“You have to open a restaurant that you want to eat at and that feeds you and your friends.”
“Too many pop-ups are people playing at grown-up restaurants, and who knows whether they’ll ever be heard of again” wrote Jay Rayner of The Guardian in 2016. Som Saa is far from that and is running as one of the best restaurants in their neighbourhood and this year will mark the restaurant’s two year anniversary.
Tom George is the man in charge of the dining room at Som Saa but he does much more than that. “I’m co-founder, manager, toilet cleaner,” he laughs. Som Saa, the Thai restaurant in Spitafields that opened to rave reviews is where he and chefs Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie create Thai hospitality for Londoners. The restaurant actually started as a wildly successful pop-up and included a year-long residency at the late Climpson’s Arch in London Fields. In order to go from pop-up to restaurant, the team created a Kickstarter and raised over £700,000.
Below, George shares Som Saa’s journey from inception of the restaurant’s concept, what he’s learned since opening Som Saa and what he would change if he could do it all over again.
On the early days….
“I met Andy and Mark in 2014 at a barbecue because someone said, ‘you love Thai food you should check out what these guys are doing.’ Andy and I met at his pop up and I had worked in restaurants at that time. After that, we (Andy, Mark and I) didn’t want to do a pop-up honestly. We started off just talking about what we wanted to do. We saw pop-ups as 90% of the work of opening a restaurant without the infrastructure of a staff, etc. What we found was the pop up was a great way to draw attention to what you want to do because nobody will give you a property until you have money and people don’t want to give you money until you have a property.”
What he learned during the pop-up days…
“Pop ups are hard because any pop up is not designed solely around your concept and no one has heard of your pop up before you do it almost by definition. When you’re looking at a space you have to look at the size of drainage, electricity, a lot of different things. You’ve got to be flexible.”
What were the early days of the permanent Som Saa like?
“The nature of restaurants is that they’re ferociously intense for the first few weeks. The first challenge we faced was that people wanted to come at the same time because we were the ‘hot new restaurant’. It takes three months for staff to know what they’re doing and that was a challenge. As a new restaurant, you want to find your place, develop regulars and be beyond the ‘hype’. You definitely run on adrenaline for the first few weeks.”
What would you do differently if you could Som Saa open all over again?
“We should have limited how many reservations we did when we started. All of our family and friends money went into this and that was a lot of pressure. I would do half the amount of people and look at all the little details like drink prices, serving, etc. We also didn’t think about ‘concept fatigue’ people love to taste things once and you want them to come back and eat over and over again.”
What advice would you give to restaurateurs that are about to open?
“For the first few weeks make sure the customers are having a good time and you’re having a good time too. The most important thing is to have a clear vision, too. Restaurants work when the vision is harmonious. If you have expensive cutlery, an expensive dining room or whatever and high prices that makes sense but you can’t serve hot dogs and hamburgers in that atmosphere. Make sure every element of the business is harmonious and the tone is consistent.”
What have been the biggest lessons that you and the team at Som Saa have learned in two years?
“I think we’ve learned to delegate better. Having good people is the most important thing in the world. I’ve learned that if you can’t step away then you haven’t hired the right people. We’ve learned to relax a little bit and enjoy ourselves. We want to give warm soulful service and a good meal. We’re relaxed into what we are, who we are and who we’re not. We’ve also started looking at other projects around town but ultimately you want to open a restaurant that you want to eat at and that feeds you and your friends.”
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