Tips From the Top: Diccon Wright Shares his Restaurant Industry Insight

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After more than 25 years of running restaurants across the UK and Mediterranean, Christopher Diccon Wright is nothing short of a specialist in his field.

His restaurant businesses include Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe in London’s Bankside and Swan in West Malling in Kent. He also runs an events business and oversees all the catering outlets at the Globe theatre.

As anyone in the industry knows, running successful restaurant is no easy task, and takes a lot of hard graft. A little insight can go a long way, though. With that in mind, Diccon Wright shares his experience and tips for making it in the restaurant business.

When did you first decide to open a restaurant?
It was in 1994. I was working in another career I thought that I should be doing, rather than something I would love doing. I had always had a passion for food and drink so when the opportunity to get involved with a restaurant landed on my plate I thought: why not, let’s have a go. I was only 32 and it was just a 30-seater restaurant so I thought it would be a bit like having a big dinner partner. I was wrong.

What did you learn from this first venture into the restaurant business?
I have never worked so hard in my life and earned so little money! It was seriously hard work running a 30-seater restaurant, you had to do it all – from getting in early to press the linen to locking up at night. I had never done a day’s work in a restaurant at all until then, so it was a bit of a shock to the system. I had a couple of very talented cooks and we cracked on with it for a few years and made a success out of it and had quite a lot of fun with it too in the end. There was a lot of passion for the end product which kept us going and I learnt a huge amount.

As a restaurateur what drives you?
These days I employ something like 300 people across a few restaurants, so I am mainly focused on delivering the site, the architecture and the look and feel of what we are going to do – and for nurturing these people. As a company we aim to develop people and I try hard to provide the sort of encouraging environment that would have been helpful for me back in 1994.

What do you see as your main challenges?
People are the main challenge. In this business it’s all about attracting, training, developing and retaining the best people for the job. This includes chefs and the kitchen team and front-of-house as well as a rock-solid financial team and plenty of business acumen.

So, how do you inspire and keep your employees?
I want the best talent coming into my business at a senior level. I am currently working with a number of highly talented business partners at each restaurant: Jess Harris and Michael Clark at the Globe, Daryl Healy and Nick Leventis at Swan West Malling and Karen and Mark Cornwall at the Carvery out in Spain. They have the space and authority to run the businesses as they see fit, and in return I ensure the rewards and opportunities are there to keep them interested. In so many businesses I see owners trying to employ senior teams as cheaply as possible, but I believe that to get real traction, you need to share the goodies and ensure that everyone is a real stakeholder.

At lower levels, staff need to be able to see room for progression and to keep learning. It is also important that they are excited by the product.

What is the single most important factor in creating a successful restaurant?
I think you need to have complete clarity of what you are trying to deliver. The most important thing is always the customer, and it is essential to understand what the customer expectations are and to focus on delivering them. Obviously good food and good service are prerequisites, they are your entry point into the market.

How important is the financial side of a business versus the food and experience?
I always start from the premise that you should concentrate on the food and customer experience and the money will follow. However, you do need the right people with the right experience and a business model that is workable. I have seen some brilliant restaurants which are critically acclaimed, but you know they won’t be there in five years. Get a copy of the Michelin guide from five years ago and see if they are all still going – that is quite sobering.

There is a lot of talk about how formal a restaurant should be. What do you think?
I like our restaurants to be professional and attentive but relaxed. We don’t want a stiff environment, we like people to enjoy themselves and have fun and to think of our restaurants as a home from home, but better. If people want two-star Michelin service with foams and dots on plates then they won’t get it with us!

Any other tips?
You have got to be in it to create a sustainable business, it is not something to play with because restaurants are a mechanism to lose vast amounts of money if you get it wrong. Don’t do what I did: don’t treat it like a dinner party for 30!

Are you a keen chef outside of work?
I love cooking at home. I cook really simple dishes using very good ingredients. There’s an excellent fishmonger near where I live in Greenwich and I love cooking lots of fish. Simple food done well.

Finally, what’s your favourite restaurant?
What the guys are doing down at Lyle’s in Shoreditch is very special and Kitty Fisher’s in Mayfair is very good. I also like 40 Maltby Street where they do excellent wines and nearby José on Bermondsey Street does excellent tapas.

We have a restaurant called The Carvery Company in Spain and close by is the local fish market that does just stripped-down simple fish after the main sale in the morning, and it is absolutely wonderful.

About Diccon Wright

Christopher Diccon Wright is a restaurateur and property specialist who has established and grown successful operations in the UK and Mediterranean. He has also worked on a consultancy and advisory basis for a wide range of food and property clients.