If finding success in the restaurant industry was difficult, then it Shanghai it seems close to impossible – posts about ‘150 restaurants that closed this year’ are trending, thanks to an appetite for both business news, and a form of customer schadenfreude.
Nowadays, we don’t think anything of going to dine at some of our favourite restaurants on the Bund. The view, the hints of history, being in a real ‘building’ for a change – it all just makes sense. Yet 20 years ago, there was nothing of the like on the Bund. The best ideas seem obvious once somebody is the first to do it; M Restaurant was the first fine dining restaurant on the Bund, remaining the only such venue there for their first 5 years and now, in 2019, celebrating their 20th anniversary year.
Led by Michelle Garnaut, M Restaurant has survived all of the challenges that come with opening a restaurant, as well as China-specific ones, be it the outbreak of SARS, the financial crash in 2008-2009, leading as a western venue to a Chinese customer-base, a rapidly developing society and more. Through these times, the signature dishes, the famous M service and the riverside terrace have ensured that thousands of people have a memory of a great night at M Restaurant.
We spoke with Michelle ahead of their anniversary celebrations to find out how she has achieved this success.
A difficult question but one we want to ask!: Scanning your memory over two decades, what stand out as the most memorable moments?
Oh, there are so many! If I do think back, then I’m taken back to a time when things felt a little insecure – in terms of not knowing what would work, not having a real perception or a big ‘plan’ of where things were heading. It was like diving into the deep unknown!
It took quite some time – whether that was 12, 18 or 24 months or so – until I felt like I was on solid ground and knew what was going on. But then as soon as I felt OK, that I was on stable ground, something would come along and change things yet again. That’s part of the nature of trying to achieve something, somewhere new.
If I think about highs, lows, or I think about when it goes well, there was always something unexpected round the next corner. But what happens in business is that you learn to pick yourself up more quickly and also learn not to panic
The highs are meeting remarkable people who have achieved in their field. From movie stars, writers, leaders, musicians – we’ve had nearly all the major classical musicians in the world through our restaurant.
Over the 20 years, has M ever suffered a a particular challenge that led to any changes in strategy?
I think that whatever changes we’ve had have been incremental. When challenges do arrive then it isn’t necessarily about making particular, notable adaptations but continually keeping an eye on everything. At difficult moments, it’s more about keeping everybody’s spirits up, keeping the troops on board and giving everyone a feeling that we’re heading in the right direction and not letting things fall apart. As the leader you have to be able to rally the troops.
Generally speaking, I think we’ve been consistent. I remember when we changed the look of the menu; we felt it was an enormous change but I don’t know if anybody else noticed! It has been the consistency which has kept us going. Those who are looking for ’something new’ are not our typical customer. We don’t want to get caught up in the world of the ‘new’, as anything relying on that factor eventually gets old. Many people go to half a dozen of the same restaurants, while others will seek out new ones all the time, looking to be ‘wowed’ each time.
So to your question, as a leader it’s more about scrutinising your business continually and knowing what you need to adjust at any time, not only when a challenge arrives. We were the only fine dining restaurant on the Bund for our first 5 years – when 3 on the Bund opened, we worried if there were enough customers to support the business – yet what happened was it rose the level of the area, brought in more people to the area, and that has been the story of the last 20 years.
So whether the competition grows, or we went through the time of SARS, or when the Bund was under construction for two years – these moments helped us in the long term and made us more resilient and experienced.
Staffing and recruitment is a key issue for any business in China (and anywhere!) – how do you keep your staff, happy and motivated over a long time?
We still have people who are here since we opened, whether in the kitchen or office. The first person I ever employed is still here! You know they have to enjoy it at first, and it’s about respecting people. It’s like the 996 thing I’ve been hearing about – I didn’t even think that was legal! We keep to a 40 hour week, 5 days a week, realising that each person as their own life. You don’t get committed, happy, long term staff without giving them time for their own lives and needs.
Working people until they wear out is a pretty short-sighted way of doing business. I’ve been in F&B since my teens and I’ve done the 90 or 100 hours a week. Even when young, you burn out, as simple as that. You burn out and feel resentful and under-appreciated. You have to pay people fairly too!
Is Shanghai a uniquely difficult city for F&B? What advice would you have for those starting?
It is true that you do learn more from failure than success, so a couple of failures might be natural in the F&B business – that’s simplifying it a lot and obviously people need to come out of the other side of it. One of the main issues I see is those going into the restaurant business without enough restaurant experience – or having done their thorough homework properly.
There are many reasons for a restaurant not to work. Inexperience is common, so is throwing money at something, or when people want to walk around claiming to be ‘a restaurant owner’.
I spoke to someone on Mentor Walks who had made money, wasn’t foolish, and asked ‘where do I start?’. I said that she should go and work for somebody, from washing dishes, waitressing, cooking, working in the office, ordering, everything – to really learn. If you want to open a business you have to open all aspects. I cooked professionaly for 10 years and this keeps me involved in the menu, the dish and I know what works because of that experience. I washed the toilets, I washed the dishes and did it all.
That taught me that you really have to respect everybody who does their bit. Everything is equally important in making it work. It’s like a film – look at the people in the credits in the making of a film as an example of the behind the scenes work that goes into making the front-end production look flawless.
You also have to take customers seriously, as they are choosing to spend their time and money with you. If you are not on the look out for what isn’t working as well as it should, that’s when you are not on top of things and not making decisions quickly enough.
M holds so many art, charity and such events – does this impact the restaurant business itself or is it a separate field that you just love to be involved in?
Well, we love to do it; we started it because we love it. From musical soirees, charity auctions and events, not-for-profit work, literary talks, to exhibiting art and covering costs for artists – we didn’t do it to make money.
Many people who come to the literary festival, for example, may only come to eat at the restaurant once a year – yet new people are always coming in. I don’t think it’s a business model as it takes an enormous amount of time and energy! However, it’s inspiring for all of us. Everybody likes the variety of what we do and the staff are proud when we create charity events. It brings happiness as it brings a sense of community. The more complex the world becomes the more a sense of community and belonging – giving back – becomes more important to everyone.
It keeps me stimulated and interested beyond just the business side as there is always something new happening.
Overall, we’ve definitely been lucky – lucky and privileged to be part of such a huge change and to be in a time to watch China change. It makes us really proud to have been part of Shanghai’s history, especially the history on the Bund. We are proud to have pioneered what we did there. It was exciting and it still is!