Life & Culture

Tillman serves up food empire

Mitchell Tillman, the son of fashion doyen Harold, chose not to follow his father into the retail world.


Restaurateur Mitchell Tillman has obviously not read the financial menu. While many businesses struggle to cope with the impact of the downturn, his First Restaurant Group is expanding with trade better than expected this year.

"London's eating-out market is growing," says Mr Tillman, 36. "Fortunately, where people have perhaps cut back on buying a new sofa or television, they have not cut back on eating and drinking out, not in London anyway. If anything, with a somewhat 'live-for-today' attitude, I feel people are eating out more - they just may be a little more discerning about where."

What's more, he says, with retailers falling victim to the recession there are many high street shops that "can be used cheaply for clever concepts such as frozen yogurt, sushi and sandwich bars like Prêt, and other clever central kitchen no-cooking-on-site outlets."

Founded by Mitchell in 2008, the First Restaurant Group comprises some of the capital's most well-known restaurants including Harry Morgan, The Notting Hill Brasserie, The Summerhouse and The Waterway, in addition to several global franchises.

Group turnover is expected to reach around £15 million this year.

Sometimes a family dinner can be a little like Dragons' Den

Mitchell recently launched The World's End in Chelsea- a £250,000 redevelopment of what was originally the World's End Distillery - taking his total number of London sites to ten. Yet the father-of-two is certainly not finished with London.

He says: "It is now credited as one of the top culinary capitals in the world. Whereas 15 years ago you could survive with an average restaurant operation, today you have to be right up there competing at the highest level. Customers dine out far more regularly so higher standards are expected. The past few years have sorted out the weak from the strong and brought more interesting concepts and bigger players into London, which in turn will attract even more growth."

And with several large retailers disappearing restaurant-use premises are becoming available in prime locations. "In a recession there are always opportunities. The most successful operators are usually the second owners, after the first owner spent a fortune fitting out the premises but got the concept wrong and went under. Myself and other operators have picked up premises like these and made them work by investing very little."

Mitchell is the eldest of Harold's two children. His father is one of the nation's most accomplished businessmen. A retail veteran he owns Jaeger and Aquascutum and is chairman of the British Fashion Council. But he wasn't going to hand his children their careers on a plate.

Daughter Meredith, 29, is a designer and works for the First Restaurant Group as its creative director while Mitchell always had his sights on the hospitality sector.

"My father always had an interest in bars and I started working in them part time aged 13. My passion has always been restaurants and bars."

Graduating from London Metropolitan University in 1997 with a degree in hospitality and business management, Mitchell started his career as assistant manager for a London restaurant group. He worked his way up to general manager before moving on.

In 2000, "with the help of a small bank loan and three partners", he bought Harry Morgan, which at the time was a small café and deli in St John's Wood, north London. "I worked hard to make it profitable and in 2002 expanded into the closed dry cleaners next door, doubling the size of restaurant." Two years later he bought out his partners, again he says, with the help of the bank, and opened a second branch near Oxford Circus.

In 2006 Harry Morgan launched in the Harrods Food Hall. Then came Brent Cross shopping centre. In 2008 he bought three gastropubs and formed the First Restaurant Group. Today it has 250 staff.

Meredith joined the company in 2009 and Harold, an investor in the business, takes an active interest. In fact Mitchell rarely invests in or acquires any new businesses without seeking his father's opinion first.

"My father takes a keen role in our strategy and is always on hand for advice. From an early age I remember him telling me that the best businesses are run by 'owner-drivers'. No one you let run your business will care like you do so you need to always be around keeping an eye on what's going on.

"He has an incredible business brain and I have seen him turn around many ailing businesses over the years. I am very lucky to have his experience although sometimes a family dinner can be a little like Dragons' Den with my wife, mother and sister telling us to stop talking business."

Harold cites his favourite restaurant as The Summerhouse in Maida Vale. Many of the group's offerings are described as "casual-premium." Meals average between £30 and £40 per head. The best-performing restaurant is The Waterway, which can achieve up to 400 covers a day in the summer.

Who is competition? "Everyone in London is but I have always felt that the more restaurants in an area the better. This brings in footfall where people wander around and have a choice of where to eat, rather than one restaurant on a quiet street which then becomes destination dining with very few walk-ins."

But of course there are challenges. Staff for one. "They can make and break your business. It's all about the people you employ and training them to be the best they can be.

"We have always had a high level of labour turnover. Employees think: 'This isn't going to be my career' or, 'I am just doing this while I am training to be...'."

He also point out that the internet has become "dangerous" for the hospitality business.

"People can go online immediately and post a review of their experience. This is great when you receive positive ones but there is no way of controlling fake nasty reviews from jealous competition. For some reason people generally seem to go online to moan which is a shame."

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