One of the leading innovators of British catering in the second half of the 20th century, Alan da Costa did much to influence the nation’s palate.
Born into an Anglicized Jewish family, the son of Captain Richard Moses da Costa and his wife Elsie Abrahams, he grew up in Frinton-on-Sea, was called up at 18 and served in the Royal Air Force bomber command as a navigator, flying Lancasters over Germany. He was subsequently posted there when peace was declared until he was de-mobbed in 1946, and returned to a very different Britain.
With his opportunity for further education interrupted, Alan joined his father and elder brother Douglas in Empire Stores, their Covent Garden fruit business. They also pioneered station convenience shops. He started his catering career selling sandwiches to the crowds from usherette trays, first at the 1948 London Olympics and then at the Queen’s Coronation in 1952.
Alan began an outside catering company, Empire, growing it quickly in a post-war Britain just emerging from years of rationing. He was soon serving thousands of meals and refreshments to Windsor’s Royal Agriculture Show, to Farnborough Air Show, the Lingfield races, the Queen’s Polo Club and Silverstone Grand Prix.
No event was too big for Alan, who was always looking for new ways to improve standards. He invested in mobile food service trailers, experimented with frozen sandwiches to cope with the crowds and the unpredictability of the English weather and aimed to deliver consistent quality.
Partnering with the Salmon and Gluckstein families in J. Lyons, they formed Town and County, destined to become the largest outside caterers at Royal Ascot and Wimbledon. Style and originality were always at the heart of their operations.
With an army of staff and a year-round infrastructure, a more permanent base was required. Visiting Chicago in 1956, they brought in Wimpy, then a novel restaurant concept back home. Lyons took the UK franchise for Wimpy Bars and Alan, a franchise for Wimpy Houses, a grander outlet. The first Wimpy opened in Golders Green in January, 1958, followed by Hendon. Funded by his friends and relatives in Hill Samuel, J. Lyons and Granada Empire opened a new restaurant every six-weeks. As rationing ended, Alan looked further afield and realised the opportunity for low-cost Italian food, opening the first Italian House on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue. This was followed with Farmhouse Grills, Steak houses, and The Great British Success in answer to the newly opened Great American Disaster! Alan was ever the patriot, flying the British flag!
All Empire’s operations had carpets rather than ‘linoleum’, real brick walls instead of brick wallpaper, better quality accoutrements and waitress rather than bar service. Alan always deliver ed above the customers’ expectations.
Empire reopened Leoni’s Quo Vadis in Soho, Le Caprice, La Carosse in Chelsea and during his time as part of Max Joseph’s Grand Met Empire (1968-74) operated the much celebrated Le Coq d’Or, now Langan’s Brasserie.
To cater for the perceived female preference for lighter, more casual fare, in the early 70s he bought a small chocolate shop and café called Richoux on New Quebec Street and moved it to South Audley Street, creating the first destination for ‘ladies who lunch’, run by an all female management team.
Alan then launched branches in Knightsbridge and Piccadilly, and took the concept to New York City in 1979.
Richoux also introduced Godiva Chocolates from Brussels to the more discerning palate. He sold the bulk of the popular outlets to United Biscuits in 1979, and focused on Richoux with his son, Michael, who had joined him in 1976.
In 1987 Rowntree Mackintosh bought Richoux but their development plans were scuppered the following year when Nestlé swooped and acquired Rowntree Mackintosh..
Michael repurchased the Richoux business as Alan diversified, to set up the sucessful Matthews and Powell model agency, working with his daughter Linda.
Alan da Costa was respected by all in business and adored by many. He is survived by Maureen, his wife of almost 67-years, daughter Linda, son, Michael, son and daughter in law, six grandchildren, four great grandchildren and his sister Sallie Bruce.
Alan da Costa: born London January 28, 1925. Died London June 15, 2017