Stuart Langley, DDC2018/04/09
What’s it really like to start a business in hospitality? We started an interview series to find out.
This week, we talked with Stuart Langley, founder of Disappearing Dining Club and Little Quiet, about the changing face of the restaurant industry, the origins of pop up dining and how hard it can be to know your arse from your elbow.
DDC launched before Street Feast, before KERB, before London really knew what a pop-up restaurant was. What prompted you to develop the concept?
There was no real concept at first. I just wanted to throw a dinner party but approach it like a club promoter.
Disappearing Dining Club became the club, Dinner Dance the name of our first party. I used a Facebook group – this was 2010 remember – and a simple website to promote, sell tickets, and tell people how to find us. None of the places we threw our parties had kitchens, sound systems, lighting, bars, furniture so that all came with us every time. And we needed a more permanent kitchen to work from so I did a deal on a takeaway kitchen inside a nightclub on Old Street and opened our first restaurant, a one table, ten-seat restaurant called Dining Room.
At around the same time, a PR company asked us to do a dinner for a drinks brand, which we did in the old Gary’s Bar – a massive flat / illegal drinking den– on Kingsland Road. Someone then asked us to do a birthday dinner for them, which we did in a coffee shop on Whitecross Street. And that’s pretty much the concept; restaurants, private dinners, parties and brand events in locations people either don’t know or don’t expect to eat in.
8 years is a long time. How has the London dining scene changed since?
The rise of consumer foodie-ism, food events and experiences, street food and night markets, artisan and craft food producers, food start-ups, chef-led TV shows, food lifestyle blogs and all those goddam Instagram food shots taken from above have created an insatiable demand for all kinds of food and drink content.
When I was growing up kids wanted to be footballers or in bands, now they want to own a food truck or learn how to make coffee in Japan. Food seems to be THE thing that everyone in Britain can pass comment on, second only to the weather.
Expectations are high, loyalty fleeting, opinions cheap, publishable and thoroughly disposable. Contemporary foodie-ism is obsessively trend-led, infatuated with celebrity, incredibly tribal (natural wine), over commercialised (gin), celebrates success and failure in equal measure (Jamie Oliver) and is a shrieking, PR driven, hell-hole of an industry in which we are all doomed to fail. But fortunately, that’s not where I work.
I work in the hospitality trade with chefs, waiters, bartenders, bar backs, KPs and a bunch of some of the greatest, hardest working, most dedicated, incredibly fun-time people out there – and that’s not changed at all.
Do you think the industry has an image problem?
Absolutely, but it’s all our own fault.
We’re totally schizophrenic about our industry because it’s hard to reconcile the image we sell to the public and the press with the reality of what we actually do for a living. On one side the margins are rubbish and the toilets are leaking and the KP hasn’t turned up, on the other side we are tweaking the lights, polishing the glasses, putting our warmest smiles on and doing our best to make sure the guests have the perfect evening – and make the whole thing look effortless.
We want accolades and five-star reviews and to be the envy of our peers, but what we probably all need is a hug and a holiday. Excluding restaurant reviews, the only articles you see in the press either sell the dream of success in the food industry or makes us out to be service charge thieving rip off merchants out to con customers and abuse the staff.
Rates. Payroll. Food costs. Everything seems to be on the rise. What’s the key to solving the challenges the restaurant business model faces right now?
Staying positive and finding a way forward. I’m almost thirty years in the industry, I love it, and it’s still what I get up and go to work every morning for.
When people I respect say that the conventional bar / restaurant model of selling food and drink is broken and is no longer viable, it’s hard not to agree with them, however. It just means I have to work harder and work smarter and keep finding ways of beating the traps laid by landlords, local authorities, local residents, the media and, god bless them, the general public, to ensure my business continues to thrive.
Tell us about Little Quiet.
Little Quiet is a 16 seat / 6-ish table restaurant down a back street near Barbican. It’s basically a private restaurant for anyone who makes the effort to find us; a proper ‘secret London’ destination.
There are just nine options on the menu, three starters, three mains, three desserts. Most guests go for a six-course tasting menu where you get what you’re given. Service is relaxed. It has that ‘home restaurant with professional cooking’ vibe that all of our more permanent projects have had, which is exactly what we want.
Because it’s the first time we’ve operated in a space that we own – for another year or so anyway – rather than share with another business, like in an antiques and salvage warehouse for Ropewalk, or an Italian clothes boutique for Back in 5 Minutes, Fred (Bolin, DDC Head Chef) can be left the fuck alone to get on with cooking his particular style of Scandi-ish / Modern European cooking.
Menus change every week or so, wine and cocktail lists are short but tasty. Little Quiet took 18 months to license due to our (now very friendly) neighbours, and the name is dedicated to them. Thanks guys.
You used to run Sosho and the East Room. What the hell was that like? We want stories.
The stories are mostly unrepeatable or incriminating.
Ah, the code of silence. Ok then, best Jonathan Downey Story. Keep it clean…ish…
Ok, so, one day Jonathan decided that we – a dedicated group of disciples and acolytes – were in the wrong. We had foolishly followed an instruction he hadn’t made and, therefore, we knew less than nothing about anything. He was pretty cross.
So to show his disappointment he wrote, in biro, on the wall of the office, “I NEVER FUCKING SAID THAT” about a dozen times, then shouted “ARSE” and “ELBOW” again and again, pointing at each, implying we didn’t know one from the other.
Unfortunately, mid-way through the shouting, Jonathan lost his rhythm and started shouting one and pointing at the other; “ARSE” became “ELBOW” and “ELBOW” became “ARSE”. This went on for around two to three minutes until Jonathan sat back down to continue the meeting like he’d never left his seat.