Brasserie Blanc: Mark Derry

Turning genius into hard cash: How Mark Derry made Raymond Blanc’s dream profitable

Taking over a restaurant business from one of the world’s most famous chefs doesn’t sound like the easiest of tasks, but since Mark Derry took over Petit Blanc from its eponymous founder Raymond Blanc five years ago, he has transformed the business.

Thanks to Derry, the restaurant chain has grown from three outlets  to 11, turnover has reached £17m and it has started turning a profit – expected this year to reach around £4m.

Background and challenges

In 2006, Derry was looking for a new challenge. His existing business, Loch Fyne, had been a huge success, and now was the time to take a step back, and prepare for a new venture.

So, using an EIS investment led by Core Capital, and supported by substantial contributions from friends and family (including his father) he snapped up Petit Blanc – a company which was synonymous with great food and high standards, but hadn’t as yet realised its full commercial potential.

Derry juggled the two companies for the next few months, before selling Loch Fyne to Greene King for £70m in August 2007. He says the exit was “always planned” and believes it was “optimum timing,” coming just a year before the catering and hospitality industries were swept up in the global financial crisis.

Even before the sale, Derry had begun transforming Petit Blanc – he changed the name to Brasserie Blanc, a name more appropriate for mid-market and casual dining, just weeks after taking over.

He explains: “When we took over the business, it had a high turnover but it was very expensive to run – when Raymond was running it, it was heavily focused on premium food. Overheads were high, partly because of the number of staff employed at each restaurant.

“We were saying we wanted great food at an affordable price, with a business model which allowed us to employ 10 chefs per restaurant, rather than 20.”

This was arguably a risky strategy. The restaurants were synonymous with excellence, and damaging the brand through making it more mass-market was a real danger. However Derry was able to draw on his experience running Loch Fyne – a brand which successfully balanced quality and value.

Says Derry: “We started Loch Fyne with the aim of creating a specialist seafood outlet that would provide good value for money. The company operated at an average spend of around £25, and as a group we were almost unique in trading at that level of spend.

“We didn’t set about de-skilling the restaurants – in fact we created training programmes for chefs and managers to fulfil their aspirations. It was more about making the process as simple and clear as possible.”

Putting these lessons into practice with the rebranded Brasserie Blanc, Derry began simplifying the menus to reduce unnecessary steps. He admits: “Raymond Blanc demands the very best – he has got two Michelin stars after all – but that can get very complicated!”

By simplifying the recipes, and increasing the focus on flavour in each dish, Mark was able to downscale the size of his kitchens; Brasserie Blanc today typically employs eight or nine chefs per restaurant.

This fundamental restructuring has been achieved with few redundancies. By increasing the number of outlets, Derry has been able to move staff from one restaurant to another, retaining the vast majority of his chefs and creating a stable staff structure.

Having started out with three restaurants in 2006, Derry now oversees a network of nine brasseries and a couple of high-end pubs, in Weybridge and Teddington. He is particularly pleased with the progress of the pubs:

“A couple of management guys (me and Ian Glynn) have been involved in running pubs and great food. We’ve started to do this, we’ve got two now and they are very much a prototype, but the early stages are very promising.

“If you run a pub, you have the added benefit of beer sales, and we love the pub atmosphere. It’s a great string to our bow.”

Raymond Blanc has remained on the company’s board of directors, and signs off on all the menus. In fact, Derry says, “he’s been instrumental in the change to a more simplistic menu – in fact he’s driven it. The business needed to have a slightly different approach, and he’s bought into it. Day-to-day he’s a great bloke to work with.”

Unlike many other restaurants, which have focused on what Derry calls “heavy-duty discounting” to get through the recession, he has focused on providing a first-class product at a fair price, and developing a sound management structure based on skilled, committed staff.

He continues: “We are founded on the profile of Raymond Blanc, and we strive to deliver quality which reflects this. When we take on a business we put in enough support to grow them – things like finance people, operators – so we can build more restaurants and develop the infrastructure customers demand.

“The day-to-day manager, John Lederer, is the best restaurateur I have ever worked with – particularly when it comes to attention to detail and managing day-to-day operations – and we’ve now got people coming up through the system, driving the business forward. This energy is reflected in the service we provide.”

Growth plans

Derry says his business is firmly entrenched at the front end of the premium casual market, and at the top end of the café bar market. In the city, he claims, the company is incredibly busy, “because we’re good value, and so people are happy to put our food through on expenses, even during a recession.”

At present, the target is to open three or four new brasseries per year, and the company is mainly focusing on stand-alone premises which haven’t previously housed restaurants. Although the majority of existing sites, and potential targets, are based in the south east, Derry says “we will break the rule for exceptional sites – we’re looking at a place in Liverpool for example.”

Ultimately, Derry claims he’d “like to double the size of the business in due course, but it depends on finance. The banks are not as forthcoming in funding businesses based on cashflow, they prefer to finance firms based on assets.

“We always like to provide our shareholders with cash or tradeable stock. Inevitably, businesses are sold or go on the stock exchange. But, frankly, I’m relaxed either way.”

Given his track record, building not one but two hugely successful food brands, Mark Derry has every right to feel relaxed.

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