Pierre Levicky: The secret ingredients to avoid making a meal of it

MY RESTAURANT in Union Street was not working well. My customers were unhappy and yet I had my best chef in the kitchen and my best waitresses up front.

It was 1989 and I was contemplating my very first failure – so I changed my chef. I had always found Francis' food average, always too salty, not refined and more importantly, hard to eat . . . but amazingly his food was always too salty, always unrefined and always unpleasant to eat just to my taste!

He used to be so angry when I told him that he was a chef with poor cooking skills and that his food tasted like "s**t" (well, you know what I mean), but it was always so incredibly consistent.

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Within a month, the second branch of Pierre Victoire was serving an average of 92 lunches a day, at 4.90 for three courses. Francis had suddenly become my God. I went to Union Street to witness the miracle.

There it was, 90 customers, a full house all sitting down, some of them still with food in front of them, food that they had barely touched. As for Francis, he was going around the tables, with a large confident smile, his hands clasped behind his back, bright white chef's jacket, polite and obsequious.

"Did you enjoy your meal?" He exulted confidence, he was proud of his food, of his status, he did not see the untouched food, he never doubted his ability. The customers started doubting their taste and decided to believe him too and at 4.90 for three courses it was cheap enough to merit further visits. So my worst chef succeeded where my best chef failed.

Which brings me to restaurant failure and Bella Mbriana's takeover. I was only there three weeks ago on the strong recommendation of one of my friends at L'escargot Bleu, and he was right. I went with my partner and my son and we all had a nice meal, thank you. It was a very nice meal and the service was very pleasant and attentive.

As I was paying the bill, I remember thinking that it was actually quite cheap for what we had.

The bill of 36 included starters, main courses, which included a seafood platter, simply cooked, comprising of three plump scallops, mussels, three or four crayfish, a sea bass fillet, mackerel, really delicious fresh squid, and a half lemon for I think around 12 or 14.

After discounting VAT and costs, the owner of this restaurant will have made maybe 4 or 5 of gross profit out of this dish and for sure this would not suffice to cover overheads and staff costs.

Furthermore if the food was cheap, it was not so affordable to justify a next-day visit. The food was good, yes but not outstanding to merit another unavoidable prompt visit . . . my opinion is that it was somewhere in the middle, not bad, not great; good but not exceptional, good value food but not unforgettable; enjoyable but not magnetically so.

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It felt neither too cheap nor too expensive, at the end if felt comfortably bland. It was just simply missing a little bit of magic.

I have had many restaurants in my day and some failed. Some traded blandly and others exceeded all expectations. All the restaurants I had that failed did so for the same reasons – they were all inconsistent and lacking magic.

You would think that awards and great cooking is obviously best for success because somehow food quality has to have some importance for success – but no!

There are so many potential diners around that you will always find a customer who likes what you offer and as long as you can sustain the wait, whether the food is great or just too salty, it is not important, so long as it is too salty or great all the time, every time, with a smile!

The key for success is really a constant food/price formula with a sprinkle of magic, so arm yourself with a calculator and work out your costs, all of your costs – yourself included – and then work out your menu.

Make sure that all of your dishes can be delivered consistently throughout a busy Saturday night and a slow Monday. Always the same.

If you are sure of this, then work out your selling prices in order to cover your costs. One last thing, make sure that the restaurant is created for your customers and not for you or your chef.

Done? Then the hard part starts . . . Believe me, running a restaurant is a bit like a running a football team, it depends on a group of skilled people working together to score – to win.

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It depends on a team, a winning team, motivated, proud, self-assured, dedicated, enthusiastic with a single will to succeed. It is the togetherness of these individuals that creates magic, and this magic is like a huge aura that pulls customers in. Unfortunately, this you cannot buy.

Surprisingly, Francis was that sprinkle of magic in Union Street, with a strong French accent. Everyone loved to practise their school French with him, more and more as the wine flowed.

You can only create it, nurture it – with daily training, subtle changes, larger smiles and little reprimands – but change the goalkeeper, move the forwards, change tactics, restaurant success is so fickle.

This, I think, is what Mbriana could have lacked. They certainly had the best forward, they won the World Cup, but it was last year and it looks as though they did not manage to carry on motivating their supporters and their team for another moment of glory.

I am guessing they just did not chant loudly enough. I am sorry for them.

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