Two weeks before the first lockdown Charlie had just finished a 100k redevelopment of the Laughing Heart, finally getting closer to his original vision with a basement space for live music and events. He had just achieved the highest turnover week in his four years of trading and, he says, “it was just starting to feel complete. It was so frustrating to have it all ripped away”.
As lockdowns have been imposed and lifted over the year, this story of investment outlayed with no chance of return must resonate with many restaurateurs, whether the financial burden was refurbishment or Christmas decorations. He was, he remembers, “broke as broke as broke. I had massively overcapitalised buying shiny new things for the new space and I didn’t have any money to pay suppliers or wages. I just knew that I had to do something to keep on going”. That something happened in a matter of hours, and snowballed with speed into something remarkable.
As that first set of restrictions came to an end in July, Charlie remembers, his friends were divided between those whose lives had come to a standstill and those working harder than they ever had before. Charlie was firmly in the latter camp. Project managing the build and running a restaurant, working seven days a week, had pushed him into a kind of hyperfunction mode; when the hospitality industry was abruptly closed he was fuelled by the same fear and uncertainty as the rest of us; but rather than give in to anxious despair, that sense of the unknown imbued him with focus and energy – “I was in a really good headspace to keep moving and creating – and also, from a turnover perspective, we had no choice”. His first e-commerce platform, in partnership with a 3rd party delivery service, was up and running within 24 hours of the lockdown announcement.
“We realised early on that delivery solutions were interfering with allowing restaurants to retain their brand integrity, the quality of service and their relationships with customers. All the things that they had worked so hard to build. When we first joined the platform we chose, we had more complaints in the first week than we received in four years of trading”. The problem? A lack of control over the whole journey. “It transpired that we were alienating those people who were trying to support us. We were rewarding them with missed deliveries and cold food. We had no control over the logistics from start to finish – with drivers picking up meals from other companies along the way, totally unbeknownst to us. On a philosophical level that became an issue to me right away”. For any successful restaurateur, whose eye for detail is at the core of their working day and for whom the happy customer is their raison d’etre, this relinquishing of control is as personally painful as it is professionally frustrating. The solution? Hearing these woes one night over a glass of wine, his friend Pavel promised he could build a better ecommerce platform than the ones already available, saying “you can’t jeopardise the thing that you’ve spent years creating, for such a nominal amount of cash”. Within 72 hours, he had delivered on his promise.
Imagine if all late-night promises caused such a fundamental and speedy industry shift – and Charlie has every intention of shifting an entire culture in this country. “London is way behind the curve. In New York, Tokyo and Sydney, quality restaurants deliver. We just have no culture of that in the UK – there has historically been a stigma”. Platforms like Deliveroo and Uber Eats have had a monopoly on the market and, quite apart from the unviable commission (c. 35% as standard), there are issues of brand alignment and quality of execution. How could a World’s 50 Best restaurant sit alongside the pizza-and-wings dark kitchens which are the apps’ bread-and-butter? This issue of alignment is not one of snobbery, but of guaranteed quality of experience for the customer, and for the restaurant.
Charlie points out that the huge number of people who care deeply about their dinners are just as passionate about fine dining establishments such as Clove Club as they are about niche high-end casual Mangal II, viewing them both as extraordinary, valued restaurants. The commonality is their best-in-class quality, which is what BigNight seeks to represent. And they are well placed to gather these establishments under their wing, as the Laughing Heart is well known as the beloved end point for many well-lubricated hospitality dinners: “whether you own one of the best restaurants in the world, or you work in a bakery, pretty much everyone comes to the Laughing Heart to drink at one in the morning”. And Charlie is an unmissable character, a huge presence blessed with an easy conviviality which lights up the atmospheric space as he opens bottles from his excellent wine list: “So they take my call”, he smiles.
“Uber Eats may be more powerful than us, but we have a power that they don’t have”. That power is respect, a voice within London’s community of feted restaurants, and the drive to give a voice to fellow restaurateurs, too. He sees BigNight as a mutual power build, viewing the centralised platform as a way of expanding each restaurant’s reach, audience and income: “And the power of working with those brands builds strength and value to us as well”. Charlie is using that strength to tell their stories and give them greater visibility, but also to work with them to hone their offering. And the work that goes into that is not just for this strange period. If the culture changes, as he envisages, eating and operating in this way will be woven into the fabric of peoples’ lives. “We want to try to help restaurants understand the long term potential for this. It shouldn’t matter if you’re in lockdown or simultaneously doing 100 covers a day – how can you build a product that you believe in, that you’re going to be inspired by, that your team is passionate about, that’s going to sell and that’s going to keep adding a vertical income stream that, years from now, means that you view this time as a positive one rather than a shitshow”.
And Charlie brings another great strength – his first-hand understanding of that shitshow of a year for restaurants. When BigNight started he made over 400 deliveries himself. That all-in-it-together feeling, that will to muck in on a deep level, to get your hands dirty and to understand every aspect of the job at hand, is such a strong drive for restaurant people and one he continues to bring to the table. Now one of Charlie’s key functions within BigNight day to day, he explains, is bringing the perspective of someone who is going through the same things as the restaurant partners: “I’m broke, I’m in the shit, but I’m also working hard every day to make the magic of restaurants happen as a restaurateur. At the same time I’m using those insights and how that makes me feel as a template for how we should be approaching and supporting the other restaurants on our platform”.
BigNight now has a team of 10, and growing. Charlie found what other employers lucky enough to be hiring at this time have found – that there is unparalleled opportunity right now with a fabulous pool of freshly furloughed, available talent to draw from, both for his office and for the scores of delivery people (all paid fairly, by the hour rather than per delivery). “These roles do not all strictly require people to be from the world of hospitality, but what we find is that the passion that they have for the industry, and the understanding of each restaurant that you’re representing at the time, that helps so much”.
Charlie is adamant that this new opening in this country’s restaurant culture, finally catching up to our hospitality friends in other parts of the world, should be embedded in all our lives permanently. That shift would help to protect livelihoods for both workers and businesses, now and in the future. “I will go on record saying that, for the restaurants we work with, I don’t think it will ever come close to replacing what happens in the real world, and nor should it. But right now it’s the only revenue stream – and a great revenue stream – for many places, and that’s important. What we’re aiming to do is to curate an exciting thing, to be a conduit for these restaurants and to facilitate what they do. And if we continue to organically grow then one day, and that day is not today, we’ll take a dividend out of this thing and make some money”.
The leap from survival mode, from building a website in 24 hours, then another in 72 hours just weeks later, through to the present moment with 30 restaurant partners and growing, has been a whirlwind which shows no sign of slowing. So where does he see BigNight going? “It could be a platform not only for ecommerce, but to bring all sorts of ideas together and help celebrate this industry which we love so much. Right now let’s see this as a merit-worthy project with a tremendous amount of potential.” The sites may have been built by Charlie’s business partner (and BigNight MD) Pavel with lightening speed; but if Charlie is right, this isn’t going anywhere fast.
Interview by: Kitty Slydell-Cooper
Photo credits: The Laughing Heart, Big Night