'Diversification is the name of the game'

The  Staff Canteen

With award-winning establishments across the UK and in Hong Kong, a passion for growing produce as well as a knack for finding - and holding on to - brilliant young talent, Simon Rogan's Umbel restaurant group is in good stead.

"They are trying times - but we're managing to stay busy," the chef and restaurateur said, as the whole team is "fully immersed" in preparing the Rogan At Home range, their finish-at-home meal kit which ships nationwide. 

"It's still a busy little place, Cartmel." 

 

For Tom Barnes, Roux Scholar, Great British Menu 2020 winner and executive chef of both L'Enclume and Rogan & Co, it was a year in which he learned not to take anything for granted. 

"I think everyone has a little bit," he said. "When things have been taken away from you - even if it's just something as simple as going out with your mates or going to a restaurant." 

"The amount of restaurants I want to go to and say 'oh I'll do it next month, I'm a bit busy this month, then all of a sudden you haven't got that option, that's when you realise how much you miss it." 

Simon agreed, and said: "I miss going to the pub as a spontaneous reaction. Even when we're out of lockdown you still couldn't do that - you had to book a table to go to the pub." Markedly less fun. 

Despite all of the hardships faced by the UK's hospitality industry, seeing how well Aulis and one Michelin-starred Roganic in Hong Kong have recovered from the effects of the pandemic, the chef is reassured that there is an ending to this, "and hopefully there will be in a not too distant future." 

But in the meantime, he said,  "diversification is the name of the game," because it will allow them to survive to see the world return to normal, and hopefully be more resilient on the other side. 

"If you'd told me this time last year what we would be doing now or what we've done, I would've said 'get out of here,'" he laughed. 

First time around

It's hard to conceive of in retrospect, but when the team went into the first lockdown, it was a leap into the unknown. Their farm produce was suddenly redundant, so, like many others, they decided to start selling an At Home range, charged at cost price to enable them to offer free meals to those in need among their community.

But as demand grew, the chef explained, "we found ourselves churning out quite a few," which they saw as an opportunity to launch their three-course finish at home meals. 

The offering was oversubscribed for every week until they reopened, and then when we reopened they found themselves full ever single lunch and dinner. And even when the hustle and bustle of open restaurants resumes, the chefs are convinced that the delivery model is here to stay. 

"So we need to find a way of doing both," Simon added, "which is exactly what we intend to do."  

The sun'll come out 

Whatever the future holds, the fact of having developed different revenue streams puts them in an enviably adaptable position. While businesses are seeking means of diversifying to stay afloat, they are among the rare few to have found an opportunity for growth.

"It provides the money for reinvestment," Simon explained, "so not only are we keeping things going, but if we keep it open while the restaurants are open, it's a way of reinvesting into making the restaurants better." 

"As a group it's welcome now and what we should have been doing in the first place. Nothing is too small for us now, nothing is below us. Everything has to be tried, all avenues explored." 

The Cartmel businesses' London sister, Roganic, has remained closed throughout, as footfall always relied on international trade, and will be so until further notice.

But their restaurants elsewhere - including the two in Hong Kong, "have done more than enough to cope with that," Simon said, and this despite unsuccessful attempts to renegotiate rents with their landlords in London. 

Prosperity and posterity

The key to the group's success - which has never had any backers, and was built from the ground up by Simon and his partner, Penny Tapsell - isn't merely its size or its auspicious geographic location at the heart of the country's top staycation destination, but the people in it. In a circular way, the chef has ensured his own prosperity by surrounding himself with talent and allowing it to thrive. 

It is no coincidence that it has churned out more Roux scholars than many other restaurants could dream of.

Simon explained: "We want to nurture our chefs to become the best that they can possibly be. We're very thankful for the talent that comes through our doors for the first time and we nurture that talent by always promoting from within - we don't like to bring anyone in above anyone else." 

"That raw talent to start with has to be worked in the right ways - it's so hard to get amazing staff, and we want to keep them - so to pay them well, we've got lots of opportunity for promotion, for keeping things interesting," (namely the farm,) "because people want to learn that area as well." 

Though he still works every service at one of his restaurants, he said: "I think after all these years I've deserved the right to be in the background more now and act more as an ambassador to the company - the future of the company is the younger talent," with Tom overseeing the Cumbrian operation, and Oliver 'Ollie' Marlow heading the London and Hong Kong sites.

"But then each restaurant has its own talented head chef as well," he continued, naming Paul Burgalières at L'Enclume, Liam Fitzpatrick at Rogan & Co and Sam Fry at Henrock. 

"These are all immensely talented guys that keep the standards up and I'm really enjoying life now, where I can just fritter around and pop my head in." 

"The product is so good, I don't think people are that bothered whether I'm there or not." 

Simon: "At the end of the day, when I hang up my apron (finally), the future of the company is in great hands, and hopefully they'll always feel as though they can be a part of that, whether it be financially or actually ownership - making sure people are tied in." 

"We live and work in the most beautiful area in the UK, and if people have something to work to and a slice of that pie, why the need to look anywhere else." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd December 2020

'Diversification is the name of the game'