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After more than 50 years in the business Sir Terence Conran shows no signs of slowing down. He and business partner Peter Prescott tell Sarah Butler how they’re planning more recession-beating restaurants
Terence Conran has a twinkle in his eye. I’ve just asked him if Boundary and Lutyens, the two latest restaurants from the British style icon who brought us Le Pont de la Tour, Habitat, Bibendum and Coq d’Argent, are his ‘swansong’. He gives a sly chuckle. ‘The old swan’s got quite a lot more tunes left,’ he replies.
Conran is now 78, and many expected him to slide into comfortable retirement at his Berkshire country retreat after raking in a reported £100 million from the sale of a 49% stake in his Conran Restaurants group three years ago. But far from reaching for his slippers, Conran, wife Vicki and business partner Peter Prescott, the former operations manager of Conran Restaurants, were already working on the next project.
With two new openings now behind him, launched in the teeth of one of the toughest economic downturns for decades, it seems Conran is just getting started.
Fearlessly or foolishly, next year the trio plan to open at least three more stand-alone versions of Albion – the budget-conscious Shoreditch café that has proved a successful part of the Boundary Project – taking Albion’s recession-friendly format into central London. They also want another flagship restaurant similar to Lutyens and another restaurant-hotel like Boundary.
Conran is convinced he has hit on a new concept: an anchor restaurant with hotel attached, inverting the traditional format of a hotel with a restaurant. In a typically ballsy move, all of these projects are being funded by Conran himself, with just a small amount of bank lending.
While the food at Boundary, Albion and Lutyens is hardly experimental, Conran has taken risks with the locations of his latest ventures. The Boundary site was bought four years ago, when Shoreditch was a much less established dining location, while Lutyens sits in the former Reuters building on Fleet Street, the forgotten former home of the British press, where there is little competition from upmarket eateries.
So far the gamble appears to be paying off. After years of somewhat lacklustre response from food critics, Conran and Prescott’s latest projects have won widespread acclaim. Not only did the light and airy 1930s glamour of Lutyens pick up the BMW Square Meal Best New Restaurant award (see p.28), but Albion won a Time Out award for best new cheap eats, while Sunday Times food critic AA Gill wrote that the main restaurant at Boundary made him feel ‘25 again’.
‘I became passionate about restaurants when I was aged about 22 and I have never lost that passion’ Terence Conran
Conran is clearly loving the ride, as if he, too, has been transported back to younger days. ‘I became passionate about restaurants when I was aged about 22 and I have never lost that passion,’ he says.
‘I love putting the whole project together – starting a business, assembling a team, finding a really interesting place. I also like working out fundamental things such as where do goods come in and where does the rubbish go out, can we get extractions onto the roof and what are the customers going to be like.
‘I see myself primarily as a designer. Design to me is organising a quality of life. Whether you work on the retail side or in a restaurant, it’s the same thing: creating an atmosphere, an ambiance that rolls on every little detail.’At Boundary, he says, he was ‘absolutely seduced by the building itself. It is one of my very favourite types of building, a good solid industrial place.’He is fascinated by Shoreditch, which he calls the new Soho. ‘When Soho was great it was filled with creative people and it had an energy and vibrancy about it which is missing now. I think Shoreditch is developing into one of the centres of creativity in London.’
Having cut back his involvement in the restaurant empire, where he remains a 51% shareholder and which includes iconic establishments such as Orrery, Quaglino’s, Bluebird and Le Pont de la Tour, Conran is relishing the chance to exercise his own creativity in the new pared-down partnership with Prescott.
He says the main reason he cut back his stake in Conran Restaurants, now known as D&D London, was because he felt the group had become so large he was no longer fully involved. ‘I wasn’t getting the pleasure from the restaurants I knew I ought to, and they weren’t getting the time and dedication from me that I knew they ought to,’ he says.
He had clear ideas of how he wanted to work with Prescott. ‘I wanted it to be very personal, to know the senior staff and chefs and have a good dialogue with them. Peter and I talk half a dozen times a day about various things. It’s a very family feeling,’ Conran says. Most of the interiors at Lutyens and Boundary, for example, were built in workshops close to Conran’s Barton Court country pile, where he could watch things being made. And many of the staff have worked with Prescott and Conran before; Lutyens chef David Burke is an alumnus of the original Bibendum kitchen and was the first chef at Le Pont de la Tour.
Says Prescott: ‘We are working with people we know and trust, and who we know believe in the same things. It makes the decision-making process much quicker.’
Conran tasted every item on the Boundary and Lutyens menus and has been involved in the selection of everything from the flooring to the cutlery. Many of the works hanging on the walls of Boundary are from his personal collection or picked out by his wife, Vicki, who had an integral role in creating the look and feel of the place.
‘The key thing is to focus on value for money. We accept that our margins are not as good so we can achieve the price points we want’ Peter Prescott'
‘It’s a group effort,’ Conran insists. ‘My wife has done an excellent job in collecting all the pictures and objets, and she’s very good on the food side.’ He adds that Prescott’s role has also been invaluable, particularly in setting up the kitchens, and their partnership is helped by their shared views on restaurants. ‘We are both looking forward to the seasonal ingredients coming through and talking about truffles and grouse at the moment,’ says Prescott. Both men smile at the prospect.
Conran insists that the quality of the food is the most important factor for any eatery. ‘We always say to our chefs to buy the best-quality food. It’s the quality of the ingredients that matter. And don’t ruin it – many do by being too bloody clever,’ he says.
That attitude is hardly surprising, as Conran has been instrumental in changing British food culture and developing the vibrant restaurant scene we now enjoy. Right from the opening of his first restaurant, Soup Kitchen, 56 years ago, he has pushed his love of fresh ingredients, garnered on a youthful trip to France.
He says: ‘I think the food scene is terribly important, certainly as far as tourism goes. Many years ago, if you talked to tourists coming to the UK they would say they liked the place but the food was disgusting. Now they would say the food is wonderful and it is also quite a nice place to go.’
Interestingly, he is less complimentary about the modern French food scene, describing it as ‘terrible’. Prescott agrees: ‘The Paris scene is terrible compared to London now,’ he says.
But is the health of the British scene threatened by the pressures on diners’ wallets? Conran and Prescott admit the financial returns may not be as good as they once were, but say they have been pleasantly surprised by the level of business at Lutyens and Boundary during the downturn. Prescott says diners are holding back on the Champagne in the restaurant but are happy to let it flow in the private dining rooms downstairs. To encourage the flow, Prescott says they sourced high-grade Champagne from a specialist supplier and ‘priced it like bad Champagne’.
‘I love putting the whole project together – starting a business, assembling a team, finding a really interesting place’ Terence Conran
‘The key thing is to focus on value for money, more so than ever before. We accept that our margins are not as good so we can achieve the price points we want. The result is busier restaurants. A lot of restaurants have been suffering because of a declining number of people. We have been fortunate – the number of diners has remained quite positive,’ says Prescott.
Conran adds that the downturn has delivered property deals that would have been impossible three or four years ago, and has helped with recruitment of staff. He says he wouldn’t be venturing into new restaurants if he didn’t think he could make money, but insists that his first priority is to do something he is proud of: ‘If you approach something from a cynical point of view, that cynicism is going to be noticed by the customers. You have a much better chance of making money if you are doing something because you love it.’
After training as a textile designer at Central Saint Martins, Conran set himself up as a furniture designer, sharing a studio with sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. Some of Conran’s first work was for the Festival of Britain in 1951.
He opened his first restaurant, Soup Kitchen, in London’s Chandos Place in 1953, inspired by affordable French restaurants. He opened Orrery a year later and in 1956 started Conran Design Group. In 1964, he founded furniture store Habitat. In the 1980s he developed his retail empire, buying Heals and Mothercare, and also snapped up the Butlers Wharf site for redevelopment.
The retail business was ultimately broken up and Conran focused on his homeware design store, Conran Shop, and his restaurants. He set up Conran Restaurants in 1991 when Le Pont de la Tour opened at Butlers Wharf. A plethora or restaurants followed that decade and beyond. In 2006, Conran sold 49% of his stake in Conran Restaurants and began work on his new restaurant empire, including Boundary.
Boundary, 2-4 Boundary Street
(entrance at 9 Redchurch Street), E2 7DD; 020 7729 1051.
Lutyens, 85 Fleet Street, EC4Y 1AE;
020 7583 8385.