True independence - an interview with Sam Harrison

Sam’s Brasserie is rapidly becoming one of London’s favourite new dining spots. Backed by Rick Stein, it is fast blurring the boundary between ‘neighbourhood’ and ‘destination’ restaurant.

We spoke to the eponymous Sam Harrison about his experiences in London’s notoriously tough restaurant business.

Hi Sam. What was the inspiration behind the business?

I was very lucky to spend 2 years living and working in Sydney and also spent a short amount of time in New York. What struck me about these cities is how, when you ask people what there favourite restaurant is, they will often say a local neighbourhood restaurant within 10 minutes of where they live. In London we have great local pubs, but not that many local neighbourhood restaurants, because many suburban areas have been dominated by the chain offerings.

I wanted both my restaurants to be true independent restaurants. I think restaurants are an extension of your home and I guess that is why I decided to put my name above the door of both my places. I am also very lucky that two of my fellow owners, Rick Stein and Rebecca Mascarenhas, also have fantastic independent restaurants and were both a great inspiration to me.

Have you always intended to open your own restaurant?

I have worked in restaurants since I was 16 and over the years have been fortunate to work for some fantastic operators. Eventually you get to the stage when you think it might be time to try and do something yourself. I was also lucky to have the support and encouragement of Rick and Rebecca to do my own thing. I tried to take all the good things that I had learned from all my working experience and pull on these to create something that would work.

Sam’s Brasserie is co-owned by Rick Stein. How has having a high-profile investor affected the business?

There is no doubt that it has helped, and especially when we launched. ‘Sam Harrison backed by Rick Stein’ was more of an interesting story than ‘Sam Harrison opens a restaurant on his own’. I think people are genuinely interested in the fact that I worked for Rick for 4 years and ran his places and that he was then willing to back me.

I think it is also a more interesting story as I am a front of house person rather than a chef. Rick and I very much share the same beliefs about hospitality and how restaurants should be operated. I am very proud of the fact that Rick decided to back me and have always tried to repay his faith by creating two restaurants that he can be proud to be associated with.

The restaurant business is notoriously cut-throat. How do you stay ahead?

It is tough and very competitive. I think you have to be willing to work incredibly hard and on a daily basis look at your business and think “what could we do better?”. The current economic environment is making it some of the toughest trading most of us have ever known. It’s not quite as simple as this, but I do believe that if you serve consistently good food and drinks, with a big genuine smile, at the right price……then you should be OK!

Service is obviously an important part of the restaurant experience. How do you make sure that standards stay high amongst staff?

You have to start by recruiting genuine hospitality people. The key is to find people who really enjoy the buzz and excitement of looking after guests. This may mean taking on staff with limited restaurant experience. I always say that you can train anyone to carry plates and open wine…..but you can’t train anyone to smile. You also have to lead from the front and set the standards you want. I still work on the floor and will be in one of my restaurants almost every day.

What advice (if any!) would you give to other prospective entrepreneurs?

I would say go for it! We don’t do enough to encourage entrepreneurship in this country. But be prepared for a lot of hard work and stress! The rewards can be fantastic, but you have to put in some serious graft to get there.

I would also advise obtaining as much experience as you can before going alone. I think people often rush in to trying to start their own business when it might be better to really do your homework, bide your time and make sure you understand your product and the market you are attempting to crack.