From staff shortages to the uncertainties of Brexit, the British hospitality industry is facing troubled times. With an ever-increasing number of business experiencing difficulties in both the casual and the fine dining sectors, what are the keys to running a successful restaurant? We sat down with Monica and David Galetti to unveil the secrets of how their relatively young restaurant Mere in London’s Fitzrovia is coping with the challenges
Mere’s chef patron Monica Galetti is a familiar face to many British households, thanks to her long-standing role on BBC’s MasterChef, as the co-host of Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby and through her cookbooks.
Despite her fame, though, she isn’t particularly keen on the ‘celebrity chef’ label – and with good reason: ‘I’m always here [at Mere]. Running a successful business is about staying on top of it and making sure that the quality is good every time, from keeping an eye on the flowers to checking if there’s fruit going off in the bar’s fridge,’ she says. ‘I’ll even check the guest toilets to see if the cleaners have done a good job.’
Monica and her husband David opened Mere (pronounced ‘Mary’, named after Monica’s mother) in 2017. The couple first met at chef Michel Roux Jr’s Le Gavroche, where Monica was working in the kitchen and David as a somm. With expertise in both back and front of house operations, the couple decided to open their own venture, and in 2015 started planning Mere.
‘It was something that I always wanted to achieve and doing it with David was a blessing. If I’m not here I know he is someone I can trust personally and professionally and that he’s got eyes on everything.’ Being able to fully trust one’s partner is key, she says, but having both wine and kitchen expertise is another huge benefit: ‘Alcohol is where your margins are.’
But Monica doesn’t gloss over the challenges that she and David face working in a demanding industry while having a family. ‘It was tricky for us. All of a sudden our little girl wasn’t seeing any of us for about three months, so we had to employ a nanny to help out.’
At the restaurant, on the other hand, the main issue is staffing. Luckily, the Galettis managed to keep their core managerial team since Mere’s opening: ‘We retain the core team by looking after them,’ Monica says. ‘We make them part of our decision making, let them know what we have planned and make sure they get a good work-life balance. We also push them to go and see things outside and give them gratitude when they deserve it. You basically need to show to your team that they matter.’
Still, like many other restaurants, Mere suffers from a very high turnover of its more junior staff. ‘It’s the main challenge, you can never relax. Once you do, someone is gone, and the day after, someone else is gone, or sick for a week, or wants a holiday.’
The Galettis believe that junior staff retention can be improved by investing heavily in training and creating a working environment that is healthy overall. But Monica is keen to point out that good training and wellbeing mean nothing if they’re not complemented by her active involvement: ‘If you’re a boss who doesn’t care to check in and see what’s going on, how do you expect your team to deliver? Even if I’m filming’ – which can be up to five days a week – ‘I’ll come in at least for a few hours so that I’m on top of every problem and I know what’s happening the next day.’
Monica spends endless hours training her kitchen staff to bring them up to the standards required by the business: ‘I’m always on the costings with my head chef so that he learns how to make sure the GP is on cost.’ Meanwhile, David keeps an eye on the front of house and on the wine department. He was lucky enough to bring his former assistant Sandra Bein, now Mere’s head somm, straight from Le Gavroche.
‘My kingdom for a somm’
Both admit that finding sommeliers is one of the toughest tasks of restaurant management. ‘There’s some real talent out there,’ David says, ‘but new somms often need proper training. You can’t become a sommelier in one day.’
‘Buying, selling and food pairing are just some of the skills that a sommelier needs to master,’ he explains. ‘Also, people are getting more and more knowledgeable about wine, so there are a lot more expectations than in the past.’
Selling wine is the most lucrative aspect of the restaurant business, yet, despite the high level of expertise required and the role’s numerous responsibilities, it’s hard to imagine any sommelier achieving the same celebrity status commonly associated with chefs – an issue that makes the sommelier profession less appealing to the younger generation. ‘Perhaps it’s because everyone gets in a kitchen at some point,’ says David, ‘so it’s easier to relate to it.’ Meanwhile, wine, as Monica puts it, ‘requires much more refined skills’.
The solution is to make wine more approachable: ‘What puts people off is that wine is described with technical terms that people don’t understand, plus wine can be so many different things. It’s so subjective.’ Yet even when aspiring sommeliers aren’t put off by wine’s unapproachable character, ‘they don’t understand what it means to serve people’, explains David. ‘The WSET [Wine & Spirit Education Trust] for instance doesn’t actually train on service.’
‘I think we just need to try to introduce the excitement that people see in somms in America,’ he says. Perhaps more wine on television would help? ‘If you look at the TV shows done in the States, you see that they’ve really worked on the stories, and people can relate to those stories,’ says Monica.
Creating a story
There are plenty of stories at Mere that people can relate to. From the menu to the decor, the restaurant celebrates the Galettis’ cultural heritage, fusing classic French with elements of the South Pacific.
Mere’s wine list offers something unique too. The house fizz is a champagne label the Galettis created in collaboration with Duval-Leroy. ‘We went to Champagne, chose the grapes from the different terroirs and tasted them blind. It was so exciting, it’s something special and unique. I have it here on the list and can say, I made that myself,’ says Monica. ‘That product adds an extra level to the experience, something that the guest wouldn’t have had by ordering just any house champagne. I’m so proud when people say “oh, I love your champagne, I want to take a bottle home”.’
Indeed, the own-label concept serves a dual purpose: the takeaway bottle has the potential to bring in new customers who might eye it at their friend’s dinner party and want more, and the mere existence of the Galettis’ champagne, the personal story behind it, gives guests another reason to return to the restaurant. ‘You need to make sure you’re providing something they’re coming back for.’
Stories, and the personal, exclusive experience they create, are what draw people back. That’s the key to a successful restaurant, for the Galettis.