The Big Interview: The Ivy Collection MD Baton Berisha

It has established a reputation for fine dining and a celebrity clientele – and The Ivy is shortly set to bring its glamorous touch to Glasgow’s Buchanan Street, its second Scottish branch after opening up in Edinburgh.

Berisha hopes the Glasgow Ivy will be as successful as the Edinburgh branch has been. Picture: Milo Brown.

And the rapidly expanding, high-end restaurant chain has a suitably glitzy explanation for where its name originated, prompted by owner Abel Giandolini apologising to actress Alice Delysia for building works taking place as he sought to create one of London’s finest dining rooms.

Delysia replied in the words of a popular song of the time, saying: “Don’t worry, we will always come to see you – we will cling together like the ivy.”

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The legend was born, and it’s “a very good story”, agrees Baton Berisha, managing director of The Ivy Collection – which encompasses more than 30 Ivy-branded sites, although excluding the original in Covent Garden.

He is speaking in advance of the opening of the Glasgow branch – The Ivy Buchanan Street to give it its proper name – that has seen the former home of a Nationwide Building Society swap silver coins for silverware. It was confirmed last week that the doors will officially open on Monday, July 29 – and Berisha, who was born and raised in Kosovo, is evidently highly enthused about the new site.

“We’ve done something quite spectacular in Glasgow,” he says of the premises, spanning two “fabulous” floors and including a 222-cover brasserie, 24-seater private dining room and two “beautiful” onyx bars.

Berisha stresses the strong aesthetic appeal of the new site – including “incredible” ladies’ toilets – as well as its prime location that can lure both business and leisure traffic. Indeed, Buchanan Street’s footfall and retail spend makes it second only to London’s West End.

He points out that The Ivy in Glasgow is targeting a broad range of customers, including families and groups of friends, with an extensive menu, encompassing breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner – or just popping in for a coffee or glass of wine. “There is going to be something for everyone.”

The aim is very much to put the customer first, Berisha explains, citing high investment in ensuring consistent service and dishes. If you take such an approach, “then there’s no reason for the business not to be successful”, states the MD, whose remit also extends to two Harry’s Bars and the Brasserie of Light, which is located within iconic department store Selfridges.

The Ivy Collection now entwines several locations in London as well as Harrogate, Manchester, Birmingham and Dublin, for example, as well as Edinburgh.

“Glasgow’s going to be our 36th site opening in the past four and a half years – a huge expansion – but that is due to our commitment to putting our guests at the forefront of everything that we do.”

Its debut north of the Border – opening up on a corner of St Andrew Square in 2017 – has been a hit, he adds. The Ivy On The Square is neighboured by the likes of Dishoom and Hawksmoor in what some branded Edinburgh’s “cuisine quarter” – and its arrival was described in advance of its launch as a “great boost” to the city. Talk of a Glaswegian outpost began not long after, and Berisha states: “People in Scotland have welcomed us with open arms. We’re very happy with Edinburgh, and hopefully Glasgow will be equally successful.”

Berisha had harboured ambitions to be a doctor, but has instead spent his entire career in hospitality, initially to get by after arriving in London aged 15, working as a junior waiter at Soho’s Quo Vadis in the late 90s.

By his late teens he realised that he had an aptitude for the profession, and felt he could make a career out of it. He progressed at rapid pace, moving to Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill in 2004, before joining D&D as restaurant manager, overseeing Le Pont de la Tour, Quaglino’s and Sartoria.

But having built an extensive understanding of the restaurant trade, he felt he needed to move into the bar and nightclub sector, and joined Brompton Brands – famous for celebrity haunt Mahiki – as operations director.

However, after a couple of years and in pursuit of more sociable working hours, he returned to the restaurant scene, joining Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Group as it looked to open a branch of restaurant Dinner in Australia.

By then, the one thing he felt he hadn’t done was hotels – and he checked into St Martins Lane Hotel as director of food and beverage in September 2013.

He then heard that The Ivy was thinking of opening a new site in Covent Garden, a meeting was arranged, and “the rest is history”.

Berisha launched The Ivy Market Grill in Covent Garden at the tail end of 2014. In February 2016, he was promoted to operations director for the entire group, and sees the promotion to his current role as having reached the peak of his career. “It’s been a journey, definitely.”

It also sees him in constant contact with The Ivy Collection’s founder and chairman Richard Caring who is “very much involved in the business”.

The latter in 2005 bought the Caprice restaurant group, since adding prestigious names such as Scott’s, Balthazar, and Sexy Fish to stablemates Le Caprice, The Ivy (the original site that dates back to 1917), and J Sheekey.

Multi-millionaire Caring, who made his name in fashion, was reported last week to have snapped up Jamie Oliver’s shuttered steak restaurant Barbecoa at St Paul’s in London.

The troubles of Oliver’s broader restaurant empire, which went into administration in May, highlight some of the manifold hurdles the sector faces, with rising wages, business rates and the spectre of Brexit cited by many as factors eating into profit margins.

Furthermore, the number of restaurants in Britain fell by 2.8 per cent in the year to March 2019, according to the Market Growth Monitor from CGA and AlixPartners. Net closures amounted to about 15 a week, and there was an end to the “boom” that saw the number of such sites jump by more than 15 per cent between 2013 and 2018.

But Berisha stresses The Ivy Collection’s copper-bottomed ability to fend off potential challenges. Looking at Brexit, for example, regardless of what happens, “we are in a good position to be very successful, as long as we can ensure consistency in our product”.

And it is maintaining consistency that keeps him awake at night. “You have to consistently perform for guests to return – that is incredibly important for us.”

As for staffing, he says the business attracts top-calibre staff, who now number some 4,000 and undergo rigorous training across the board, to help “ensure the product that we’re delivering is exceptional all the time”.

Berisha also rebuffs the suggestion that the group’s rapid expansion runs the risk of watering down the prestige of the Ivy name. , “I’ve got to think outside the box most of the time,”, he states, “[but] I don’t think we’re diluting the brand at all.”

The group meticulously researches locations, and Berisha himself visited Glasgow several times in the last couple of years in advance of the latest opening, to do a recce and deepen his understanding of the city.

The Ivy Collection in the year to July 29 saw turnover more than double to £98.5 million from £43.9m on the back of 14 openings including Edinburgh.

However, pre-opening costs saw it make a pre-tax loss of £3.49m, up from £3.45m the previous year.

Berisha notes that the group pressed the “pause” button for a few months on its expansion plans in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, but has hit the accelerator pedal again. “Now we’re much more confident on what we’re doing and the success that we have with our guests in different parts of the country. We’ve done some great deals in the past, and we think that we can continue doing the same thing,” he states, stressing that landlords “want to go into business with us because we’re a business that is successful”.

He has opened multiple sites for the group, and plans to launch in Cardiff and Oxford, and debut a second “Ivy Asia” (the first being in Manchester) in a “truly spectacular” site in the City of London by the end of this year.

Could we see more Scottish branches? “It’s always a possibility, absolutely,” with a third and even fourth branch potentially opening up at some point.”

The wider aim looking to 2020 is to keep growing the brand and the collection of restaurants, with Berisha seeing strong potential to expand further in the UK, including London.

There are also plans to expand overseas, with Amsterdam and Paris among prospective locations. “We are very excited for next year – we’ve got some great plans… it’s going to be a great 2020 [as well as a great 2019].”

Lastly, while no shortage of famous names has come through the doors over the years, Berisha’s approach is that everyone’s a VIP. “For me, it [has always been] important to treat everyone the same, irrelevant of who they are or where they come from or what they do.”