of theatre in a restaurant, as well as providing food and drink.

Conran became D&D London in 2006, when Des Gunewardena and David Loewi (the two ‘D’s) took over. Since then, the business has grown from a revenue of £50m to £150m. Despite its name, it now has restaurants in Leeds and Manchester in the UK, as well as Paris, Tokyo and, more recently, New York, with the opening of Bluebird in the Time Warner Centre. With a second New York site opening at the Hudson Yards development this year, is D&D London becoming D&D International?

New York, New York

For the most part, D&D is still very much D&D London, with an overwhelming majority of its estate in the English capital. The group is also continuing to grow here, with a new opening on the 14th floor of 120 Fenchurch Street this spring.

Gunewardena explains that growth is a case of opening more restaurants in London, but also more outside of London. When the group announced that it was encouraging its UK guests to make use of doggy bags when they have leftover food, he credited America’s restaurant culture for doing so, calling it “quite common”, with us Brits being too shy to ask. Although he is quick to argue how much other nations could learn from UK restaurants – and I don’t think many would disagree – I wonder what else the UK could still learn from our American cousins. I’m not surprised when the conversation turns to tipping.

“Service has always been the one thing I think New York does really well and the quality of staff is really, really good,” says Gunewardena. “Tips are much higher and they’re very much working for themselves – most of their income comes from their tips. What you find is that you have to become successful or persuade waiters that you are going to be successful in order to get them to work for you, because if you’re not busy, their earnings suffer a lot. When you do get established, you can maintain good staff and get more.”

Similar to how New York requests tips to equate to a specific percentage of the bill, D&D London, like many other UK operators, adds a 12.5% service charge to the bill. However, even a culture that has been fixed for years is being contested in the Big Apple as minimum wages rise – again not an experience dissimilar to that happening in Old Blighty.

“Danny Meyer (CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group) got rid of tips in a number of his restaurants in the US, so everything would be in the price. The reason he’s done that – and I think other people will look at and we’re experiencing ourselves – is because the minimum wage has gone up significantly from $13 to $15 per hour, so the restaurateurs are really being squeezed. I think others may look at getting rid of tips, but it’s difficult to do if only a handful of restaurateurs do it.”

D&D London’s global expansion plans are fairly timely – by the end of this month, the UK will have left the EU. While Gunewardena claims that more overseas restaurants were always in the plan, he says that Brexit has only convinced him that it is the right strategy. That said, he also discusses the business’ strategy for Brexit closer to home.

The end is nigh

A few days before my chat with Gunewardena, the BBC reported from a restaurant in London that had stocked up on thousands and thousands of bottles of Champagne in fear of a no-deal Brexit. The D&D CEO echoes this sentiment, for while fruit and veg can be sourced from outside the EU and meat and fish from within the UK, wine poses more of a problem.

“We’re arranging for wine stocks to be built up, because there isn’t enough British wine, let alone good British wine, and we can’t make up all of the wine that we currently serve from America and Australia,” he says. “So, it would be a bit of a disaster if there was a long period when we couldn’t get wine from France and Italy.”

Sourcing produce is one issue; sourcing staff is another. The numbers that have been released post-EU referendum result have highlighted the industry’s reliance on EU workers with potential solutions being thrown around, including getting British people into hospitality. Gunewardena says that, instead, restaurants could learn from those in Europe that are less labour-intensive and rely on fewer people. But there are drawbacks.

“The problem with this is that it creates less-interesting restaurants, less engagement, and fewer chefs who can do interesting things. When you go to a model that requires fewer people, the quality of service and food innovation will suffer.”

Rather than the direct effects on business, Gunewardena is more concerned about the impact that Brexit may have on consumer confidence in the UK economy and their own spending ability, therefore affecting visits and spend in restaurants and an operator’s revenue. Recent data suggests that he may have cause for concern, for consumer confidence is reportedly at an all-time low and word is that they are sacrificing on eating out this year in order to save money.

As we’ve seen in the last couple of years, falling customers combined with cost pressures poses a threat to operators, particularly in casual dining. Gunewardena is confident that D&D London will come through the other side because its concept – of not really having one – puts it in a different position to more casual brands.

“We’re not a chain; we’re individual restaurants,” he says. “If you ask a number of our customers, the majority won’t even know that they’re part of the same group, let alone who D&D is. Our business is fundamentally different from a Carluccio’s or a Cote. The strength in that is the way customers are moving – there’s a lot more interest in food, there’s a thirst for knowledge about chefs and they’re looking for individuality. Years ago, we were told by journalists, ‘The problem with your business model is that you’re just opening up new restaurants that don’t seem to have any relationship with each other, so you’ll never be a big business’ – and now we do £150m turnover!”