We're taking Giraffe to new heights

Husband and wife Russel and Juliette Joffe are currently expanding their restaurant chain, Giraffe

Husband and wife Russel and Juliette Joffe are currently expanding their restaurant chain, Giraffe

Juliette and Russel Joffe, the founders of restaurant chain Giraffe, might be sticking their neck out when they say business is doing well. But then they have every reason to be bullish, even in the current climate.

At a time when many restaurants struggle to cope with the impact of the economic crisis, the Joffe's family-friendly business reported positive like-for-like sales for 2009 - up five per cent on the previous year. In fact, the recession, says Mr Joffe, has "been positive for us".

He says: "It has enabled us to review our strategy. This is an opportune time to review your business - and aspects that you might forget in good times."

Husband and wife team Russel and Juliette, both 52, founded Giraffe in 1998. The premise was simple - a relaxed, all-day, non-smoking, family-friendly restaurant that serves foods from across the globe.

Teaming up with restaurateur and long-term friend Andrew Jacobs, they opened the first Giraffe in Hampstead, north London. Thirty-six branches and five franchises have followed, as has backing from 3i investment group, private shareholders, and Giraffe chairman Luke Johnson.

The couple recently launched a new restaurant concept called Guerilla Burgers, which opened on London's St James Street last month.

Towards the end of last year, the Joffes bought 11 of the failed American-style Tootsies restaurants from the group's administrators for £2.5 million.

Recipe for succes

● Get best supply prices
● Run a tight ship
● Review your staffing costs
● Give customers a good deal

They are in the process of converting the sites, located in London, Norwich, Bury St Edmunds, Weybridge and Portsmouth, into Giraffe restaurants, helping to take their revenues to over £35 million, with a workforce of around 1,000.

"Tootsies was a good fit for us in terms of the site locations and design," says Mrs Joffe. "We didn't have to spend too much money converting them. To do 11 sites for that sort of money from scratch, well, you couldn't do that. We stuck in there and waited. We had the finances in place to do a deal quickly."

According to Mr Joffe, "Tootsies had been a disaster waiting to happen over the past 18 months." Maintaining training, service standards and running a tighter ship are just part of the Joffe's strategies that have helped the company stay ahead of the game in the recession. The key, says Mrs Joffe, has been the business's "back-to-basics approach.

"We have gone back to some of our original mission statements; reviewing our staffing, talking to suppliers to get the best prices.

"We have also been offering vouchers and deals. It's the norm today. When people go out to eat, they think: 'Where is there a voucher?' We have been focusing on our service and offering customers the best value for money that we can."

South African Mr Joffe adds: "We don't cut corners or cut costs. Everyone has to run a tighter business today. The ones that cut corners and costs are the ones that will suffer long-term because standards of service will decline. You need to keep the investment and innovation going. It is important that people see you moving forward rather than stagnating."

He says the Group probably had a better year last year than previous years because of this approach. We are producing a better bottom-line profit by running a better business. We haven't let go of any staff as such, just increased sales and not overheads."

Besides, the duo certainly have the experience to cope. Grandparents of four, the childhood sweethearts, who married at 19, have long been involved in the food and hospitality industry. Mr Joffe started his career as a waiter in the renowned Langan's Brasserie alongside Chris Corbin, now the owner of Le Caprice, The Ivy and The Wolseley.

Mr Joffe left Langan's in 1981 to help open Coconut Grove in St Christopher's Place, before becoming the general manager of Odette's in Primose Hill, where Gordon Ramsay first cut his teeth. In 1984 Mr and Mrs Joffe launched their first restaurant, Le Bistroquet, in Camden, a popular hangout for musicians and actors including Bob Hoskins and Steve Strange.

Three years later they sold up and opened Café Flo, a cafe/bistro chain which they sold in 1994. During this period they also ran a Hampstead deli called Rosslyn. They then moved to Israel but returned to open Giraffe.

Their son Gideon, one of three children, runs Monkey Nuts, a restaurant in Crouch End, north London, while their daughter Mattea works for Giraffe. Their other daughter, Jemima, "escaped".

Giraffe sits in the "fast-casual" market alongside Carluccio's, Pizza Express and Nandos, with the average meal around £8.95. Their busiest branch is at the London Southbank Centre, which does between 5,000 and 7,000 covers a week, and 8,000 to 10,000 in the summer.

But the Joffes are not getting carried away. There are no plans to take the business abroad. "There is too much to do here." There are, however, plans to expand nationwide and perhaps introduce the concept to Scotland. Would they sell? "If it was the right offer," says Mr Joffe. "But now is a tough time, there are less people with a lot of money to buy businesses so it's a matter of keeping your head down."

    Last updated: 11:25am, March 11 2010