Eat Out With...James Douglas

James Douglas, Red's True Barbeque co-founder
12/06/2017 - 07:30
Barbecue is casual dining. It is fun, messy and offers a real eating out experience. Maria Bracken catches up with James Douglas, co-founder, Red's True BBQ, at their very first site in Leeds to find out how he and co-founder Scott Munro have become the brains behind one of the hottest chains on the high street.

Do you have a hospitality background and how did Reds True BBQ come about?

I have always been called quite hospitable (he laughs), but no, Scott and I don't have backgrounds in hospitality. My background is actually in property. I had my own property company and it got to the point where I hated tenants and hated property. So I decided to sell up. So I did just that. Scott, at the time, was in high level IT sales and was travelling all over America. It was in the US that he got his inspiration for the love of BBQ. It was only when he returned to London that it occurred to him that he couldn’t get good quality BBQ meat anywhere apart from a few joints in London.

So how was it, opening your very first restaurant?

So my moto at the time was, I had eaten in a lot of restaurants, it couldn't be that hard to run one, right? Well, it is, massively.

It’s the best job in the world but opening up our very first restaurant was much tougher than I ever imagined it to be.

When did your first site open?

In September 2012, right here (Leeds). I remember it well. A second restaurant in Manchester followed a year later, and a third in Headingley in summer 2014. Fast forward to 2017 and we now have a total of eight restaurants.

So what's next?

Our plan was always to get to a certain point and take a year off. And I don’t mean a year off to go on a holiday..although that would be nice. That year off was about reflecting on where we are in the business and looking over all of the decisions we had made to that point – also looking at where our team are based and whether we have the right people in the right positions. So 2017 is that year for us where we are taking stock of everything and ensuring that the things that we do are right. This time has also allowed us to tighten our margins in terms of our conversion rates and make sure our stores are as good as they can be. It’s also about making sure we are getting the best value for our business, as well as for our customers. We’ve broadened our menu offering so we now do a lunch menu, which is really driving sales, as well as vegetarian options.

How do you fund your sites?

So, we funded the first three sites ourselves. This one (Leeds), being our first one. Scott and I pulled the money and resources we had together and went with the Royal Bank of Scotland. So, just imagine this, you have an IT sales man and an estate agent walking into a bank asking for a big chunk of money. It sounds like the start of a really shit joke, right? No, seriously, we walked into the bank, having no experience in restaurants, trying to open up a concept that nobody had ever done before. But we were pleasantly surprised. They were prepared to support us because we had put so much of our own money on the line – we had put in 60-70% of the set up costs ourselves. So we did that for the first three. We then began to set up almost like a consortium of industry professionals who believed in our concept. We had secured funding in 2015 from founders and chairmen of some of the most successful restaurant chains and independents in the industry including Ian Neill, former Wagamama chairman, Jamie Barber, founder of the Cabana Brasilian Barbecue group, as well as Stephen Wall, managing director at Pho, and Brandon Stephens, founder of Tortilla. So we now had the right people in place to drive the business forward and fuel our expansion plans.

Were you surprised?

Sort of. I would imagine it has been done a million times before, but we felt like we were breaking ground in a number of different ways. It was nice to see so many people, with that level of experience in their career, have faith in our concept.

What are your expansion plans?

Expansion wise, we’re looking at getting to about 20 sites in the next three years or so - starting our roll out plans again next year.

Who do you define as your competition?

Do you know what, any restaurant opening in Leeds is competition for us. I think we are really good at what we do and do we have direct competition? Yes we do. There are other BBQ chains, restaurants or smokehouses, but the competition for us is now about the number of different concepts opening up. But ultimately, our competition is anyone selling food. We try to make our sites pretty cool, but not too cool that you’re not comfortable coming in.

Do you do delivery?

Yes, so we do delivery through Deliveroo, which I think has its ups and its downs. If you embrace Deliveroo for what it is and there’s a good infrastructure within your city, then you can do pretty well. We also do take out, which is a market for us which is growing in some of our sites. Leeds for example, has a great community whereas some of our other sites, Newcastle, for instance, just doesn’t have that city centre, community feel to it. So we try to capitalise on it where we can, depending on the location. It’s about trying to give people as many options as possible.

Do you think the BBQ trend is here to stay?

I hope so. We try to create something that would give a real broad appeal. We want to be mainstream. We believe we demonstrate great value for money, a tasty product and whether you are out for a quick bite to eat or a full-on night out, we cater for it all. Look, we just do really good food. When is that ever going to go out of fashion?

What are the opportunities and challenges for the business?

Like anyone, one of the biggest challenges is finding the right property. Rent prices are at a real high, especially when you look at London which has gone crazy with all of the premiums. I think Brexit kicked a lot of arses and I think the vast majority of people who don’t understand what Brexit is have stopped spending.

The opportunities for us are about people’s palates changing. People are becoming more and more adventurous and will put themselves out to try new things. This is really exciting for us.

Who do you admire the most within the industry?

For me it’s the guys who are where I was five or six years ago. It's those who put some real risk into the business to make a concept work – the risk of losing their house or family savings. I’m not saying it’s easy to have a street food van or set up, but I really admire those who commit to get up to 10, 15, 20 sites. There's so many factors to consider, like employing people and managing the expectations of how much it’s going to cost for each fit out.

What advice would you give those starting out now?

Don’t do it (he jokes!). The best bit of advice I could give is don’t spend all of your money on fit outs. Whatever you spend on a site you’ve got to make back. Just try and do it cost effectively. Take the big neon sign that we have in our sites, for example. Nobody else knows that that was meant to be there. They are cool, but they don’t make any money.

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