Author of his own destiny. Jason Myers, the new CEO of Busaba Eathai, tells Mel Flaherty about the latest chapter in his hospitality career. Every time he starts a new job, Jason Myers sits down and writes out a page about the company he’s joined – where it is now and his vision of how it should develop.
It’s something he constantly refers back to. “I think about business as a story. I start with: ‘We are here’, and I write ‘chapters’ for the stages to where we want to get to,” the newly-installed chief executive officer of Busaba Eathai, the 11-strong Thai casual dining group, explains. He now has a fairly thick file of these documents, having had an impressive array of roles in his so far 21 years in the hospitality industry (bar a brief period in a totally different field, more on which later). These encompass everything from marketing to operations to Managing Director at companies including Spirit Group, Greene King, Zizzi (the Gondola Holdings-owned pizza chain) and most recently Jumeirah Group, as VP of Worldwide F&B Operations & Managing Director of Jumeirah Restaurants, the Dubai-based hospitality firm.
The stories he’s written have got better as he’s gained more experience of going through the process of trying to achieve his goals, he says. The start of the latest instalment in his career had a surprising twist when the rest of the head office team presented him with a “nay and yay document” setting out what they felt it was and was not acceptable to change in Busaba. “At first I didn’t know whether to be upset about it,” Myers admits, “but actually it was brilliant, not just because it showed the absolute passion Busaba colleagues have for the brand but also how important it was that certain values of the business wouldn’t be changed. “The business has grown very slowly and unlike many others (in the casual dining sector) it has therefore grown very healthily. Everything has evolved for a reason and it all joins up and everything works.”
Myers was familiar with the brand, having been a long-time admirer of its creators, Alan Yau, founder of the famous Hakkasan Cantonese restaurant, and his wife Jale Erentok, who headed Busaba for 14 years until Myers joined in July.
But he also had a deeper understanding and appreciation of its success having done the due diligence on the business several years ago for a previous employer who was considering making a bid to buy the brand. The opportunity to run Busaba, he says, was pretty much the only potential UK job offer (he had had a fair few in his three years, with Jumeirah), that could tempt him home from Dubai – he and his family loved it there, relishing its surprisingly cosmopolitan culture, its convenience as a transport hub and the general efficiency and ‘can do’ attitude of its workforce, as evidenced by its successful bid for the World Expo 2020 (which he was proud to have been involved in, although too humble to say so until pushed). Even so, he was not quite prepared for the “magical” reverence for and connection with Busaba among both the senior staff and in the restaurants.
All of the restaurants are built on six core principles relating to natural elements, for example the soil they stand on; fire through the use of candles; wind through fans used at each site, and so on. Buddha statues are also in every site and each morning there is a ritual in front of these, the start of which is sounded by the striking of a gong. All Thai staff come in through the front door and bow down in front of the statue. “We have many nationalities who work for us, but all of them respect this offering. There is a whole karma about the brand – Alan does things in a completely different way, he focuses on every detail and that’s why they ran Busaba, personally, from day one; they put everything of their personality into this business,” Myers says with a sense of awe.
He believes this, combined with the quality of the food, which is always freshly prepared and cooked to order, has helped the now 15-year old Busaba brand to continually outperform the casual dining sector and to keep showing growth, even from its oldest original sites, and despite the fact that most of the restaurants tend to be in less than obvious locations with low key signage, and a policy of no discounting. “Alan was always a leader in this way too. Busaba has gone to locations (Wardour Street as an example 15 years ago) that other restaurant groups wouldn’t dream of – Busaba are places you discover or you find when people who have been before take you there; we don’t market, take bookings or discount in the way that other groups do, and you share a table.”
Many of the restaurants, where spend per head averages £18, have diners queuing to get in. Sites are large, usually between 4,300 and 7,000 square feet, yet they often turn tables three or four times in a night, such is the demand.
The plan now for the business, which Phoenix Capital Partners backed in 2008 in a £21.5m deal, is to grow at a rate of at least five sites a year.
There is a lot of activity in the UK Thai chain sector at present, with brands like Giggling Squid, Chaophraya and Rosa’s Thai Café all expanding. Myers says the strength and individuality of the Busaba concept ensures its growth potential at home is not at all affected by this. The first overseas restaurant will also open later this year, in Dubai, under a franchise agreement with Ikram Group, the Qatari leisure firm.
He is confident of its success despite the generally lacklustre performance so far of other UK-born brands that have gone overseas: “The best bit of advice I ever received was to go and get international experience – you see where trends are coming from. The UK F&B market needs to get off the island and a lot of the operators need to change their strategies about how they become international; then we would have a much more buoyant and competitive worldwide F&B market, the UK has a lot to offer overseas, but we need to adopt an international mind-set for our brands to be successful.” The future prospects for Busaba, coupled with increased activity in the UK eating out sector generally compared to when he left, were clearly a big attraction to Myers and an ideal match for his skillset. In his early career, after a stint in the family hospitality business, he left Scottish & Newcastle, the brewer and pub company, to set up a bar and restaurant operation around his native Leeds. It grew to 11 sites and Myers jokes that if back then he’d had all the experience he has now it could have become a large national chain.
He was also a key player in the turnaround of the Zizzi pizza business; he was part of the very quick growth of the Barracuda Group of pubs and looking back he realised he developed his now very useful and relevant emotional intelligence in his brief non-hospitality interlude, as part of the management team of Kidsunlimited, the independent and workplace nursery facilities provider that places emphasis on ethical, moral and environmental practices. And, most recently, at Jumeirah, he was the first person ever to take on food and beverage as a separate entity for a luxury international hotel group. Initially he met resistance from Resort Managers who were used to being responsible for every aspect of their site, but through persistence and presentations he got them on side. It’s an area that still fascinates him. “International hotel groups are sat on some of the most prime real estate across the world and hoteliers are fantastic at creating concepts, they have to be; they are all working now on how you create brands from concepts as Jumeirah did with Noodle House, when you look at some of the big resorts they might have ten to 20, or in Jumeirah’s case 30, diverse F&B outlets for a truly international visitor guest list. “If one of the big groups decided to take the food and beverage standalone, they would be the biggest restaurant operator in the world.
“I can see why people have been dismissive of F&B in hotels but within a year, one of the big hotel companies will bring one of the concepts for roll out [from their hotels] to the UK high street and the whole of the restaurant sector here won’t even see it coming.” The big challenge for him now is ensuring the unique culture of Busaba continues as it expands, particularly as it goes further away from its central London birthplace into earmarked regional centres such as Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Glasgow and Oxford. It is one he has already started to tackle with consumer research, demographic studies and plans for further investment in the senior team and technology that will feed into Busaba 2020, the company-wide vision for the brand for the next six years. Longer term there may also be plans to revisit Naamyaa Cafe, the slightly lower price point Thai brand trialled by Yau but now not operating, as an offer too good to refuse for the property was made for the site of the first and only outlet so far.
Alongside all this, of course, Myers intends to maximise the potential of all the existing restaurants. Like any new boss, he has come in with energy and ideas, some of which have been better received than others. His preferred management style is to “take down the walls and let people make mistakes” so that they push themselves rather than just operate in their comfort zone. When his team express concerns when they put this into practice he tells them to think of him like their personal trainer – Myers himself starts his day at 5.30am with a dog walk near his Surrey home then often goes to a pre-work spinning class.
“Sometimes I think I can’t go on any more in those classes, but my instructor knows my limits and gets more out of me. I tell my team that’s like me with them. “Sometimes they all look at me like I’ve just hit them in the face with a spade,” he laughs, “but I remember at my first team meeting, I said: ‘We can do things the easy way to get to where we want to go or we can take the hard and more sustainable way to be the best.’ They all said they wanted to go the hard way.”
It will certainly be interesting to see how the Busaba story continues.