Coming out from the kitchen. How one chef left the chopping board behind and built a better business.

By Shaun Alpine-Crabtree, co-owner of London restaurant The Table Café

Many owner managers we meet have fallen into the trap of trying to be everything to everyone - HR manager, finance director, sales director, project manager - but failing to carry out any of these roles properly.

The key to breaking this habit is making the most of the people around you, so you are free to focus on defining a future for the business, and on making that future happen.

In order to build a better team, you need to ensure you’ve got the right people in the right roles and with the skills, knowledge, autonomy and encouragement to perform their roles effectively.

Just over a year ago, the above scenario was a fairly accurate description of Shaun Alpine-Crabtree, co-owner of London restaurant The Table Café.

The restaurant was flourishing but Shaun was wilting — working long hours and trying to juggle the roles of owner manager and head chef.

“It was completely out of hand. I was working 15 hour days and wasn’t seeing my family,” he said. “Eventually I reached the realisation that it was impossible for me to be cooking every day and running the business at the same time.”

Shaun asked a friend (not Gordon Ramsay!) to come in and help out for six months, take the cooking off his hands and manage the kitchen.

He admits this was difficult for him to do, as it meant relinquishing control over the very thing that has made the restaurant the success it is.

“Cooking is a very subjective experience. You have your own particular style and it takes a long time to build up trust in other people to do it for you.”

It turned out to be the right decision. Shaun’s sous chef stepped up to the challenge, and it wasn’t long before she was running the kitchen extremely effectively on her own.

Now, Shaun’s involvement is confined to designing the menus and helping out with difficult dishes. The majority of his time is spent running the business and managing his team of 20 staff.

“I’ve surrounded myself with key people I can rely on so now I’m a lot less hands on and I use my team much better.”

Managing people isn’t something he has always found easy though. “I initially found the people side very difficult because working in a kitchen means you work in a very authoritarian, disciplined, aggressive way. Kitchens are immediate, demanding places where there’s no time for niceties. I found my style that worked in the kitchen didn’t work on the front of house team or on customers, so I had to look at the way I was communicating.”

Having overcome these challenges, Shaun is about to take on another challenge — opening a second restaurant. To equip him to deal with this next growth phase, Shaun has just participated in the Better Business Programme run by Your Business Your Future. The Better Business Programme is a transformational development programme designed specifically for owner managers looking to take their business to the next level.

“I’m essentially self-taught with no formal qualifications. When a business gets to a certain size it is quite terrifying how quickly you can lose money, especially a restaurant. I needed a programme that would support me into the next few years and help me prepare for starting a second business,” he said.

This preparation has involved mastering the financial aspects of running a business, and putting in place the building blocks for developing staff, an area that Shaun admits he was weak on prior to participating in the Better Business Programme.

“That’s now completely changed. We’ve written job descriptions for all the team, amended contracts accordingly, implemented an appraisal system; we hold weekly management meetings and monthly staff meetings — that is a direct consequence of the programme.”

The restaurant today is also more profitable than it was 12 months ago, which, as Shaun points out, is ultimately what it’s all about.

“I hadn’t realised quite how closely the development and management of people correlates to achieving profitable growth,” he said.

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