An alumnus of the great Corbin & King, Ben Whitfield has been running restaurant businesses for a decade. Now a consultant for the hospitality and arts sectors (with a side hustle in restaurant wines at home), Ben talks to us about success and longevity in difficult, but much-loved, industries…
What consumer and sector trends are you currently seeing within leisure and hospitality?
Our post-pandemic lives continue to influence our behaviour towards going out. Within leisure, people are looking for comfort, escapism and fun – with a massive pent-up desire to socialise. I’m currently working with Soho Theatre and comedy shows are proving to be sell-outs. In food and drink, there is a huge appetite for supporting businesses that have grown out of the pandemic, for brands that are offering something fresh and new, and responding to new behaviours around health and sustainability.
But that doesn’t always mean we want to go out. Our homes have become more central to our leisure time and people are prepared to spend money on at-home entertaining. The same goes for staying local – we want to support neighbourhood businesses, to bump into people we know, to buy from local entrepreneurs.
That chimes with your latest venture, Dorian, the soon-to-open restaurant in Notting Hill, west London…
Yes, three years ago we wouldn’t have necessarily considered opening a restaurant in the north of Notting Hill, although Notting Hill is a bubble within a bubble…! Dorian is owned by Chris D’Sylva, a local and founder of Supermarket of Dreams, which he launched during the start of the pandemic, turning his well-known Notting Hill Fish Shop into a sort of pop-up for different brands. So Dorian will sit alongside the retail business. A British, nouveau bistro with a nod to decadence: generous portions, changing menus reflecting access to the best produce, wrapped up in hospitality – the kind of place you’d visit two or three times a week.
You describe Dorian as hospitality-driven, rather than chef-driven. Is that a point of difference in a sector that often places the chef at the centre of the brand?
For me, it’s not. At Corbin & King restaurants, the hospitality overall was the draw, not named chefs. Dorian has a great, young chef and, with an open kitchen, people will get to know him and wallow in the fun and the atmosphere. The relationship customers form is with the brand: the food, the place, how it makes you feel when you walk in and walk out – and decide whether to come back.
“Success is a 20-year anniversary”
How do you create that trusted and long-standing relationship between customer and brand?
By creating a brand with honesty and authenticity – and telling the right story. To be timeless, not just of the moment, is really hard to do, but it’s what every brand should be aiming for. Success is a 20-year anniversary. Practically, it’s about perceived value so you have to know how to price yourself in inflationary times.
And how do you price yourself?
Brands have to spend more money on quality. To use wine as an example, in a growing inflationary environment, the price of raw materials and fixed duty costs per bottle are rising, which means that less and less money is being spent on the grape juice itself. So people who want good quality wine are buying a more expensive bottle. Having something good to drink is becoming an everyday luxury.
“People want attention. No-one wants to be put through a process”
Did you learn more about customer behaviour by launching a direct-to-consumer brand in Whitfield Wines?
I started Whitfield Wines at the beginning of the pandemic, when wholesale suppliers suddenly had no restaurant clients. I’d asked friends if they wanted good quality, restaurant wines delivered to their houses. They were very grateful – thirsty too. I didn’t try to make any money to begin with, it was more of a social service (it’s a viable, part-time business now). But as I started to scale it, I built a website – sales slowed as, previously, I had sent a very personal letter and taken orders by email. People want attention, the personal touch. No-one wants to be put through a process. And this resonates with my former world. At C&K we ran the restaurants from the restaurant floor – not from the boardroom.
So what wine should we be drinking right now?
I like finding brilliant, European Pinot Noir away from crazy Burgundy prices. People don’t think of Italy as the source of Pinot Noir but I’ve found great wines from the north west, in the Valle d’Aosta, which is precise and complex too. I have another one launching soon, this time from the south of Milan, which has been produced for 150 years but only recently reached our shores…
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This article first appeared in The Brief, a fortnightly email with conversations and provocation for leaders and founders of brands. Just sign up here to receive it directly to your inbox – and join the debate.