How to open a restaurant, by Juan Santa Cruz

Gentleman’s Journal ask the society restauranteur, and man behind Casa Cruz and Isabel, what ingredients go into making an award-winning eatery

Opening a new restaurant is very much like experimenting with a new dish. You need an idea of the finished product before you start cooking. You need to assess your ingredients and see what’s possible. And then, most importantly, you must blend, mix and balance those ingredients to create something appealing and appetising. It’s no mean feat.

And, like cooking itself, you can all too easily be burned by the challenges along the way, boil over with the frustrations of managing such a project and spend most of the process on a knife-edge between failure and success.

No-one knows this better than Juan Santa Cruz, the Chilean-born proprietor of Isabel in Mayfair and Notting Hill’s Casa Cruz. Never one to have success served to him on a plate, Santa Cruz has fought tooth and nail to ensure his restaurants fulfil his vision. Here, Gentleman’s Journal turn up the heat on the restauranteur and ask him how he did it.

Have persistence and perseverance

“I could give you a million examples of things going wrong,” says Santa Cruz, who is set to open a new eatery, Nathalie, later this year. “Effectively, everything you want done, especially if you want to do something special and different, will be challenged all the way to fruition.

“I’ve overcome the hurdles with perseverance and persistence…”

“For me,” adds the restauranteur, “the key to success has been to stick to my guns and be true to my vision, and fight to the bitter end to achieve that. People will tell you that things can’t be done, and the moment you give in and say okay to that, you’ll end up with any other restaurant.”

Building the right team is a key component of success

Another key part of succeeding, Santa Cruz reveals, is assembling the right team — all the way from your waiting and bar staff to the manager of the restaurant and senior team.

“Even during development,” says the restauranteur, “if the people you’re working with aren’t willing to stick with you and deliver your vision, then change the people involved. That applies to any entrepreneurial project.

“I’m involved in the entire hiring process, from beginning to end, on senior levels. And I vet every single employee who joins the organisation. This process could take any form, from a handshake with eye contact so I know who they are, to seven meetings if it’s a very senior person. Building the right team is a key component of success.”

Have a clear plan - and don’t deviate from it

“Have a very clear, defined vision,” advises Santa Cruz, explaining that this is one of the — if not the most important key to success. “You must determine a very clear execution plan that goes all the way to the end of the project. Many people plan the first two or three chapters, and then find themselves in the middle of the sea without a plan to get to the other side of the Atlantic.

"You must determine a very clear execution plan that goes all the way to the end of the project..."

“Also, have plenty of contingencies built into the plan,” he adds. “Because, more likely than not, lots of things are likely to go wrong. Just don’t change the vision. You can polish it, but you should never change it, in shape or in taste. There will be challenges to fight right until the end, but don’t let yourself get deflated by them.”

Learn to take constructive criticism

Listening to your critics can be difficult, especially if you disagree with them. But learning to take constructive criticism, Santa Cruz says, in an important part of succeeding.

“My business is making people happy, so when they provide constructive criticism, I find it useful and I make sure to take it in. But, if someone were to walk in and say ‘hey, I think you should do Japanese food’, that’s not the sort of advice I’d take. But if someone tells me that their sweet potatoes weren’t cooked to perfection, I’ll take that in.

“You can only do your best given the options you have at each stage. When I first arrived in this town, it was a challenge to get anything — to get the site, to get investors, to get the builders. But we don’t have those challenges any more. And that’s all down to growing the right way, setting up the right team for the future, and listening to people.”

Don’t set an end goal — and you’ll never stop pushing yourself

“I don’t have trouble finding builders any more!” continues Santa Cruz, before qualifying: “There are plenty of people who want to work for us. And that’s because we’ve built a track record in the market. People now realise that it’s good for them to do things with us.”

"When I first arrived in this town, it was a challenge to get anything..."

“But you should never set an end goal,” he adds, explaining that when you reach you self-set pinnacle, you will stop trying. “I don’t have an end goal. I think that business is an ongoing process and, for a perfectionist like me, everything can always be improved. It is a beautiful, never-ending process. That way, I always keep on polishing and polishing. Improving, improving, improving…”

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