Alex Wrethman, owner of Charlotte’s Group, has been working in the restaurant business for 20 years – and he’s only 35.
The born and bred London restaurateur and entrepreneur started in the hospitality industry at the age of 15 washing plates at Charlotte’s Place, which he now owns. Alex told us, “As a 15-year-old boy I was pretty happy to work somewhere there were a few pretty waitresses. I quickly learned that 18-year-old girls are not interested in 15-year-old boys who smell of garlic and dirty plates.”
Over the next few years Alex moved up quickly through the kitchen. “I really, really loved it. I was nerdy, reading every cookbook I could lay my hands on, including Larousse Gastronomique cover to cover.”
He applied to do a Business Management degree in Manchester and dreamed of owning his own restaurant one day. During university Alex worked the bar at the original Living Room in Manchester, learning everything he could about bartending. Once again, personal study was key, reading everything from the The Bartender’s Bible to Michael Jackson’s many books on whisky. After a few years The Living Room opened a site in London, which brought Alex back to the capital.
“One day I went to eat at Charlotte’s Place and learned
that the property was for sale,” he said. At 23 he bought his first restaurant. “There were two things that helped me purchase the restaurant” my business degree and my parents’ financial support. I paid them market rent for the property over six years until I was able to buy it outright, which I was proud about.”
In 2009 Alex wanted to invest in a second restaurant and opened his second site, Charlotte’s Bistro, in Chiswick (west London). Two and half years ago a regular guest, who loved what he did with Charlotte’s Place and Bistro, approached Alex to view a new property. He was a property manager and developer who wanted him to do something with a derelict Victorian stable block in Ealing (west London). Alex’s “third place,” Charlotte’s W5, was the first commercial unit to open within the Dickens Yard development — a key part of Ealing Broadway’s regeneration scheme.
What’s the philosophy behind Charlotte’s W5 and the concept?
Alex Wrethman: It’s about being part of the community; you’re welcome here. The environment is perfectly suited for anything from busy networking event to an important presentation pitch in our private function room or a solo freelancer catching up on emails. Unlike most workspaces or clubs, there is no membership fee. Unlike a restaurant, there is no commitment to eat. The venue is effectively an “open house” for the local business community.
I want it to get to the point where people are saying, “Let’s go to Charlotte’s.” it has to feel that you can come in for anything.
What qualities did you look for in people when recruiting?
And how was the recruitment process this time around?
It was a tough choice when it came to recruiting. About 20% of the staff are people we worked with previously and 80% are new. It was hard because we needed as many staff as the other two sites have combined. Plus, we were recruiting during Christmas and into January.
Of the 20%, we re-recruited a waitress that previously worked at Charlotte’s Place and Charlotte’s Bistro as the head waitress. We moved over Fredi, our talented head bartender, from Charlotte’s Bistro to W5 as he had been there for three years and, alongside me, made the Bistro bar what is today. He got the shiny big new bar and got to design the fittings behind it too. We also moved the sous chef from another site.
We recruited students studying music and drama from the Arts Educational School in Chiswick. They are amazing for part-time and evening staff… Even if they are having a bad day they can act — they’re friendly and outgoing.
For our chefs and bartenders, they looked at the company and the menu, but the most important factor in attracting them was the food and drink concept. There’s a reason we don’t have side orders on the menu and no steak and chips. We use high-quality produce and small independent suppliers. It’s all interesting to them, and we have a restaurant concept and structure that makes people excited and enthusiastic about working here.
How have you restructured the traditional hospitality hierarchy?
I decided on a more modern and flat concept. We looked at what a General Manager really does and realized the role has become more administrative and you pay exorbitant salaries.
We took a new approach by making everyone responsible for their own department, which required them to work as a team of three. For example, the head bartender looks after their own team, maintenance of the bar, and their own menu, while the head waiter looks after the front-of-house team, reservations, and functions. We find this makes each department more productive and encourages them to communicate between teams.
Does that give people career opportunities?
I think it gives people career opportunities. People are accepting of the structure and know that they have to achieve the same goal, which is to create great food and drink in a great environment for guests.
How would you define the company culture in one sentence?
Genuine hospitality from back of house to front of house.
You mentioned several books which inspired you as a cook and bartender. What about as a restaurateur?
There are two books which I come back to time and again: Setting the Table by Danny Meyer and The Art of the Restaurateur by Nicholas Lander. They seem so personal to me – both comforting and energizing in equal measure every time I pick them up.
Tell me about the launch of Charlotte’s W5.
We didn’t have a telephone line for a month when we opened and we only took online bookings through our website and OpenTable. Our reason and message to guests was that we wanted to spend time having conversations with people in person.
Our marketing spend was zero. We did everything through our OpenTable database of 19,000 people and we had a few stages of opening the restaurant.
- Stage one: Invited the top 200 guests in our database plus friends and family of staff to book in the first four days for 50% off.
- Stage two: 20% for two weeks to the next 300 guests on our database.
- Stage three: We released the 20% off to the remaining 15,000 in the database.
Bookings flew in; we had 3,000 covers in the first two hours. It was ridiculous. We wanted feedback, so we told guests if they love us to let the world know and if they didn’t enjoy it then let us know what we can do better. We got a lot of great reviews.
Are there any issues you faced when opening a new site that you never faced before?
Dealing with a heritage site and bringing it up to modern regulations while also managing conservation regulations. Bureaucracy, dealing with property developers, and so many different consultants. Thankfully I did not underestimate the scale and task to bring it to launch.
What’s your approach to hospitality?
Passionate, entrepreneurial hospitality.
What tools or technologies do you use to enable hospitality in your business?
W5 includes free powerful Wi-Fi, as well as power points and USB sockets at every table for the perfect workspace. The aim was to create a creative social and business hub that benefits and enriches the local community.
You’ve gone cashless. What are the benefits of a completely cashless hospitality operation?
The business operation needed to be affordable for everyday. A cashless operation is one of the many ways I have tried to innovate to drive efficiency, keep costs low, and therefore offer great value.
Plus, it’s one less thing to manage. We don’t need cash bookkeepers and we save two hours per day of managers time for cash admin, counting and running to the banks.
Last but not least, what was your favorite job and your worst job in hospitality?
Worst job has to be washing dishes; it’s such a hard and repetitive job. My favorite one is bartending. It’s the only area of hospitality that you get to serve the guest, make the guest something creative, and watch them enjoy it. Plus the vibe was already really cool.