The Garden Café Regents Park: Mike Lucy
While working in the catering trade, Lucy decided to go it alone. His group of restaurants are now worth £9 million.
If perfectionism is the mantra of the successful entrepreneur, Mike Lucy is the embodiment. The owner of a number of restaurants and cafes in London’s Royal Parks and English Heritage sites, Lucy could never be accused of overlooking the small cogs in his expanding business empire.
During the interview, which took place at Lucy’s impressively refurbished Garden Café in Regent’s Park, the entrepreneur noted that one of his waiters had served condiments to our table in the correct manner.
“The devil’s in the detail,” he says. “The big things are a thousand little things added together. Things only happen through disciplined process.”
Lucy admits that his first boss in catering, who insisted that doors were removed from cupboards to display the arrangement of their contents, taught him the importance of detail. It is philosophy that has helped him gain a business worth £9 million.
Starting out as an employee of a contract caterer that served British Rail over 20 years ago, Lucy clearly a passion for his trade. But it wasn’t until he worked for another firm that supplied the public in leisure locations that he realised he could go it alone.
“I get such fantastic pleasure from doing something that involves producing food and people enjoying it,” he explains. “I felt hat no-one was doing off-high street catering particularly well and there were a lot of trading opportunities to operate in a more high street style.
“The principle when we started was to create something that surprised people compared to what they are used to receiving in those kind of locations.
“They were prime locations with a lot of existing traffic, because of the walk or gallery or whatever, but the operators of the cafes and restaurants there simply used to rely on that traffic.
“The didn’t say ‘no, let’s do something that’s competitive in quality and value with the high street, and then we’ll get more people coming.’
“One of the most powerful influences on my thinking that time was Ikea. They created something that was very simple, consistent, popular and tremendous value. They built a very profitable restaurant business at low prices and margins, that not only was a new business opportunity, but bought traffic to the store.”
Lucy started his first business, Company of Cooks, in 1996 and won the catering contract for Kenwood House. He now runs 14 other sites in the Royal Parks and at the ICA. But, perhaps surprisingly, this all grew from debt taken on personally in preference to borrowing from the banks.
“If there’s an existing café and you’re an incoming operator, there’s not a lot of money to put up front – you need to put your time and some working capital up front,” he explains. “We did this was through savings and some MBNA credit cards.
“You can get into this kind of business with a much lower entry cost than the high street, where you’ve got to pay premiums and leases. With this sort of business, you can have turnover-related rents and other deals that make it easier to take on as a small independent.
“When we re-tendered for the contract after two years, we sold our house and moved into rented property. We could’ve borrowed the money, but we wanted complete flexibility from the bank.
“We didn’t want anyone else on board at that stage – the two people who were critical at that time were my wife, who managed the accounts and a lady called Jenny Shaw.
“She represents what I would recommend to any small business – try to make sure you have at least one strong, loyal, hard-working manager or supervisor that you can rely on to cover things so you don’t drive yourself into the ground.
“As it was,” he laments, “we both drove ourselves into the ground because we were running 20 to 25 per cent growth a year and it was a struggle to keep the infrastructure going.
“We learnt that once you put good food and drink in front of people, close-knit communities start to talk and they come back for more.”
Lucy says that getting high quality staff has been his biggest challenge, with the industry particularly competitive in recruiting and retaining employees. He also feels that the UK’s tax regime “isn’t encouraging” for small businesses.
“Our earnings levels have grown over the years, but if you add up the value that we put into the government coffers relative to the value we take out of the business, it’s extraordinary,” he insists. “VAT, National Insurance, income tax – if you add them all up, this business is a fantastic money-spinner for Gordon Brown.”
But a pragmatist like Mike Lucy isn’t prepared to wallow in self-pity about unfair outside influences, frankly stating that staff that complain about excessive red tape are often not doing enough to keep on top of their administrative tasks.
Instead, he’s happier to talk about the restaurant scene, verbalising his ideas for future expansion and potential new opportunities. What’s going to happen to gastro pubs? Gourmet burgers and pizza have been done – what will be next? I leave Mike Lucy contemplating further perfection in the summer sunshine.
One of the most powerful influences on my thinking that time was Ikea