From Concept to Kitchen: Insider Secrets for Opening a Restaurant in London

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5 min read

Jul 28, 2023

From Concept to Kitchen: Insider Secrets for Opening a Restaurant in London

The London restaurant scene is one of the most diverse and competitive in the UK. If you’re an aspiring restaurant owner looking to open a restaurant there, that means it’s a huge opportunity to carve your own niche — but also one that’s scary, intimidating — and expensive. Without careful planning and research, your exciting new venture could easily crash and burn.

We don’t want that, which is why we put together this guide to help you navigate the challenges of opening up a restaurant in London. 

To get some expert perspective, we also chatted with prominent chef Pip Lacey. Her impressive resume includes working in the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay and Clare Smith before heading up London’s Michelin-starred Italian restaurant, Murano. In 2018, she ventured out on her own, opening the London eatery hicce — and has since leveraged that success into two more ventures: little pizza hicce (a pizzeria) and hicce hart (a pub).

Below we’ll dive into the nuances of being a start-up in the London restaurant scene and share advice and insights from Lacey’s experience. 

Market Research and Concept Development

As a foodie paradise, London offers excellence in pretty much any cuisine. To be competitive, you must start by analysing your target market and the competition to determine how you’ll differentiate your venue from what already exists. This crucial first step is part of the formal process of writing a restaurant business plan

Create Your Restaurant Business Plan

First and foremost, running a restaurant is more than just a gathering place of delectable dishes. It’s a business requiring a specific goal and a detailed plan for how you’ll launch, operate and grow built on hard numbers and goals. Further, a business plan will serve as a roadmap to help you:

Secure investors and lenders
Analyse the existing market for dining trends and opportunities
Understand your competition
Determine your mission statement and unique selling proposition 
Identify core goals, strategies and financial projections 

Creating a business plan is a rigorous, yet important part of opening a restaurant. Lacey is the first to admit she isn’t a fan of the process. 

“I never want to write a business plan again. Developing the concept is the fun and easy part,” she joked. But she did write one – and when the plan was completed, she had a template for any future ventures. If your first restaurant opening is successful like Lacey’s hicce, you can leverage the same plan to build the vision for your next business.

To get yourself started, offers a free downloadable template.

Consider a Business Partner

Lacey recommends new operators never enter the restaurant world alone. To open hicce, she partnered with her longtime friend Gordy McIntyre.

“Having a business partner is really important – for the staff as well,” she said. “[The partnership provides] a good balance for everybody involved.” 

Launching a restaurant business with a partner helps fill the gaps in your own knowledge. In Lacey’s case, McIntyre handled the front-of-house business while she worked as the head chef. The duo leveraged their respective expertise to solve common restaurant startup issues that always seem to pop up during the early days.

“We pulled a lot from each other,” she said. “What I didn’t know, he knew. What he didn’t know, I knew. Having one that’s in front and one that’s in back. That’s a good ethos. There’s always gonna be different fights going on. I think we should cut back on labour in front of the house. No, I think we should cut back on labour in the back of the house. But when it comes to decisions, we always find the right one.”

Design a Menu to Your Strengths

Your menu is your foundation for everything else. Build a restaurant menu that combines your skills and what the market wants (pinpointing market needs and gaps is why a business plan is so important). For instance, if you’re a well-known pizza chef, it probably doesn’t make much sense to open a burrito joint. If you want to offer high-end fare, you might opt for a fine-dining establishment. 

Play to your skillset and develop dishes that showcase your culinary expertise. But don’t forget that there’s a science behind menu design, too. Remember to engineer your menu to serve the best food possible while squeezing all the value you can out of your margins.

Pro Tip: Offering a limited or prix fixe menu can elevate the guest experience and help you control costs and reduce food waste

Identify the Best Location Through Vision, Practicality and Community

Each neighbourhood has its own culture, history, and vibe. Opening a joint in Soho is going to be different than a spot in Shoreditch. If you’re opening a restaurant in London, it’s best to consider a neighbourhood that’s up and coming, such as Stratford, Peckham or Kingston.

For Lacey, she and her business partner researched extensively before settling on King’s Cross for hicce. “We were looking for areas without ridiculous rent, but at the same time, an area that’s populated,” she said.

Moreover, finding the right location means offering more than just a trendy menu with fancy cocktails in a cool area that fits the budget. Most importantly, you’ll need to choose a building zoned for commercial use. If it doesn’t have the required infrastructure, you’ll need to spend money converting it into what you need.

Further, it’s important to understand what came before — the neighbourhood’s history, the people who live there, and what the community wants and needs. Gentrification is complicated, and you don’t want to make decisions that hurt the community.

Network with Your Competition

Blind ambition has its pluses, but opening a restaurant in London requires a bit more preparedness. Once you decide on your location, conduct thorough market research on your competitors in the area. What menus do the best restaurants in London offer? What are their spaces like? The vibes? The price points? 

Don’t replicate the mistakes of your competitors. Instead, use this information to inform your own smart business decisions.

During the development period for hicce, Lacey took temporary chef positions at various restaurants to learn more about the London restaurant scene and expand her network. This helped her make ends meet and gain extensive knowledge about how different restaurants work. 

“I used to laugh at the idea of networking, but you get yourself out there, and doors will open. It’s how you network. For me, it was going to help a friend open a restaurant or doing an event with someone else. Then I went on this culinary journey just meeting people and asking questions.”

These experiences gave Lacey inspiration for her concept and menus, but also a network to help make the process of opening a restaurant more manageable. 

Harness the Power of Technology 

Automation in the restaurant industry has transformed the efficiency of businesses. Providers once bogged down by repetitive tasks are now using technology to save time and improve the guest experience. As a new business, you have an opportunity to set a tone from the jump. Embracing advanced tech allows your staff to work more quickly and skillfully — all while prioritising a memorable customer experience.

That’s why modern restaurants implement technology solutions from their launch, such as:

Male waiter using restaurant technology

15 Restaurant Technology Tools You Need to Power Your Business

FYI: Tech overload is real. Instead of implementing 10 or 12 different systems, find an all-in-one solution like SevenRooms that can handle reservations, online ordering, waitlist management and marketing solutions. Vandal, a new vegan restaurant in Syndey, used the SevenRooms platform to build a venue, a brand and a community. Learn more here.

Financial Planning and Budgeting

Well-plotted financial planning is the backbone of a successful restaurant venture. In a market like London — one of Forbes’ most expensive cities in the world — you’ll deal with high operating costs in rent, labour and ingredients. 

Create a comprehensive budget that accounts for all expenses, including equipment, marketing and other overheads. Once you have a clear picture of your P&L, you’ll know what it’ll take to run your business.

Who Are Your Investors? 

Debt-free is the way to be. But unless you’re lucky enough to have cash on hand to invest in your restaurant, you’ll need to score funding elsewhere. 

Traditionally, there are two options for raising capital: investors or loans. 

Figure out what’s best for you based on your financial situation. In Lacey’s case, they worked with investors to open hicce – one of whom was a chef who understood the unique challenges of the restaurant business. This was vital to their success.

“I think the restaurant industry is difficult to understand sometimes,” she said. “People think, my steak costs 65 pounds, they must be rolling in it here! If they aren’t in the industry it might be harder for them to get it. There may be six months in the year where you have some difficult weeks or months because that’s just how life is at the moment or the industry is struggling — will they be able to understand and wait it out? Or will they be knocking on your door? Finding investors in the industry was really important for us.” 

The margins for even the most successful restaurants start off very slim. Before committing to an investor or a loan, evaluate your situation and decide what is best for your venture.

To open a restaurant in London, you must apply for several permits and licences to comply with all health and safety regulations.

The checklist below will get you started in the right direction, but consult directly with a lawyer to confirm the requirements in your area.

Food Business Registration: Once your business is established, you must register as a food business at your local council.
Alcohol Licence: To serve alcohol, you’ll need a premises licence, which allows you to serve alcohol in the physical space, and a personal licence, which allows individuals to serve alcohol on the premises. The fees for these licences operate on a sliding scale.
Pavement Licence: Depending on your region, you may need to apply to have the ability to place tables, chairs and other furniture on the pavement in front of your restaurant.
Liability Insurance: The proper insurance helps protect yourself, your business, your employees and your guests. For employees, you must purchase Employer’s Liability Insurance. For guests, you need Public Liability Insurance, which covers claims against your business for damage to a customer’s possessions or injury. 
TheMusicLicence: To play music without copyright infringement, you need to obtain a music licence. 

Hire Staff From Within Your Network

There’s no secret formula for how to open a business, but experts say that success often hinges on the people you hire. 

Lacey was able to recruit potential staff from her own network, which helped cut down on costs. 

“I had two chefs that I knew I’d asked previously from doing different jobs,” she said. “I met a couple of chefs along the way who then became my sous chefs. And the majority of staff came from just going out and talking to people. We didn’t even have that much money for recruitment.”

If you don’t have a network to leverage, consider talent acquisition resources like Home Hospitality, a recruiting organisation in London focused on responsible recruiting for the hospitality industry. No matter where you source your staff, focus on hiring individuals who understand your vision and are aligned with your goals and operations.

Prepare an Effective Marketing Campaign

Even if you’re a well-known chef with a following, it’s crucial to create a targeted marketing plan to attract and retain customers. 

Remember, London’s competitive dining scene is demanding. You need to stay ahead of the competition. Lacey suggests new restaurants invest in PR specifically for the grand opening, as it is a key moment for driving awareness and getting people in the door. While PR is an important element of an opening strategy, you’ll need to develop a long-term marketing plan to help you grow the business.

Establish an Online Presence 

With 6.2 million restaurant-related searches a month on Google, creating a Google business listing is a crucial first step in generating awareness. But it doesn’t stop there. You also need a visually appealing and informative website with images of your venue and access to menus. Ensure it’s mobile-friendly, as many people use their smartphones to find and explore new dining options. 

For your grand opening, we recommend creating a dedicated landing page on your website that provides details, such as date, time, location and a way for customers to easily make reservations or purchase tickets

Once you establish a social media presence, you can use your social channels to promote the landing page and tease the opening of your new venue. 

booking social media


Turn Views into Visits: Making Booking Social in the UK

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Capture Guest Data to Keep Them Coming Back 

Don’t let the momentum die down after the grand opening. Continue engaging with your customers through social media, email newsletters and exclusive promotions to maintain their interest and loyalty. 

Consider implementing an all-in-one reservation and customer relationship management (CRM) system like SevenRooms to capture guest data during the opening. This information will be valuable for understanding your customers’ preferences and habits, enabling you to personalise future marketing efforts and entice them to return.

Pay Attention to Customer Reviews

Encourage your early customers to leave positive reviews on platforms like Google, Yelp and TripAdvisor. Positive reviews can boost your restaurant’s reputation and attract more visitors. 

To make monitoring these reviews easier, consider using review management software.

Opening a Restaurant in London Is Challenging But Rewarding

As a new London restaurant, you’ll be forced to manage high operating costs, intense competition, dynamic food trends and staff shortages, but ownership is also very rewarding if you have the right plans in place.

Look to Lacey’s story for inspiration. Her team stayed focused, understood their vision and executed intentionally to build a multi-venue brand. Their preparedness allowed them to pivot as needed and engage in opportunities that came along the way.

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