Rebecca Mascarenhas has had a hand in opening some of London’s top restaurants, including Sonny’s Kitchen, Kitchen W8 and, more recently, Elystan Street. She reveals to Katie Pathiaki her advice for those wanting to follow in her footsteps.
My first job in the industry was while I was at drama college. I started waitressing because I didn’t get a full grant and so I needed to earn money. I did want to be an actress, but I decided that I was probably rubbish and I don’t think my natural character is to wait for people to approach me. I am much more entrepreneurial, so I waitressed while I was thinking of what to do.
I knew I wanted to stay in the industry when I was working for Bob Payton at the Chicago Pizza Factory. I loved it and Bob loved me. I went on to do management training with him.
The key to success is being interested. In any business you have to be interested in what you are doing. I am still, after 35 years, interested in food, people and design and relating it to businesses. I am always questioning why a business does what it does. My children die of embarrassment because I actually pick plates up to see the bottom! But it’s all these things that, as a diner, you don’t think about.
The restaurant business is fabulous because it incorporates food, business and numbers. I’m particularly good at numbers. It’s design, it’s people, and sadly a lot of it is quite technical. I know more about air conditioning, ventilation and heating than I could have ever cared to know, because we are also at the forefront of technology.
I am staggered by the amount of people who don’t tell the whole truth. Everything starts to unravel. I think honesty and transparency is important. I know I’m labelled tough, but I think that’s also because I am a woman. As a woman if you have an opinion, when you say what you think, you are labelled as difficult, whereas a man is a leader.
When I first started, I went to the bank. I went with my husband and they addressed all the questions to him. It actually worked to my advantage because I knew then what they wanted and while I didn’t say anything, at the end of the meeting I could close it.
I think the industry has changed in two fundamental ways. It’s much easier and it’s much harder. It’s easier because I think diners are willing to accept a whole gamut of applications, whether it’s a street-food truck, small plates, fine dining, Thai BBQ – they’re all good. And that’s really exciting. But I think the amount of money required now, in some projects, means it’s much more difficult to get them off the ground. Another thing where I have noticed a big change is the availability of staff.
The hardest thing I have had to overcome as a business owner is finding time to run my restaurants and see my family. I’ve got three girls and I couldn’t have worked without help – I’m not pretending to be Superwoman. I think a lot of women try and pretend they are, saying they were home at six when you know damn well that’s not possible.
My motto is tomorrow is another day. Whatever has happened, and believe me, in this business, anything can happen, tomorrow is another day.
Make sure that you and your business partner have the same vision for the business and the future.
I have seen so many businesses go wrong because people have wanted different things but haven’t articulated that. Phil [Howard] and I always write a blueprint for any restaurant, and even though we use the same words, the reality is those words mean different things to different people.
I am a real people person and so I love customers and I love staff.
One of the things about our business is company culture and I’m a great believer in trying to embrace everybody. It’s amazing how many people don’t understand that the hospitality business is driven more by the business needs than the customer needs. I suppose there is always a balance, but I am a great believer in company culture and I love mentoring people.
We all have a skills shortage. I don’t know a single restaurant, at whatever level you want to say it is, that has a full quota of skilled staff. The competition is fierce and it’s not even about money now. It used to be that this was a poorly paid industry, but on the whole, I don’t think this is the case any longer. And conditions, well, you could say it’s long hours or anti-social hours, but I didn’t mind that – it suited me. I just think the government should put some money into properly funded apprenticeship schemes – not what they’ve got at the moment, which is an absolute joke.
I never had a dream, I never thought I would own a restaurant or be in business, but I suppose what I’m most proud of is being able to have a career and a family and I think I have been super-lucky to have both.
Sonny’s Kitchen opened 1986
Kitchen W8 opened 2010
Elystan Street opened September 2016
Home SW15 opened as Bibo in February 2014, relaunched under new name
in November 2017