Alex Fisher & Pete Clucas, Lost Boys Alex Fisher & Pete Clucas, Lost Boys

Alex Fisher & Pete Clucas, Lost Boys

James Sandrini 21st October 2018

What’s it really like to start a business in hospitality?

We started an interview series to find out. This week, we talked with Alex Fisher & Pete Clucas, Founders of Lost Boys Pizza, about the state of the industry, how to incentivise your team and the role of a Chief Vampire Officer.

Q:

You’ve got two quite interesting job titles.

AF:

Thanks! Yeah, we came up with that in the moment.

PC:

I was like, dude, change your handle to Chief Vampire, now.

I was writing Director and Co-Owner and it didn’t feel right. I hear a lot of people call themselves Co-Owners and it feels as though they’re shying away from being Owners.

Do what Gary V says: Be a business owner. Especially in hospitality, in a front-facing environment where you’re dealing with so many people, so many suppliers. CEO is too stupid – we literally have 4 staff – MD doesn’t sound right. So, Chief Vampire.

It’s just fun. We wanted to make somewhere fun because nowhere is just fun anymore.

AF:

And people comment on it all the time. When we were applying for our liquor license, even the council representative said ‘I’ve been really keen to meet you, I’ve never met a Chief Vampire Officer before. You’re not who I thought you would be!’

It comes back to what we do. Are we serious about having a great restaurant? Yes. Are we serious about hospitality and food and drink? Yes. Can we have shits and giggles along the way?

PC:

You don’t have to take yourself too seriously to be serious about what you do.

Q:

That’s a struggle for some people.

PC:

Yeah, even the name – Lost Boys – comes from this. We sell black pizzas, so we embraced the blackness, the gothic bit. We were always going to have this 80s style with the tunes and the décor; we got lost in it.

But Lost Boys is more than that; we were pretty lost in the business.

Q:

When you say lost, you mean in the trade?

AF:

We’re both hospitality born and bred. It’s in our blood and we’ve worked for businesses small and large, at the top and bottom of the food chain. And sometimes, through circumstance, you get churned out.

I previously worked at Vapiano, and I loved that place. It’s a massive chain, I was doing well, but I wasn’t moving forward and wasn’t progressing, so I left. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next – I felt lost.

PC:

That’s exactly it. Once you get to that level, it becomes harder and harder to find the right job, the right challenge. We got to the point where we could create our own roles, so that’s why we’re now Chief Vampire Officers I guess.

Q:

As former consultants, how hard is it to hold yourself accountable to your own advice?

PC:

You have to. You have to back up how you operate to your team, let alone your clients.

AF:

Ultimately, you can blame anyone you like, but it’s always your fault. It always comes back to you.

We were having a chat the other day about a guy that worked in the kitchen and he didn’t do something just right, and the immediate reaction was to blame the chef; he hadn’t trained him. And then you think, no, actually, it’s our fault for not telling the chef to train him, or helping him do it.

You’ve got to hold yourself accountable for everything. We sit at the top of the tree, who else can you blame?

Q:

Hospitality operations are ensemble casts. People coming and going. How hard is it to get people to take accountability?

PC:

You’re dead right, there’s a revolving door in the hospitality industry. But that’s because so many parts of the business are broken and so many practitioners allow it to happen.

You have to make your business a place people want to stay. So many operators don’t invest in their staff, so their staff don’t invest in them. I think our retention is pretty good. We put some serious measures in place to help that.

AF:

You’ve got to get people to buy into the business. It’s not just about paying them a good salary.

Q:

You pay the London Living Wage, right?

AF:

We pay over the London Living Wage yeah, and we have a very transparent pay structure that relates to sales. The more sales we make, the more people get paid. Everyone sees the sales on a daily basis and they’re invested in it.

PC:

You’ll get to the end of the week and hear the team say ‘OK, if we want to hit the next pay structure, then our target is x, so what are we going to do to get to that?’ The chef will come out late in the evening and say to the team ‘I’ve got 20 pizzas to sell, I don’t mind if you slam me with orders, let’s get this over the line.’

AF:

They’re bought in. We’re doing something quite cool. It’s a niche business – the World’s only Vampire Pizzeria – we’ve been lucky enough to win some awards.

And we’re not the usual business owners. We’re super-hands on

PC:

I was painting the walls yesterday. There’s always something going on.

AF:

The team know we wouldn’t ask them to do something we wouldn’t do first.

This isn’t the only way to be successful – look at Richard Caring or Corbin & King, they’d never paint the walls – but we believe that you get people’s buy in by leading by example.

There’s such a bad stigma around the industry right now too.

PC:

It stinks right now. Service charge culture is the big one – you see it in the hospitality forums. People are unionising, and fast food strikes are happening as we speak.

We’ve both done stints in colleges where we talk to students about the power of a positive career in hospitality. And we try to turn people towards the industry – not as a stop gap measure – but as a job that can lead to a very successful career.

I remember telling my parents that I wanted to be a restaurant manager. They were devastated! Look at me now Mum.

AF:

My dad laughed at me!

PC:

Service charges irks me particularly; the grey areas are widely reported but it’s slow to change.

Q:

The government are discussing legislation…

PC:

It won’t help.

AF:

It will, and it won’t. People are smart enough to find a way around it. What’s to stop the GM taking matters in their own hands? It needs to be distributed fairly amongst the team.

PC:

And there are so many considerations – who worked that shift, what did they contribute, and what type of hospitality business is it. I don’t think you can blanket-state ‘this is what should be done’ when there are so many variables, which is why I don’t think legislation in this format will help.

Q:

You mention service charge being one issue that maligns the industry; what else is there?

PC:

Long hours, shitty pay, lack of gratitude…

AF:

And just the job itself. It’s hard.

People go to Starbucks first thing in the morning, order their soy Pumpkin cream latte thing, headphones on, emailing, get their drink and their off. No Ps or Qs.

PC:

That’s exactly why it’s hard to define the industry. That’s a grab & go operation, an A1 operation. I’m playing devil’s advocate here of course.

AF:

Point is, it’s often a thankless task.

Q:

What can we do to change these expectations?

PC:

It needs a rework. The whole industry.

AF:

It’s going to take operators to say ‘no, this isn’t right.’ People shouldn’t have to work AFDs, start at 8am and finish at 1am.

PC:

A customer can walk into a restaurant at 4pm and will expect the very same service that they would receive at 9pm. All day service is detrimental to service and has opened up the floodgates. The high street wars - £6.95 for a burger and chips – has driven sale prices down whilst cost prices have crept up.

And the only place to pinch is on labour. The chef now works from 7am – 11pm with a half hour break. That’s the problem.

Q:

How much of that is driven by the increase in rents and rates and the necessity for operators to make more out of their fixed costs?

AF:

A lot of it, sure. Take Byron – right at the forefront of better burgers and a brand that began with a phenomenal culture. Anyone that has had the pleasure of meeting Tom Byng would know he’s a people person and a man that drove that business.

Then they got sold to Hutton Collins. And as soon as that happened, and they started being run by people that only review the P&Ls. They stopped asking whether Jon, the GM, was better suited to the site he was in, or was he more of a shopping centre style manager?

Without this understanding and creative thinking, the P&L watchers are more likely to recommend trimming hours or cutting costs. This is what forces operations to slip.

Giraffe did the same thing. We both know them well. Great restauranteurs.

PC:

Arguably the greatest restauranteurs in UK history: Russell and AJ. But, as soon as it was sold to Tesco, things changed. I’ll give you an example:

I was in charge of drinks for Giraffe and I was told in a meeting that the owners wanted to stop putting a slice of lemon in a Coke and a wedge of lime in a Diet Coke. And I couldn’t get my head around it. It’s the garnish. It’s there so that the waiter knows which drink is a Coke and which one’s Diet without asking; it’s so that the guest knows that the drink is fresh and wasn’t sat there for 20-odd minutes.

The ethos that was bred into me was that our produce was as fresh as it could be and our restaurants were as lively as they could be. I was bought in. I was proud to be a part of that team.

I was fighting my case in a meeting and was pulled to one side. They asked me if I’d costed the garnish out. I had, it cost £15,000 per year to place lemon and lime in every Coke & Diet Coke in every restaurant. They responded with ‘we’ll give you a bonus if you drop the case.’

I shut up and booked a trip to New York, obviously!

They were heading for a sale. They needed to cut costs. End of story.

AF:

I need to namecheck Mr. Andrew Kemsley. One of the smartest operators in the game. He said to us both a long, long time ago that we weren’t in the food business, we weren’t in the restaurant business, we were in the people business and it just so happened that we served food.

It’s become more and more apparent over time to me. It’s about people. If you don’t have the right people selling whatever it may be, it’s irrelevant what your product is.

Some people do it well: Hawksmoor for example

PC:

They were the first people to say that you didn’t need to wear a uniform. You can have your tattoos out. A huge statement at the time – come here and be yourself.

Q:

Lost Boys reminds me of some of the party bars I used to go to; a place to have fun. We’ve lost a few – places to go, get boozy and cause some trouble. Any favourites?

AF:

It’s still there but not in the form we knew it. Licensing has changed, councils are much tougher than before. Shoreditch has just doubled the impact zone.

PC:

Islington have just added the late-night levy too. Even we’re affected by that because our license runs until midnight. We’re a fucking pizzeria! They’re just making it much harder to operate and it’s forcing closures.

It’s great to have people advocating for the upstarts, like Jonathan Downey, highlighting that the high street is full of places that are exactly the same and that councils are stifling creativity.

AF:

If you don’t let people apply for new licences then the same operators will hold onto what they have and sell for a huge premium. People build empires. And that’s not a good thing in our industry.

As owners we believe that you should recycle, be as paper free as possible and stay away from single use plastics. Even before we had a concept we knew we wanted to work to these values.

On the other side, you have larger operators that don’t invest. Yes, it costs more to recycle. Should it? No, but it does. But looking at their P&Ls, they’ll see it costs more and avoid it. Irresponsible operators with cash cow sites, based on prime locations, able to maximise profit and fail to act in the interests of their customers.

Q:

You’ve both worked for challenger brands that have become mainstays – Giraffe, Wahaca, Bodeans. Did it feel like you were ahead of the curve?

AF & PC:

Yeah...

AF:

Definitely. When I first heard about Wahaca – and I’ll say this to Tommi & Mark’s faces – I thought they were batshit crazy. I remember saying ‘you’re going to open up a Mexican restaurant and you’re not going to sell fajitas?! You’re not going to sell Chimmichangas?!’

And they were like, ‘no, they’re not Mexican’. I said ‘but everyone thinks they are!’ They replied ‘Alex, that’s the problem.’

I didn’t get that their purpose was to educate people on what Mexican food really is. Once I’d tried it, I was blown away. I knew it was going to knock people’s socks off. It was incredibly special working with them at the time. Tommi is one of the most creative, wonderful women in the trade and a fantastic ambassador.

PC:

She has great vision. Having the foresight to see how to improve. They’re taking steps to become more sustainable and improve their drinks offer right now.

Q:

Who do you think is ahead of the curve now?

AF:

Hawksmoor are up there, but they’re reaching the point of saturation.

PC:

They just opened Edinburgh with New York to come.

AF:

Which is stretching their resource a bit.

PC:

I think Blacklock are doing great things.

AF:

Sticks & Sushi. They’re run by smart people.

Q:

All brands that are trying to differentiate.

AF:

But I’ll tell you what they all have in common: Good people. They have operators that legitimately care about the team. That makes a big difference.

PC:

It was put to me by a team member of Hawksmoor recently. If you have a chef that comes in late every day, don’t berate them for being late, find out what the problem is. Find out what you don’t know. There might be a streetlight outside their house that is flickering and keeping them up; maybe they’ve just had a new baby, who knows.

TGI used to call it ‘duck farming.’ TGI is full of old stories like this one. The ballad was that there was a KP that had been with them for 10 years and never been late once. Not once. And one day they call up and say they can’t come in because there was a problem on his duck farm.

The manager figured it was bullshit, because he’d never ventured to find out more about the guy’s life. The guy owned a duck farm.

A person isn’t just a function or a number on payroll, wherever they work and whatever they do.

Q:

And that’s the hardest thing to scale.

PC:

Definitely. Definitely.

Q:

You’re opening your second restaurant now. How many do you want to have?

PC:

Well we’d like to still have 2 this time next year!

We’ve always said that we’d try to keep Lost Boys quite small. As you’ve always said Alex, back the jockeys, not the horse.

We’ve got hundreds of other concepts that we’ve been working on for 20 years, so maybe we’ll flip the script after Lost Boys and run something else concurrently.

AF:

I look at some of the people we mentioned earlier: Corbin & King and Richard Caring, for example, that find ways to do something different everywhere they go. D&D would be another one.

Q:

Is part of their success down to masking the ‘chain’ element from the consumer?

AF:

For sure. But it works both ways. Look at McDonalds: Cookie cutter, low price point.

PC:

What they have in common though is that people treat those brands as their third place. Regulars that feel comfortable in a place that isn’t home, isn’t work and that they can treat as an extension of their living room to an extent.

Q:

You’ve always championed vegan food, low waste, London living wage and so on. You’ve been early on these compared to the mainstream operators. What’s coming next? What will people care more about in the future that they don’t care so much about now?

PC:

Sustainability will go to another level. Tank beer, Boxer refill Gin, tetra packs back in restaurants.

AF:

And traceability of ingredients. People are more mindful of the environment; they’ve grown up with the tools to bullshit test the places they visit and they’ll vote with their wallet.

Thanks to Alex Fisher and Pete Clucas.

Follow the boys on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook or head over to the site to find out more about Vampire yoga. And pizza. Just go.