Didier Souillat tells Mel Flaherty how his experience is the perfect fit for his role at Time Out Market
When Didier Souillat was a teenager, his parents never had to worry like most about what their son would do with his life when he left school. Aged 15, he knew he wanted to work in hospitality. He was determined to study at École Hôtelière Lausanne in Switzerland, where the waiting list is almost as famous as the quality of education, so it was just as well he had such a precocious sense of purpose.
“I have been very lucky – my kids still have no idea what they want to do and they are much older!” he laughs in his unmistakeably french accent (he has now lived in London for almost 20 years. He was only resident in France for the first few years of his life but was schooled in his mother tongue).
It was a love of real food, born from his lineage on one side of his family (they were farmers in the South of France) combined with a love of travel ingrained throughout his childhood, that led Souillat to recognise so early on that hotels and in particular food and beverage could be the career for him.
For the past 18 months, he has headed a unique food, beverage and cultural business which seems a far cry from the white linen tablecloth restaurants at the luxury hotels where Souillat started work. He is Chief Executive Officer of Time Out Market, the food and cultural market brand owned by Time Out Group, the leading global media and entertainment business whose stated aim is ‘to inspire and enable people to make the most of a city’. It started as a magazine in 1968 in London and now informs both locals and visitors in 108 cities in 39 countries. Its global monthly reach of 156 million includes a massive online presence, mobile applications, city magazines, guides and more. Souillat’s division currently has one market open in Lisbon, Portugal – which attracted a record 3.1 million visitors in 2016 – but plans to have a total of five open around the world by 2021.
Unconventional career path
Souillat’s present role draws on his equally unique employment experience. Having always had a real passion for food and beverage, he eschewed the traditional hotel career path into general management and ended up in a surprisingly diverse range of jobs over the years that have somehow perfectly culminated to his position now.
After a few years, Souillat felt he had reached the limit in the hotel restaurant sector and was tempted into the retail world by a job with Selfridges food halls.
“I became a Retail Operations Manager – it was bit of a shock for an ex-Food & Beverage Director,” he recalls.
However, he relished the challenge of keeping diners happy with a view to increasing dwell time and spend in the store. He remembers how proud the team were when a business publication named Selfridges as having the best food hall in London.
“We focused on the individual merchants, on the customers and on the ranges we produced and that’s what really counts,” he explains.
During his five years there, Souillat worked on the Selfridges openings in Manchester and Birmingham. Little wonder that Harrods soon came knocking on his door, another job he loved and that helped cement his understanding of the retail world with a strong food and beverage proposition at its heart.
While at Harrods, Souillat became the man responsible for bringing Krispy Kreme donuts to the UK. Strange to think that a product now so easily available, through its own shops and Tesco, was so exclusive for a couple of years.
In a way, it is an example of what Souillat calls “the democratisation of food” which is the underlying and ever-increasing trend to which he attributes the success of the Time Out Market format. Well, that, the brand’s iconic status and its global reach – attributes that piqued Souillat’s interest enough to convince him to leave his previous job as EVP of Hakkasan, which he grew from three to 38 restaurants globally during his six years there.
To quantify the success of Time Out Market, within 18 months of its 2014 opening, the 75,000 square foot collection of food outlets, bars, art and performance space achieved positive Ebitda. In 2016, the market enjoyed a 63% increase in visitors, from 1.9 million in 2015 to 3.1 million, and year-on-year revenue growth of 115%, from £1.7 million in 2015 to £3.7 million. Time Out Market is not street food where drink often takes preference, Souillat is at pains to emphasise; it is a collection of top quality eateries, expertly curated in conjunction with Time Out’s editorial team. Up and coming and already well-recognised chefs (Lisbon boasts three with Michelin stars) are able to offer a more widely-affordable version of what they do thanks to the model – tenants take a one-year lease and pay a percentage of takings but have no capital expenditure commitments as all infrastructure costs are paid for by Time Out Market.
“It plays into this desire by people to eat in a social, vibrant and communal environment and to eat what they want to eat, but with proper glassware, crockery and cutlery,” Souillat adds.
“In Lisbon we see families come along and the kids want burgers and pizza, the parents want sushi and the grandparents want bacalhau. And there is so much entertainment that the kids are too busy looking at the stage to check their WhatsApp or Instagram accounts.”
The flexibility of the model means the offer does not stagnate.
“Time Out has the pulse of the city all the time. Having four or five year leases with tenants does not make sense for us – we have one-year contracts with all our partners so we are able to always offer what’s new, what’s relevant and what’s hot in a city.
“I have seen what happens in department stores and malls – they have space for a burger shop, they choose what they think is the best at the time then give them a five-year lease. That tenant has to pay a deposit, service charge, etc. and over time some operators will cut corners because they have their captive audience and want to increase margin. It is very difficult for the landlord to control that.”
Sympathy with the landlord’s dilemma comes from Souillat’s brief but, he says, extremely valuable time at McArthurGlen Group, the designer outlet operator for whom he was Director of Food Leases. His experience there is also coming into play now as he tries to find and secure sites worldwide for Time Out Market that reflect the brand and the soul of a city, which he concedes is probably the most challenging and at the same time most exciting part of his job.
Once he had learnt the ropes in property with McArthurGlen, Souillat could not resist the offer by Daylesford, the organic farm and farm shop brand, to become its Managing Director and get back to something that resonated more deeply with his farming and foodie roots. Like his role now, it was a unique job in that it was a completely integrated 360 degree business from food production for its own restaurants and shops, to wholesale – and on a global scale. The worldwide expansion aspect and building a global brand provided some of the experience necessary for his next employer Hakkasan, which notched it up a further gear for Time Out Market.
Site preparation work is on track to start soon on a second Time Out Market in a central location in South Beach, Miami, for opening during the first half of 2018. When the parent company floated on the Alternative Investment Market in June 2016, a process that was a first for Souillat to be so involved in, the company was hoping to open a London Market in 2017. Planning and licensing for the building earmarked in Spitalfields has proved difficult but Souillat is confident he will open a market in the capital, although he clearly finds the bureaucracy involved frustrating: “It is a lengthy process and I hope it will be made more simple in the future to attract more businesses and international restaurants, especially with Brexit coming.”
Time Out has offices in many other cities around the world and Porto, Sydney, Berlin, Dubai and Shanghai have been rumoured to be potential locations for future Markets. The requirement is for a minimum of 17,000 square feet of space on one floor in an area that is frequented by local residents, workers and tourists.
Souillat now spends about 50% of his time overseas and jokes that he spends a good deal of the rest of the time eating great food. There is clearly a lot more to it than that and you would be hard-pressed to find someone with a more suitable CV – covering restaurants, hotels, retail, property, food halls, food provenance and global brand expansion – to do it. His 15-year-old self would surely agree.