Ain't my first rodeo: Gaucho lead interview

Ain't my first rodeo: Gaucho lead interview

In September 2018, Investec and SC Lowy bought Gaucho out of administration, saving some 750 jobs. The announcement included the return of Martin Williams as CEO, who would lead Gaucho through the CVA that followed. All 22 CAU restaurants within the business were closed, believed to be the loss-making side of The Gaucho Group. Williams then quickly set about bringing together a head office team he had formerly worked with, including brand and marketing director Jenna Bromage, who recently spoke with Casual Dining Magazine about how things are going so far…

CDM: Thanks for talking to us, Jenna. So, you’re back in the saddle at Gaucho. What made you return to work for the business?

JB: I used to work here six years ago, when the company was gearing up for a sale. Martin employed me then, but he left the day I started. I left after six months, after doing a project tidying things up. In 2018, he approached me after I saw the Gaucho administration on the news. He asked if I would meet for a coffee and asked me to come back – I was nervous, but didn’t know the plan was to bring his original team back together. I came back as a consultant with Ross [Butler, MD], and because we were so close, it was super nice to have everyone back together again. There was no drama to any of it and the banks were lovely too. I was convinced to stay, and I’ve never really seen anything like it. We came back right in the middle of the administration, before the CVA happened. A lot of people had left or had been made redundant. It was a crazy time.

CDM: It must have been! Why do you think Martin chose to return to Gaucho?

JB: I think it was just meant to be. He is amazing at what he does and works 24 hours a day, like most of this industry! But it was meant to be. There were lots of people bidding for it – some disclosed, some not – it was a bit of a bidding war. Martin wanted to come back, but he was also approached by the banks to come back. He is without a doubt the best person for the job.

I’ve worked in many different businesses where there is no respect between the departments, but here the mutual respect is there. It works. The people who were in charge before didn’t have a hospitality background, so the restaurants had been left to do their own thing. But our team are really involved – we coach, we spend time here helping them. It all seems very settled now. Last year was about stabilising the business, now it’s about growth, amazing things and exciting plans.

CDM: You say the former owners didn’t have hospitality experience. Is that why the business started to fail?

JB: The management team who took over from the original family owners didn’t have the experience or background to lead the business or drive it forwards positively. I think that was the final nail in the coffin. When we came back to the business, we did a tour of the sites and talked to everyone about the new vision. People were very emotional that Martin was returning, and many thanked him for coming back. It was very much a firefighting situation when we first came back for obvious reasons during an administration, plus nothing had moved forwards with the brand for so long, it was stagnant.

I’ve done a turnaround with a fashion brand before and I know that, if it works, it’s the most incredible thing to be a part of. The new Charlotte Street site in London is the first example of how we’re turning the business around.

Photo by Ola Smit

CDM: What do you think is the current consumer perception of Gaucho?

JB: We worked on the new look for a long time – we even looked at changing the name. But when you research people’s perception, everyone has a memorable story about our business. I wasn’t aware of how loved it was. One of the agencies that we worked with were sat next to a group of guys going to the rugby on a train and overheard them saying how sad the administration news was. When the agency told them it was going to be saved, they were cheering on the train!

When you look at the previous design – the cow hide, etc – I often wonder what would happen if it launched now in black and white. Would it be today’s Instagram moment? The new design is more feminine, has more texture, it’s lighter, representing mountainous ranges of Argentina and Latin America. People have been wowed so far. It’s designed to be open to everyone.

But if people like the old Gaucho, they can still go to it – we’ve got 15 other restaurants for now, until 2021/22, but by that time they will all be changed over and fully refurbished. Any new sites will follow the ethos of the Charlotte Street site with the same sustainability plans.

CDM: The CAU brand is no more. What do you think went wrong?

JB: I think the design was pretty poor. With CAU, I couldn’t understand it as a concept. It was thrown together, ramped up too quickly and the concept wasn’t strong enough. I felt terrible for the staff who lost their jobs, but when Gaucho was saved, we also saved 750 jobs and gave as many CAU staff jobs as possible across the estate too, as well as helping place them elsewhere through our contacts in the industry.

CDM: Charlotte Street is the first ‘new Gaucho’. Tell us a bit about what you’ve done…

JB: There’s a new design, new menu, which has been extended and we have a beef bar. There are new wines, as it only used to be Argentinian wines, so now we have world wines as well and wine taps. The dream scenario is to have more of a neighbourhood vibe – menus could be different everywhere in order to reflect the neighbourhood that they’re in. At Charlotte Street, we have a projection screen above the bar and host Gaucho Film Club. Every other weekend, we screen a food or drink-based film, so you eat and drink what you see on the screen.

Photo by Ola Smit

CDM: Are you noticing different consumer diets? How does a steak restaurant cope with people eating less meat?

JB: The whole point of our new bar menu is to be accessible and easy, but with more elegant dishes that can chop and change. It’s centred around beef, but we have introduced plant-based sliders and tofu, etc. I want to explore how we can be different in the plant-based area of the market, without isolating customers. It has to appeal to everybody. People will eat less beef, but it will be better quality. Our beef is from Argentina, we work closely with farmers and hand select our cattle.

CDM: Would you say that the new Gaucho is more casual than the previous style?

JB: Yes, that’s one of things we did. People saw us as a special occasion restaurant – repeat visits were very low, but they have tripled in the last year. It’s amazing. We have introduced new demographics through certain partners and offers, etc. Lunch here can be £25 now, which was unheard of before. People had become greedy – rather than look at what the company needed and strategise and remain on-brand, they added another menu and put the price up. We’re not a fan of that at all.

CDM: So what’s the timeline for rolling out the new and improved Gaucho? Which sites are up next for a refurb?

JB: We’re deciding that at the moment. Immediate pipeline is The O2, as it is a very big site and has been designed, like many of the other sites, to suit the ‘off the beaten track’ look. It’s designed to be a bit hidden. The O2 looks shuttered, so we want to open it out and add a beautiful bar on the ground floor. We’re looking at The O2, potentially Leeds and Manchester, then the flagship in Piccadilly in London as well. It was good to get Charlotte Street done before changing the flagship at Piccadilly. We’ve got the blueprint, the plans are drafted and it is stunning. For M Restaurants, it’s about adding one more site in Canary Wharf, which is going to be gorgeous. For Gaucho, in terms of new sites, we’re looking at central London, a neighbourhood site and potentially another regional immediately. We’re looking at Liverpool and Glasgow, for example – we’re always on the lookout.