Port Eliot Festival: Russell Norman & Luke Bishop from Polpo

“How many of you have ever thought about opening your own restaurant?”


Tentative hands were raised, the audience wary of BBC Two’s Restaurant Man Russell Norman, head of London’s Polpo group which has set a new bar for dining standards and experiences.

This was a man whose facial stubble and penetrating dark eyes demanded integrity and numbers over dreams and emotion.

“OK, so that’s about half of you. The advice I can give you is don’t do it.”

“People think that opening a restaurant is like having a dinner party with a till – they don’t understand that behind a restaurant is a very simple but mathematical formula that has to be adhered to.”

Hands went down pretty quickly as Masterchef and Great British Bake Off ambitions collapsed as quickly as a mistimed Mary Berry soufflé.

The Polpo style is informal Venetian snacking based around cicchetti, large tapas-style snacks that Russell describes as a distilled version of food, poetry, a haiku even, with no superfluous elements: “There are no ingredients to hide behind.” Much to the anger of some food critics, no bookings are taken in advance, making queuing an anticipated part of the dining experience.

Padstow-born Luke Bishop and managing director explained that the first restaurant opened just under five years ago with an iPod and a couple of cans of paint: “The biggest myth is that running a restaurant is about food – it isn’t, a restaurant is about people.” He refers to investing in customers and staff and Russell adds that, “Consistency is what preoccupies us most of the time.”

According to Luke, the simplest way to check consistency is for himself or Russell to eat in the restaurant every day. “We also use mystery diners –it’s a continual process, every requirement has to be ticked every day.”

Russell refers back to a sign he read in Richer Sounds written by Julian Richer himself:

Rule Number 1: The customer is always right.

Rule Number 2: When the customer is wrong, refer back to rule number 1.

Or, as Luke adds, “Make sure the customer is happy and if not, make sure that they leave happy and then they’ll come back.”

The Polpo group serve around half a million covers a year, the equivalent of about 10, 000 a week with just 1 or 2 complaints a week.

Luke reads some of them out – the first: a customer has received their drink too early; the second, customers didn’t have to queue which they thought was a shame because it was apparently part of the Polpo experience.

Flattery in the guise of a grievance proves just how much this pair are doing right and how every wannabe restaurant owner should take heed: get your numbers right or get out of the game.

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