Red Dog Saloon founder: “There were so many bad barbecue restaurants, people got sick of it”

By Sophie Witts

- Last updated on GMT

Red Dog Saloon founder on barbecue restaurants and opening Louie's

Related tags Casual dining Barbecue Burgers Restaurant

Tom Brooke launched American restaurant Red Dog Saloon in London in 2011 and has since grown the brand to three sites in the capital and one each in Southampton, Liverpool and Nottingham.

He recently launched hot chicken concept Louie’s underneath the group’s Hoxton Square restaurant.

You’ve got six Red Dog Saloon restaurants, why pivot to focus on chicken?

Over my career I haven’t invented anything, but I’ve tried to bring some great products to the UK. I used to go to America a lot when I was younger when that kind of food didn’t exist in London. Now there is a lot of fried chicken but it’s predominantly burgers. At Louie’s we’re cooking Nashville hot chicken, which is typically coated in buttermilk, seasoned and fried in cayenne-infused hot oil, and served by the breast, wing or thigh. You can choose the cut and the level of spice, ranging from ‘Mellow’ to ‘Afterburner’, so it’s something a bit different.

It’s been a tough few years for the industry, how is Red Dog Saloon doing?

It’s our eighth year in business in June which is huge for me because it’s been so difficult. When we started no one came for nine months and then it just took off. For a couple of years, it was incredible, I grew Red Dog Saloon because sales were going through the roof. The Hoxton restaurant used to make a packet, but it doesn’t anymore. A lot of things happened in the industry, the rise of Deliveroo, food markets and more restaurants opening than ever before.

There was a bit of a boom in burger and barbecue-style restaurants opening a few years ago…

When we started in 2011 we were exciting, but then everyone started doing burgers and barbecue. If you kind of know what you’re doing you can make a great rack of ribs but doing a whole restaurant’s worth all the time is difficult. What some other operators do is smoke the meat off site then chill and reheat it, so it’s easier to control but doesn’t taste good. There were so many bad barbecue restaurants everyone got sick and tired of it. Red’s True Barbecue opened their first London site nearby in Shoreditch in 2015. When they came I lost 15% off my top line sales straight away, then they closed in 2018 and I got it back.

Hot chicken at Louie's

There’s also been a wave of meat-free restaurants…

It’s a good thing as there are a lot of unhappy animals, but I’ve always said it’s human nature to eat meat. If you’re trying to ride a wave then you’re in trouble, because it will only last so long. For all the vegan talk I guarantee in 100 years’ time people will still eat cheeseburgers, even if it’s grown in a lab by then.

Has the rise of the delivery market impacted Red Dog Saloon?

Deliveroo says it doesn’t stop people going out to eat but I’m sceptical, when it came in I noticed it on my sales. For consumers it’s amazing, but it’s hard for restaurants to deal with as it basically imparts a 35% tax on your restaurant. Deliveroo has been losing money, which makes it a bitter taste for me. It doesn’t matter to them because they’re growing and becoming a monster, so investors don’t care. Traditional restaurants have suffered a lot, chains especially are really out of fashion.

Why do you think some high street restaurant chains have struggled?

People talk about Brexit, but it comes back to this huge boom in the number of restaurants, which is now contracting. If you’re not good you die, and that’s correct.

Some operators were doing big discounts, which I don’t go in for. As soon as you say it’s 50% off, in my head I think you’re obviously doing something wrong. Just have a fair price and that’s it.

I met a bread supplier recently and found the buns were getting a lot smaller. Everyone is [shrinking portions] these days. I like mine to be four and a half inches, these were four and he said people are going to three and a half now as everyone is turning the screw and reducing margins.

The successful chains now are not really called chains, they’re operators who have a few restaurants and more than one concept. JKS Restaurants, which is behind Trishna and Gymkhana, has a few good Indian sites under different names. I think that’s the angle to grow in now.

What are your future plans for your restaurants?

I don’t think I’m going to do any more Red Dog Saloon’s. It’s been so stressful. If I was going to open another restaurant now I’d do it with someone else’s money, potentially under a different concept.

Louie’s is going to be fun but I don’t see it growing in to a national brand. If people are asking [for more sites] we’ll see what happens, but I’m not going to sit here and say I’m going to do x many restaurants, it’s too difficult right now.

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