During a time when several restaurant brands are struggling, when sector news is overwhelmed with site closures and CVAs, it’s important to remind ourselves of the companies that are doing well and representing the positives of the hospitality industry. When discussing current success stories, one name that appears time after time is Giggling Squid, the Thai restaurant created by husband and wife team Andrew and Pranee Laurillard.
Beginning in 2009 in Hove, Giggling Squid now stands at 30 sites, with two opening this month in Chislehurst and Oxford. The brand’s growth activity has been greatly documented as it took the decision to enter London in 2017 with an opening in Wimbledon. This was followed by Kingston last year, which was made available after Jamie’s Italian, an example of struggling restaurant businesses, exited the site. These are just two businesses that have had contrasting experiences, and Andrew Laurillard is quick to acknowledge that there are many others sitting on both sides.
“When you work through it systematically, there are tough times, but not everyone is experiencing them,” he says. “There are winners and losers. It’s a market at the moment where the good guys are doing fine, and the weaker players are now really struggling.”
For those that are struggling, he blames competition, labour costs, business rates and rents for their strife, but also the debt that businesses get themselves into by being private equity-owned. Speaking of which, it was announced this February that Giggling Squid itself is currently in talks with investment bank GCA Altium about its options after three-and-a-half years with Business Growth Fund. At the time of going to press, there had been no further development.
“Whatever the outcome, we want the business to grow at a steady, measured pace, with great quality food and service,” says Laurillard. “The strategy of the business is entirely independent from the corporate stuff, so we’re going to continue to do what we’re doing.”
While Laurillard is a co-founder of the business, he only came on-board full-time five years ago, driven by the demands of parenthood. Giggling Squid may have grown since its beginnings, but it is still very much a family business.
The Laurillards’ three children have grown up with Giggling Squid – their eldest was one year old when Giggling Squid was branded (even inspiring the name of the restaurant during a family fishing trip) and they had three under the age of four when Andrew packed in his three-hour-commute day job. Despite the pressures of running their own business, he explains that it has always given him more time to see his children.
“I always used to miss the kids’ bedtime, and there was a period when the only way our youngest would go to sleep was if I was singing him ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’,” describes Laurillard. “I had to do it from the train and this was happening every day. It was getting ridiculous, so we thought, ‘Let’s give it a go.’ Running the business has given me tonnes more time to spend with the children. We take them to school, we work and then bring them home, put them to bed and go back to work. You just work around other things that are more important. It’s a very fluid life, which is not possible if you’re having to commute every day.”
As a result of the restaurant being a major part of their lives, the kids take a huge interest in it. Laurillard recalls their youngest wanting to know what the sales are every day, while their middle child has taken an interest in the people side of the business, and all three enjoy taking their friends to “show off”.
With Giggling Squid seemingly the couple’s fourth child and their actual children taking such an interest in the restaurant, there is a real effort to make Thai food appeal to children and adults alike with ‘Little Tapas for Little People’ sitting alongside the standard menu.
“We get all sorts of different age groups coming in – lots of mums and daughters, family groups – though not as many as your average pizza place, perhaps,” says Laurillard. “We could all go to a pizza place and Pranee won’t touch it. She’ll tolerate the kids eating it every now and again because it’s convenient, but there is a shortage of places where parents and children are equally happy to eat the food. I think we just manage to cross that bridge.”
Giggling Squid’s ability to serve Thai food to children is all part of the proposition that makes it appeal to not only customers but landlords. According to Laurillard, this has in-part led to the success of the restaurant today.
When you look at some of the other restaurant brands that are holding strong in the UK, they do have one thing in common: their cuisine. Rosa’s Thai Café, Busaba Eathai and Thai Leisure Group are examples of businesses that have brought Thai food to the masses. That said, besides the origins of their inspiration, they all offer quite a different experience from each other, with Giggling Squid putting a focus of tapas on the menu, while Rosa’s Thai Café is heavy on the curries and Thai Leisure Group’s Thaikhun transporting guests to different parts of Thailand with tuk tuks, river boats and buddhas within the décor.
While these restaurants are expanding Thai food’s presence across the UK, Laurillard explains why it is still offering a point of difference compared to Italian and American.
“Thai food isn’t as mainstream as pizza, pasta or burgers, so it’s a smaller market, but there’s still a good-sized market to go for,” he says. “I’d like to think we’re the best source of food in that market. We have a nice environment, a nice experience and some great guys working for us in the restaurants.”
Customers wanting to frequent Giggling Squid sites has put the business in a good position with landlords – they want tenants that make a success of units, but the Laurillards have been headstrong with units they don’t find desirable and rents they deem unreasonable. This philosophy has been well-reported in the industry as it seems to be paying off for the brand.
“We’re quite disciplined on our rents,” Laurillard admits. “People have overpaid perhaps or it’s the market rate, but if we don’t approve of it, we won’t do it. We’re seeing examples where the landlord’s got the building back and needs a tenant and is being quite realistic about a rent it can achieve, so we’re having interesting discussions with various places, at the moment.”
It is perhaps for this reason that Giggling Squid was able to obtain the site in Kingston, following the exit of Jamie’s Italian. With rents in London known to be high, a restaurant company looking to enter the capital without paying a premium would need to tread carefully and cleverly.
“We’re not going into Zone 1, because we still think the rents are silly, but there’s plenty to do in Zone 2 and outwards, and plenty outside of the M25,” says Laurillard. “There’s no shortage of places, but we’re taking it as it comes and when interesting propositions with sensible rents come up, we’ll see how we feel about it. There’s no definite strategy. The only thing we’re not going to do is go too far afield, because it’s too hard to manage. We’re not rushing up to the north of England right now, but we’ll edge out from our existing boundary to new places that are nearby.”
Whatever the outcome of the investment discussions with GCA Altium, it appears that Giggling Squid will continue to grow at a rate that has been so far successful with the level head of the Laurillards on its shoulders.