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APRIL Re-thinking failure: the love of the food industry and the heartbreak of endings

When I learnt how to sail, the first thing I was taught was how to capsize. When I went to gymnastics, the first thing I was taught was how to fall. Falling, capsizing – failing - was all about the recovery; and in gymnastics, it was all about recovering gracefully, getting up with style.

I got married young. I got divorced young. A dramatic story of my 20s. He left for me another women. My heart broke. The divorce paperwork nearly killed me. But, it was a wonderful relationship; until, it wasn't. And now I'm saddled with this yoke of a 'failed marriage’.

But what if we think about failure differently? It’s a cliché, but these kinda heartbreaks are what makes me who I am today - if I am not a success, at the very least I have survived. 100 years ago the average marriage lasted about a decade - women died in childbirth, life span was a lot less, so ‘forever’ had a different meaning. We have thankfully moved on from then and are living healthier, longer lives, but we are still pinning our concepts of success on outdated data. We need to get over this romantic idea of ‘forever’. This sentiment is particularly necessary when thinking about business and particularly relevant to the world of hospitality; food and wine are romantic endeavours. 

No one gets into the food and service industry unless they love it - the long unsociable hours, the dedication to making sure other people are having a good time. Its the love of a perfectly cooked plate of freshly made pasta, the romance of a bottle of Cote de Rhone and the sexiness of classic martini that get you there in the first place. And boom, you’re running your own restaurant, knee deep in dirty glasses because the glass washer broke and covered in invoices as everyone wants their money the same day this month.

What has made me think of failure and business is because of a dinner this month that was a trip down memory lane. 8 Hoxton Square.

Oh Hoxton Square. I have spend many a good time with you - the first years of my first marriage… the beginning of my 20s in general, my theatre company was first based here. Hoxton Square, if your four sides could talk - dancing, puking, making out, doing lines in doorways, rehearsals on the grass, a few tears, lots of giggles; what haven't I done in Hoxton Square? The beginnings of much success, and the place of many fails. 

So here I am, back in Hoxton Square at a relaxed and friendly, grown up restaurant. I’m selfishly pleased to see the Square has grown with me. The meal was gorgeous looking and tasting food. An absolutely excellent wine list - my favourite I think….! Not too big, but great range, reasonably priced and a perfect amount available by the glass (I like to try as many things as possible!) My friend and I didn’t want to drink too much, but wanted to try everything. We had a glass of Nyetimber to start, and then a glass of Alsace and an Australian riesling - which we shared. I converted my friend to riesling!

But what really got me thinking about this restaurant, was not so much the specificity of it, but rather that general idea of new places. Hoxton Sq is now firmly at the edge of the city. Shoreditch is now accessible, very much re-generated. Rents are sky high for living accommodation and I envisage that businesses rents are too. This is a neighborhood feel restaurant, but with the city at its door steps, it gets the best of both worlds. But still, the risk is huge.

London is a constantly growing space, and rents and living expenses are moving faster than inflation, so opening a business is a bigger risk now than it has been. There is a reason that temporary dining is more prevalent now. Add that to the fickle nature of London, busy bustling, always craving something new and exciting and you can never quite gage what is going to work, be ‘cool’, capture the imagination of the public. And even if you get rave reviews, this does not equal a good bottom line – the buzz can fade pretty quick. Yet I do believe that we are in an exciting time, where the restaurant and bar scene is at a high. It feels like the best time and the worst time to start a new business around feeding people. 

So what happens when it doesn't work? Restaurants are like other businesses, the percentage of closure in the first five years is huge*. What happens when you have to cut your losses? Do you cut your losses or wait for someone to tell you to do it? Do you slink off quietly, hoping no one will notice? Do you keep ploughing through and hope for better times?

I’m not advocating the idea of frivolity - “oh bugger, not as a good as I thought it was going to be, oh well, it’s just thousands and thousands of pounds I’m losing….” But I am suggesting that we think about failure in a different way.

I’m saying let's start at the end. Let's think of ending the whole project, and work our way back. I'm saying let's celebrate endings, or even, getting it wrong. I'm also not saying 'don't go into things with dreams, hopes and aspirations', but maybe just celebrating when it all fucks up! Planning the end point might make for more imaginative plans and fun times while the project/relationship/business is in full swing.

If we think about of starting small, committing to less, and most importantly specifically planning an end date into our thinking, maybe we will build businesses in a different way. Maybe the idea of breaking even, or small margins, so that we can achieve something else - not just a learning experience, but a way of working, a way of seeing yourself through to the next stage. (I guess I am thinking about creating more of a space between temporary dining/long term pop-ups and the fully fledged restaurant.)

Five-year plans are not a new thing - in life or business (“Anna, what’s your five year plan? Are you going to have babies/buy a flat/ get married/ get a haircut and get a real job!”). Putting together a five year plan that just ends after five years; to me that feels like an idea that could mean success. My PhD took four years, but from application to submission and viva, to graduation took five years, so to me five years feels like a manageable time where things can succeed, and then you can move on. 

I have no idea how to be successful, in life or work, but let's stop seeing an end as a failure. We might then be a littler kinder on ourselves, and on each other.


As I am finishing up this piece another new neighborhood restaurant Primeur tweets “A3 premises in Covent Garden 2000sq ft, £110000 rent £750000 premium #insane #londonrents #industrydangers #neighbourhoodescape”. 

Which reminds me that so much in the restaurant industry is about reaching dizzying heights, Michelin stars, central locations, big budgets; but as we (London) grow in size and taste buds, the 'Neighborhood Escape' seems like the perfect success.

But then of course – what happens to this lovely scene of food and wine that we currently live in, if rents keep rising, and no one is able to afford, even the shortest of romances? Hmmm… to investigate at another time…

*There isn’t a lot of research available on London restaurants, at the moment, but this study in the US sounds probably pretty accurate; 3 out of 5 close in first five years.


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