The man form the colony

Posted on Analysis Jan 2011 - by Tandoori Magazine
The man form the colony

Carlo Spetale is one of London's most prominent restaurateurs and behind the Colony Bar and Grill. He talks to Humayun Hussain

Carlo Spetale is that rare breed of London restaurateurs who has enjoyed one success after another. Perhaps one can put it down to his hard and fast ethos of "accept nothing less than the highest standards, consistency, value for money...and fun".

Alternatively, Spetale, of Italian origin, may put his success in part down to showmanship with his father being in the Italian film industry, or even take heart from his mother, who came from a catering background. But even if Spetale's own endeavors to go into stage direction didn't quite work out, he's done very well for himself as a restaurateur.

His latest venture, Colony Bar and Grill, in London's Marylebone, has been trading now for almost a year and has settled in with an ever growing loyal customer base and mostly positive critical reviews. Spetale's own background aside, he says that he's very fortunate that he has the involvement of the UK's premier Indian chef, Atul Kochhar and close friend Minesh Sheta, in the business.

Of Colony's inception, Spetale says "I'd been discussing an Indian restaurant project with Minesh for a while before we met up with Atul Kochhar, whom I had known for a number of years, over a drink one afternoon. We shared our concept with him, essentially serving Indian street food, albeit with a European sensibility, it soon became clear that Atul had an almost identical project in mind that he'd been trying to get off the ground for over a year.

"The end result of our meeting was that not only did Atul want to be involved in Colony, he wanted his involvement to be comprehensive, right down to investing in the project and becoming a legitimate partner in the business."

While the roles are split, with Spetale as the managing director and Kochhar as Colony's director and executive chef, the former is at pains to point out that the restaurant wouldn't be doing so well were it not for the other principals in the team, such as head chef Saurav Nath (ex Benares), general manager John Lacombe, who's worked with Spetale for over 12 years, and head bartender Marco Perrotti.

Spetale stresses that, ultimately, it isn't really the food writers response to a new restaurant that matters most, but more what the guests say. "I make a point of speaking to virtually every guest," he admits, "and hear the response first hand. It's so heartening to see our guests keep returning and recommending us to others. This may be the slowest form of marketing, but it's definitely the most valuable. Another positive aspect of our customer base is that the ratio between Indian and non-Indian guests is 50/50, and that says a lot about our broad appeal. "

colony09Having been in the restaurant business for 30 years, Spetale had in fact retired prior to opening Colony - quite natural for someone who's been a roaring success in the trade. But then something keeps drawing him back.

"Frankly," he states, "I can't put my finger on it. It's a bit like trying to defining love. You are either in love or you are not, and I certainly am with the restaurant business. I'm a firm believer in the notion that if someone is looking to enter the restaurant business, but looks at it as work, it's best not to do it - you are far better off in another profession.

"I've been very fortunate in that having been a restaurateur for so long, I've managed to make a great living from what is actually for me like a hobby. The restaurant world has been a fantastic pastime as well as a career, to do it well, you have to love it."

Despite his early forays into working behind the scenes in the theatre, Spetale notes that he had always wanted to be in the restaurant and entertainment sector. With the theatrical world put aside, his first break - that gave him a good grounding - came from managing the London Playboy club and also Trader Vic's, at the London Hilton Hotel, for two years each.

"Both establishments taught me an enormous amount about service, quality standards, marketing and much more," says Spetale. "I then went on to launch my own place called Ambience in London's Bayswater, a three-floored venue with a nightclub in the basement, a coffee bar on the ground floor and a restaurant on the mezzanine. It was a great success from the customer's point-of-view, but it didn't last very long as I could have run it better as a business, so it proved to be quite a learning curve - nothing concentrates the mind more in business than losing money!"

Various fast-food places and country pubs followed under his ownership, before Spetale moved into opening discotheques, the best known of which was Xenon, in Piccadilly. Launched in 1980, Spetale sold it exactly a decade later, saying that he'd had "enough of late nights". He then went back into the restaurant business when he started what was to become his biggest success to date, The First Restaurant Group, that included the Notting Hill Brasserie, Taman Gang, the Ebury, the Running Horse and the Waterway.
He may have a stellar track record, but has Spetale ever been daunted by the prospect of what he's about to take on, particularly if it involves other people's money?

colony10"There are two reasons why that doesn't really apply so much in my case," he states. "Firstly, whilst I haven't always been right, I have been more often than not. The other thing is that while I have taken on some bank debt, in the majority of cases the investment has always been private. Besides, if you are frightened of losing money, you shouldn't be putting it in, in the first place!"
What is the biggest pressure of running a restaurant?

"Some people," says Spetale, "consider profit as their biggest motivator and greatest driving force, but that has never been the case with me. Of course profit and loss are important mechanisms and vital to any successful business. The prime focus for me though is to get all the elements right first. If you get the concept, standards, staff and service right, profit will definitely follow. If every single decision is tempered by the profit margin then I think that you will make life very difficult for yourself, the business and the guest."

For Spetale, one of the most important aspects of the business that many restaurateurs get wrong is the lack of consistency. "It's absolutely crucial to get that right," he stresses. "I would much rather be consistently at 90% rather than one day at 100% and the next at 50%. It doesn't matter if a guest is coming in for a coffee one afternoon or a banquet the next, his experience in your establishment must be consistent great - from the time he's been greeted and seated to the time you say thank you and goodbye to him. So never take eye off that ball."

So what does Spetale consider to be the most important factor is running a restaurant? "Without a doubt," he says, "it's the whole package. But I think I would be right to say that that even if you were to dine in a restaurant where the food was absolutely exquisite yet the service was just horrible, you are unlikely to return. So, if I had to choose it would be service. Other than that, I would say that anyone looking to open a restaurant must, with their hand on their heart, believe in what they are doing."

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