Shaper: Des McDonald


Transcript of the show
Elliot Moss

Right Place, Wrong Time from Dr John here on Jazz Shapers Saturday morning with me, Elliott Moss.  Good morning and thank you very much for joining me Jazz FM.  This is the place where you can hear the very best of the people who are shaping the world of jazz, soul and blues alongside their equivalents in the world of business, a business shaper.  My business shaper today is Des McDonald.  He was the man in charge of the Caprice Holdings Group at a crucial time in their history and now has gone on to become a restauranteur and an owner of a business in his own right as well as lots of other things related to that.  You will be hearing lots from Des very shortly.  In addition to hearing from Des, you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya some words of advice for your business and on top of all of that of course, a sumptuous mix of music from the shapers of jazz, soul and blues, including Gil Scott Heron, Dizzy Gillespie, new music from Neil Cowley and this from Astra Gilberto.

That was Fly Me To The Moon from Astra Gilberto.  As promised here on Jazz Shapers my business shaper today is Des McDonald.  If you are one of those people who enjoys a fantastic meal around town then no doubt, and that is London town by the way, no doubt you will have heard of The Ivy, Le Caprice, J Sheekeys, Bamboo, The Collection, Pasha’s and Daphne’s just to name a few of the restaurants that are under Des’s guidance became famous names in the restaurant world.  Des, thank you for very much for joining me.

 

Des McDonald

Good morning.

Elliot Moss

You started your own business recently which we are going to come to in a bit, but tell me where the bug for food started?  I know you became a chef at The Ivy, a place I have enjoyed probably too many times luckily; but tell me where it started.  I know the family were in the business weren’t they?

 

Des McDonald

Yes from an early age from family businesses.  Irish bakers, farmers and for me I guess it was in my DNA to leave school and go into the business and so from an early age of 15/16 working in hotels in London and starting from right at the bottom.

 

Elliot Moss

And you knew you wanted to do it?  I mean I know people can be born in to a family or architects or of accountants.  You liked what you saw or it was more of a this is just going to be what I do?

Des McDonald

No I think I had always enjoyed team sport and I went to The Ritz and I really enjoyed the energy, the noise, the buzz, the camaraderie and for me very early on within the first few weeks I absolutely knew that for me this was the right career for me and actually as I have gone through my career it has just reinforced my love of being creative but also working with great creative people on that journey.

Elliot Moss

And since from becoming a chef which you were obviously in the first place and that is I guess one of the best places to learn what the restaurant business is really about.  People often say that chefs don’t make great runners of business, is that true?

Des McDonald

Yeah I think generally speaking I think it is tough but I was always interested in numbers.  I was always interested in the mechanics of how businesses worked and I guess asking lots of questions and just being interested in how things … you know it is all very well buying commodities and selling commodities but how do you actually make money and I think it is super important that any entrepreneur has that spirit of wanting to make money so I think I am fortunate that I have that sort of spirit as well.

Elliot Moss

Now we talk about an entrepreneur and actually you kind of in a sense of running your own business you came to it relatively late.  I mean 20 or so years working with a fantastic group of very well respected restaurants and other things as well and clubs and so on, is it strange thinking of yourself as now the entrepreneur or did you even inside the business of the Caprice Holdings did you think you know I am not just a senior management person here, I have actually got skin in the game.  Did you feel a sense of ownership before it truly became yours?

Des McDonald

Well I think from my first sort of invite to the board when I was 33 at Caprice when Chris Corbin and Jeremy King sold the business to Luke Johnson, I quickly had to learn how to orientate myself from the shop floor into the boardroom and I guess understanding then that there was a bigger goal, skin in the game as you call it, and working towards a goal in 3 to 5 years whether that is the sale of a business, a business bonus etc., and I got my mindset into definitely entrepreneurial spirit then but through then Richard Caring buying the business and being allowed to be very entrepreneurial in the Middle East and also working and developing the other purchases of the Birley Group and the Soho House Group it was a fantastic opportunity for me to explore different areas of business that you know I could have dreamed about.  So I don’t actually look too far behind and I don’t read too much of my own press and I didn’t always have a huge game plan but it was very much about working towards a goal.  I was never quite sure in the restaurant business when that goal was going to be scored but I think since moving on from the Caprice business it has definitely sharpened my mind to think more and, as I am getting on as well, to focus on the end goal and model my business accordingly.

Elliot Moss

Stay with me to hear much more from Des McDonald my business shaper.  Time for some music, this is Desafinado from the fantastic Dizzy Gillespie.

That was Dizzy Gillespie and Desafinado.  Des McDonald is my business shaper.  He is a restaurateur.  He has got his own restaurants now to play with but he has been for many years behind some of the most famous and successful restaurants in the UK.  Des we were talking there before about kind of goals and you know having a sense of where it might go, many of the people I speak to kind of say you know what I am not sure it does matter, as long as you are passionate about what you do, you build a good team around you, you are making some money frankly the goals, yes you need to have some sense but you don’t need to define it to the point where it is no longer a joy to you.  If that right for you as well?

Des McDonald

Yes, I think that is very true.  In my case am I really hell bent on making loads of money: no.  Do I want to enjoy the journey: absolutely; and do I want the people that work with me to enjoy the journey: yes.  So I guess sometimes I do think sometimes that does shape my mind, I should be maybe slightly more cut throat in the modelling of some of the businesses but ultimately I think it is a balance between the journey and the end goal.

Elliot Moss

All those things you talked about as well just earlier when you were saying you know we bought this, we sold that; some people listening will be going well that sounds incredibly impressive.  For the chef who turns into the man who becomes the boardroom man as it were and then has to actually put together the documents that you need to do around the due diligence exercise and so on that is pretty serious stuff.  Did you enjoy that as much as what are we going to serve tonight?

Des McDonald

It was definitely learning or developing the way to communicate more effectively, set goals and targets.  I think in the kitchen there is a bit more of the moment, of the day, you develop your mis en plas as it is called in the kitchen for that service for that day you are not thinking too far ahead.  I very much had to develop my own strategy and work with some friends and colleagues that I had met in London to help and support that thinking along that journey and yes but definitely you need strategy 100%.

Elliot Moss

But I imagine that the spontaneity that you have as a chef is creative as a person who loves food and in any business indeed where you are really, you are literally or metaphorically in the kitchen, that excitement and that drive and that sense of adrenalin rush that you get must be quite hard to channel for someone like you when it comes to actually as you said stepping back and quote unquote, being more strategic is not people’s favourite kind of way round.  But did you still manage to hang on to some of that creativity and that spontaneity even as you communicated through quite serious documents and processes for sales and stuff?

Des McDonald

I think rightly or wrongly I think I have always made decisions on gut instinct and that is what I have always done and that definitely came from you know working under pressure in the kitchen environment and definitely moving from the shop floor, from the kitchen environment to the boardroom or the management office was a very, very lonely place for a good couple of years and I found it quite alien but over a period of time you know, with self-confidence and as I say thinking on strategy, thinking up some board room analogies you work your way through it and things change and time moves on but I have always trusted my own judgment and I also believe that how wrong can you always be you know I think you have to strive forward and go with your gut, clearly with some experience, and narrow down the margins of error.

Elliot Moss

Find out more about how Des McDonald my business shaper has been narrowing down those margins towards some fantastic successes.  Latest travel in a couple of minutes but before that some words of advice for your business from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me Elliott Moss.   Every Saturday morning from 9am you can catch me here talking to a fantastic shaper from the word of business.  If you have missed any of the previous shows I-Tunes is the place to go with over 100 in there to enjoy or British Airways if you happen to be on a BA flight in the near future.  Des McDonald is my business shaper today and he is the man behind the Caprice Holdings at its height – I guess though I suppose Mr Caring would probably argue it is still at its height and carrying on going – but he was behind some of those big famous restaurants that you may well have heard of and he is now doing his own thing.  He is making it happen in mid-town in London with the Holborn Dining Rooms and also a couple of others haven’t you?  You have got the fish and chip shop?

Des McDonald

Yes.

Elliot Moss

And the Kew Grill.

Des McDonald

Kew Grill in Camden yes.

Elliot Moss

Now these different sets of restaurants that you have and I have been lucky enough to have a few meals in the Brasserie in mid-town, is there a theme?  I mean apart from the fact that the good is slightly different but is there you know under-pinning it are there things that must be Des McDonald criteria that you meet?

 

Des McDonald

Well the criteria is to focus and to have a clear understanding of what the brand is and in Holborn we wanted to create energy.  This is mid-town but it is not New York mid-town you know.  Holborn is a business area, it’s a legal area you know and our neighbours are Mishcon you know great supporters of ours and, but it had to be for me British, the best of British, and create a buzzing brasserie.  Martin Brudzinski, a good friend of mine for years and our designer who worked on Scott’s and various other places for me, he managed to achieve you know industrial lighting, he has got scale and theatre and I think that lots of restaurants are about lighting and what he has managed to achieve in a banking hall I think is pockets of opportunity to have a romantic meal, have a cocktail after work and I think it is what London needs.  London is really on a high for food and beverage and it is absolutely electric and I think it is great to see different parts of London developing these large brasseries or smaller independent restaurants.

Elliot Moss

When you walk across what is your shop floor do you still get the sense of excitement like the child who kind of got the thing he always wanted?  Do you go this is mine; this is what I have always wanted to do?  Is there that sense of wide eyed wow or is it submerged beneath what is the numbers, what are the covers and all the normal things in business?

Des McDonald

Well it depends on the day.  It depends what we did for business the day before.  I sort of if we had a great day the day before I keep my hands in my pockets otherwise it will be a big yes, you know so it really depends on the day.  As people around me will bear witness, my emotions change depending on sales and the environment you are in at that time.

Elliot Moss

It sounds like that is perfectly suited to the entrepreneur if you like or the entrepreneurial make up because actually it is a bit of a roller coaster and people often say that to me that to have got to be able to go up and down and enjoy both bits of it.  When there have been those bad bits, because it is pretty early days for you now, but over the years when there have been bad bits where have you gone for solace?  Where have you gone to go, come on I have got to pick myself up?  Has it been an internal thing or have you leant on other people?

Des McDonald

Well it could be a glass of wine after work, it could be a meal, it could be going to the gym.  I spend a lot of time just trying to sort of, whether it is on a running machine or on a cycling machine or hanging out with friends to get away from you know.  You know a lot of my friends don’t want to go to restaurants that I run because I am always looking at some detail of what is going on or who isn’t being looked after.

Elliot Moss

You are on, I mean you are on aren’t you, you can’t help it?

 

Des McDonald

Exactly and it is very difficult to unwind so therefore you know outdoor pursuits or whatever just to get away from or travelling down to you know the house in Spain and just get away from you know the hubbub and do something different.

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for more from my business shaper Des McDonald.  Time for new music.  This is from the Neil Cowley Trio, it’s called Sparkling and it’s off the new album Touch and Flee.

That was Sparkling from the Neil Cowley Trio.  Des Mc Donald is still with me I am pleased to say and if you have been listening you will know that he makes restaurants, lovely restaurants with lovely food and interesting environments.  Des now that it is your show and you are now looking after you know the buck really does stop with you, is there a different feeling when you quote unquote finish the day or does the day never finish?

Des McDonald

I guess the day never finishes and it is very different.  You know I was an employee for 30 years and as Richard Caring said to me when I was leaving you know it’s right now for you to do your own thing and actually at the time and you are only focussed on being an employee it’s a whole different world out there and much more entrepreneurial.  So it has different risks and rewards but for me the whole flexibility to unleash my sort of creative juices has been really enjoyable and you live and die by the sword so. You know I had a team with me before and now it is down to me.

Elliot Moss

And in terms of living and dying by the sword and the creativity and things have you found that the people around you, the people like in maybe banks and other things are supporting you in the way that you might want them to?

Des McDonald

Well it is interesting I did an article recently in one of the broad sheets about that question and my answer was, it was horrific to try to get any form of banking support as a start up business.  I have 30 years’ experience, I have worked in most of the best restaurants in London and some in New York and in the Middle East and yet still to get a door open in a bank, even a bank that I have been with for many years, is very difficult and literally within the following two weeks of that article many, many sort of emails and letters and thoughts for meetings and requests so I guess …

Elliot Moss

From banks?

Des McDonald

From banks and lenders and all different fields of finance.  Probably we are now seeing obviously a lot more green shoots and a lot more positivity in the market place so whether it was my timing possibly but  …

Elliot Moss

Now you are not having such a problem?

Des McDonald

No but I have now got a group of investors and my own money and no bank funding but tough for new start ups but hopefully we can get our arms around that and improve that for start ups like me going forward.

Elliot Moss

And on the investor point, is it an unusual relationship having someone who has put their money on the table but actually doesn’t want to get involved with the management, is that the ideal investor or do you like a bit of you know argy bargy?

Des McDonald

The investors that I have chosen all have a link with you know lifestyle, food and beverage.  My chairman you know has been in the fish business for many years and that is why one of the reasons I developed the fish and chip shop brand.  So I think there is a link and I think you want interest, you don’t want to over-complicate things and you need to have pyramid in your business who makes the decisions but ultimately you want them to support you on your growth and believe in the journey and support that journey.

Elliot Moss

My final chat with Des is coming up very shortly and you are going to be hearing a track from Shaper of Jazz, one of my favourites Gil Scott Heron; that is after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

That was the seminal The Bottle from Gil Scott Heron.  Just for a few more minutes Des McDonald is my business shaper.  We have been talking about all sorts of investor relations, the banks, being an entrepreneur and a late comer to the entrepreneurial thing officially even if you were entrepreneurial.  What advice would you give to other mid-40s who are thinking they should go out on their own?

Des McDonald

I believe if you have an idea, you have got conviction and you have got the opportunity you have got to follow your dreams you know but you have to be prepared for the rough ride but think it through you know.  Our old friend strategy needs to be involved and you need to have you know supportive investors but if you have a strong conviction in your dream you should follow it.

Elliot Moss

And was there ever a bridge where you didn’t have any money coming in or had you also put some away for this point where you were going to go its mine?

Des McDonald

Definitely some rainy day provisions but …

Elliot Moss

Never enough.

Des McDonald

Never enough.  So ….

Elliot Moss

But you had thought about it obviously and you can’t just go turn the tap off and now stop you have got to live haven’t you?

Des McDonald

Yes but what I have realised I guess you know as I mentioned earlier, that there is the void of trying to get quality help from banks, you know, and even with licensing in Camden we had challenges and at some given points I was you know really up against the wire of spending you know over a million pounds developing a restaurant and couldn’t get a restaurant licence in Camden.  You know I still worry sometimes in this country that we are not supporting the entrepreneurial spirit.  You know I am not, you know I want to open nice restaurants for nice people who are discerning foodies.

Elliot Moss

If you could give yourself advice now versus what you have learnt in the last 17/18 months, you know post kind of going and doing it, what would the most important bit of that advice look like?  Because it sounds like you have had to overcome some of the usual pains that coming with planning and the usual pains that come with raising finance but above all of those things what would you say to the 18 month younger you?

Des McDonald

Be very, very choosy and make sure that the team around you are the right people around you.  I have made a couple of mistakes along the way, I’ve put that right.  That would be it really.  It’s about imparting your wisdom and your dream and your ideas and the creativity with the right people; because I can’t be there every day but I need you know the right people to expedite that.

Elliot Moss

As you look forward to the next few years what are going to be the things that are really going to help you shape the way that your business is focussed and the way that your business looks?

Des McDonald

I think that I have to make sure that each restaurant we try to open, you know I would like to do lots of fish and chip shops I think there is a corner in the market for that.  The same with Kew Grill, I think a modern barbecue, there is an opportunity for that but it’s about you know, getting the right business model and that starts with rent; you know rent is very, very expensive in London.  I may have to look further afield at other cities which I am currently doing.  So it is trying to get the balance between opening small independent restaurants in a world where you have huge conglomerates or international investment can afford more than I can to open spaces so it is about making sure there is enough room for the little man.

Elliot Moss

And just before I ask you about your song choice, there is still joy for you in this?  This is what you want to do?  You like the fact that you left the employee status to become the main man?

Des McDonald

Yes as the title of the song you know suggests you know I love this business and I am still feeling great and feeling good.

Elliot Moss

So yes tell me about your song choice, what is it and why have you chosen it?

Des McDonald

Its Michael Buble you know a real classic for me and upbeat songs.  I love the sound.  It’s a song that I would turn on on Saturday morning and you know you have had a hard week and it just, it’s an uplifting song.

Elliot Moss

Des McDonald, thank you very much for being my business shaper.  This is your choice, its Michael Buble and Feeling Good.

 

That was Feeling Good from Michael Buble, the song choice of my business shaper today, Des McDonald.  A straight-forward, down to earth, no nonsense kind of guy with a clear vision that he wanted to be the main man and he went and did it.  Do join me again, same time, same place, that’s next Saturday for another edition of Jazz Shapers here on Jazz FM.  Stay with us though because coming up next it’s Nigel Williams.
It was in my DNA to leave school and go into the business. I went to The Ritz and I really enjoyed the energy, the noise, the buzz, the camaraderie. I absolutely knew this was the career for me.

I was always interested in the mechanics of how businesses worked – I asked lots of questions.

I don’t look too far behind and I don’t read my own press and I didn’t always have a game plan, but it was very much about working towards a goal.

Am I hell bent on making loads of money? No. Do I want to enjoy the journey? Absolutely. Do I want the people that work with me to enjoy the journey? Yes.

I have always made decisions on gut instinct – that definitely came from working under pressure in a kitchen environment.

Moving from the shop floor and the kitchen environment to the management office was a very lonely place for a couple of years.

I have always trusted my own judgement – you have to strive forward and go with your gut.

London is on a food and beverages high and it’s absolutely electric.

I still worry that in this country we are not supporting the entrepreneurial spirit.

It’s about imparting your wisdom, your dream, your ideas and your creativity to the right people, because you can’t be there every day. 

Des McDonald

Des McDonald is the former Head Chef at the Ivy Restaurant in London, former Managing Director of Le Caprice and now an independent restaurant consultant.

After 20 years with Caprice Holdings, Des left in 2012 to set up his own consultancy and restaurant business. Just two years down the line and he has already gained a number of high end clients in London, Ireland, Scotland and the US.

Des’ ultimate aim was to open his own restaurants, and within 17 months he opened his first -Concept, The Fish & Chip Shop in Islington, a 70 seater restaurant with that Victorian style/charm of the old British Fish & Chip shops. Just 9 months later came Holborn Dining Room, with 150 seats this is a high end restaurant, delicatessen and bar, situated in the Rosewood Hotel right on the border between West End and City. Just 3 weeks later came Q Grill, a125 seat UK meets Memphis style BBQ restaurant in Camden. Further sites of both The Fish & Chip Shop and Q Grill are due to open later in 2014, including a pop up of Q Grill on the roof of Selfridges in May 2014.