Restauranteur – Nik Westacott
Nik Westacott’s 16 seat restaurant is housed in a renovated greenhouse next to a busy road in Fishbourne, West Sussex. When he bought the property adjacent to it to start his bed and breakfast business, opening an eatery an an outhouse was way off the agenda. Today, the prestigious Trip Advisor website rates The Old Greenhouse as number one out of 190 restaurants in the Chichester area. Worklifestyle met with Nik to hear the story behind his success.
At the age of 19, straight out of college, Nik took on a job as Head Chef. Over the following decade, he was headhunted by a number of establishments to work both front of house and in the kitchen. Then in 1991, having spent so many years boosting other people’s businesses, he decided to go it alone. At this point Nik was aged 28, married, and in possession of spectacularly little capital:
“The banks wouldn’t lend us any money and that was a good thing. It was the nature of the business. It was also a recession and I didn’t have a great financial track record; I was young, whatever I’d got I spent. I had a track record in Chichester for working for other people but nothing for myself to say this is what I’ve earned in the past. People believed in me, but nobody had any money to invest in me. Although we did eventually get a £2000 overdraft from Barclays.”
Although Nik and his wife Sandra both owned properties, they were determined not to borrow against them. Instead they relied on their wits and ingenuity. Nik reminisces vividly about the early days of building the restaurant that was to become Platters of Chichester:
“I brought the cooker from the house and all we had at home then was a Baby Belling. I took the microwave from the house to the restaurant. I took the rug from our lounge to put in the bar area. It was the crazy things that you did just to make it work. If you fork out for it you pay for it later.”
Platters was founded for just £13,000. In addition to foraging for equipment, Nik saved cash by making his start-up a family affair. “We went to The Reject Shop and we bought 28 director’s chairs. They were something like £8 each. My sister made cushions for them.” Nik’s mother also lent a hand by doing the laundry for the restaurant in the early days. “Those family aspects can save you so much money.”
As well as thinking creatively to maximise resources, Nik is always keen to minimise waste. He tells us that Platters never offered more than 8 starters and 8 main courses. “You don’t need big menus. It keeps the wastage down. It’s not detrimental to have a small offering, whatever business you’re in.” Nik spent half his time front of house and half in the kitchen. His policy has always been to hire excellent chefs or to train them himself. His first chef was a fruit and veg delivery boy whom he put through college on a £30 per week day release course and who then apprenticed with him for 3 years. After this Nik employed an experienced female chef with whom he was able to co-create dishes. Platters was also somewhere that Nik could explore his interest in fine wines; the restaurant carried around 500, some of them historic. “It wasn’t commercial. It was enjoyable and the customers liked it. We sold at a fair price. I wasn’t looking to make major mark ups – only £25 on a £225 bottle.”
The exciting menus and personal service offered at Platters meant that it developed an excellent reputation and a loyal customer base. One of the high points of the Platters days for Nik was his millennium event. Diners paid £200 per head for an experience that began at 5.30pm and included fireworks, champagne tasting and transport home. Other local restauranteurs, with whom there was a healthy competition, thought Nik was mad to attempt such a feat. Then when they heard Platters was fully booked, 50% deposits paid, by the end of January 1999, they tried to market their own millennium events. However, some became greedy and failed to fill their places. Even though Nik’s tickets were expensive, they were fairly priced. “Whatever I do I like to give value,” he explains.
As business at Platters continued to build, it seemed natural to expand. In 2001 the next door property was acquired and the restaurant expanded from 28 to 75 covers. But instead of marking the beginning of a new prosperous era, it marked the beginning of the end. “With Platters, after 10 years we doubled the size of it,” Nik tells us. “Mistake. It lost what I love about catering, which is the personal touch. I just didn’t enjoy it; it’s not for me.” 2 years after the expansion, Nik sold the premises and closed Platters down.
After years of working 6 and a half days a week, Nik was keen to work from home. So after the sale of both the restaurant and his home, 82 Fishbourne, the Westacotts’ current property, was purchased. The property was bought with a view to its being transformed into a B&B. It had previously been inhabited by 9 students and although it was ramshackle it was easy to split into business and private accommodation. Sandra, a successful Environmental Health Officer, was continuing to work and the couple were keen to create boundaries between work and leisure. “I didn’t want it to be that she would be intruded upon by B&B guests if she didn’t want to be,” Nik explains. Working from home is of course not without its pitfalls: “When you work from home it’s difficult to switch off,” Nik tells us “There’s always something to do.” In Nik’s line of work it is also very hard to stick to holiday plans, especially when a lucrative booking comes through.
During the 18 months it took to get 82 Fishbourne up and running, Nik made a totally unexpected move. He got a job at West Dean College as a kitchen assistant, paid at a rate of £5.10 per hour. Nik reminisces happily: “I loved it. It was a focus to the week and it was great because I met so many good staff up there.” Nik would often stand in as head chef, paid at the higher agency rate of £17 per hour, but the key, and totally unexpected, benefit of this move was making connections with people who would in the future work in his outside catering business.
Nik developed 3 ensuite rooms at 82 Fishbourne and was delighted to get 4 start accreditation from the AA. “It was new to me because I hadn’t done hotels for a long time and a B&B is a mini hotel.” This high standard has been maintained to date – every 3 years an inspector will come for a sleepover and there is also a swifter annual check up. During the summer, the business is profitable: “It’s great in the Festival of Speed weekend, the Revival weekend, Glorious Goodwood. You can up your prices, you can make a lot of money from a one-off hit.” However, things are rather more slow moving during the winter months. In January and February last year, Nik had bookings on only 3 nights. His plan moving forward is to appeal to local businesses to lodge their short term contractors at 82 Fishbourne throughout the year.
With his B&B thriving, in 2009 Nik began to build The Old Greenhouse Restaurant. By 2011 it was licensed and open for business. The restaurant is open solely for advance bookings and is advertised only through word of mouth and an email database. While a typical meal at The Old Greenhouse is around £30, Nik will often run a £5 Friday where the main course is £5 and starters and dessert are £2.80 each. He also tells us that although he often offers the customer specific dates as opposed to choice, they will usually fall in with what is presented to them. “I’m surprised,” he says. “It’s a thing to play with in any business I think.” Although Nik’s restaurant is top of the polls, there is of course the occasional negative review: “If you open your doors to the public somebody’s going to come in and critique you. If you’re proud of what you do, you live by what you do.”
As well as running the B&B, which is set up as a partnership with Sandra, Nik has an outside catering business. He runs this arm of the business, along with the restaurant, as a sole trader. It can take him into a client’s home to cook for an intimate gathering, or to a corporate event for several hundred, with a hired team of 30 staff. “All my profit is built into the base price,” Nik tells us. So a function for 40 will cost almost the same as one for 60, since he will still have to employ a chef at £150 per day. Outside catering is often where Nik’s adaptability is put to the test: “Something may be inconvenient but you’ve got to get round it. You’ve got to improvise and that’s what I’m good at.”
Yet another string to Nik’s bow is his knowledge of fungi and his famous mushroom hunts. He studied fungi under the ex-head of mycology from Kew Gardens and now runs around 10-12 hunts per year for 60-70 people. He has even taken Raymond Blanc foraging. “I’m always limited as to how many hunts I can host. The demand is there; there’s only one of me. I usually fulfil everybody that wants to do it each year.”
Nik’s income is generated roughly half by the B&B and half by the catering businesses. We ask Nik whether it is essential for those in the world to catering to diversify. “If I’d only got a B&B it would be a different story and if I only had the restaurant it would be a different story,” he says. And while he feels “there is money to be made on the food margin,” the industry is often precarious. Nik reflects: “Sandra’s income was a great mainstay in terms of being able to start something from scratch. It underpinned a lot of the tough times.”
We wonder what Nik’s plans are moving forward? He may well look for apprentice for his catering business. “It would be quite exciting to bring someone else in because I have got a lot to teach, to give.” Furthermore, Nik is currently running the restaurant alone – cooking, serving and washing up – “it’s hard for 16”. Despite the success of The Old Greenhouse, Nik is very mindful of the lessons he learnt through Platters: “Small restaurants, I would say, is my specialism. Some people would say I’m shortsighted, that I don’t want to grow it as much as I potentially could, but I know that I wouldn’t enjoy it. There has to be enjoyment when you’re working the sort of hours and juggling the different things that I do. If you don’t enjoy it, it all goes to pieces.” While it is of course necessary to earn a living, Nik is not in the service industry for the money alone. “I thrive on the buzz you get from making somebody feel special. Creating something lovely for people is what I do.”
Keen foodies, we ask what Nik’s favourite mushroom might be. It’s the clitocybe geotropa, or white funnel cap, with a “phenomenal flavour and fantastic texture”. It’s so easily confused with a highly poisonous variety that he discourages foragers from hunting for it. This mushroom seems emblematic of Nik’s approach to his business ventures: it is small, high risk and very special. Although Nik may not share the burning ambition to make money possessed by other entrepreneurs, his drive to make a living by following his passion is truly inspiring. Elise & Jon