Sam Lee: “We’ve taken Temper back to its roots”

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

Sam Lee: “We’ve taken Temper back to its roots”

Related tags Sam Lee Barbecue steakhouse Temper Casual dining R200 Multi-site

The boss of barbecue restaurant group Temper on realigning the brand under a core concept, returning to the expansion trail, and struggles with staffing and energy costs

A lot has changed since London-based barbecue group Temper last opened a restaurant. Back in 2018, the group, which was founded by restaurateur Sam Lee and chef Neil Rankin two years earlier, launched its third site, in Covent Garden. At the time, each of Temper's restaurants had its own focus. The original Soho restaurant, which opened in 2016, majored in tacos and mezcal; while its second restaurant, located in the City, specialised in gin and curry. Covent Garden switched things up yet again, opting to major in house-cured meat, Detroit pizza and vermouth.

Fast forward four years, and the Temper of today is a very different proposition. Rankin eventually left the group in 2019, and since then the three restaurants have been aligned under the core concept that was established at Soho, with a focus on punchy tacos and rare-breed streaks cooked on a roaring open fire. And now, having weathered the storm of the Covid pandemic, Temper is back on the expansion trail with a new restaurant set to launch on Great Eastern Street in Shoreditch early next month.

The restaurant itself will be split level and, in a first for the group, have a dedicated cocktail bar area that will feature a new drinks offer and host DJ sets. As Lee herself explains, the cocktail bar reflects her determination to continue evolving the Temper brand, as she looks to grow the business further.

Ahead of the Shoreditch opening, we caught up with Lee to discuss Temper’s plans for the future, and the challenges of opening a new restaurant in the middle of a cost of living crisis.

Was Shoreditch always a target for Temper?
Definitely. Shoreditch has been on the cards for a while, but it’s been about trying to find the right site and waiting until that happened. When this site came along it was absolutely perfect for us.

Tell us about the new restaurant
The basement dining area is the same size as Soho, but we have an upstairs in Shoreditch that we’ve turned into a cocktail bar, which will be our first move into doing just cocktails. I ran pubs and bars for about 20 years before moving into restaurants, and there’s still something of a frustrated drinks operator in me trying to get out. Licensing has been frustrating in our Soho and Covent Garden restaurants as you can’t just drink there, so we haven’t been able to develop a bar menu as there was no point. In the City, though, we do have a license to serve just drinks, which has given us a space to be more adventurous with our cocktails, and this is an opportunity to take that a step further. We’ve approached it as if it were a separate business - we not tried to bolt on to the restaurant.

temper-Shoreditch-render-copy-(1)

What sort of cocktails will feature on the menu?
We’ll have all the classics on there, but with a few Temper twists to them. And there will also be some new, experimental cocktails. We have one called the Bone Collector, which features smoked bone marrow.

Will the menu be different to Temper’s other sites?
No. When we originally opened in the City and Covent Garden, we originally tried to do something different, and it just didn’t work. Since then we’ve gone back to our roots and Shoreditch is an evolution of that. David Lagonell, our chef director, has designed the kitchen and developed the menu on from our original Soho restaurant.

How has conceptually realigning the restaurants benefitted the brand?
Our customers know what they’re going to get when they come now. We’ve got twists and special dishes in each site that aren’t translated across the estate, which gives the individual sites their own identity, but sticking to a core concept works much better for us and our team. It gives them a very clear path to develop from. In terms of their creativity, they know what the brand is about and what we’re trying to achieve.

Are there going to be new dishes on the Shoreditch menu?
Yes. One thing we’ve really changed up is our brunch menu. We wanted to make the food more bountiful, without compromising on the quality. So we’re going to be doing a bigger platter with coal-roasted, dry-aged belted Galloway beef, house-made smoked beef sausages and pork brunt ends, which will come with Andean yellow potatoes with gochujang butter, fried eggs, charred ramiro peppers and red onions, bourbon–pickled chillies, paratha and chimichurri. Then we have some new dishes on the main menu, including whole duck carnitas (pictured below); and drunken pig tacos.

Whole-duck-carnitas12-(1)

It’s a tough time for restaurants. What are the biggest challenges Temper is facing?
Energy prices is the big thing for us right now. Our electricity has gone up from 15p to 80p per kWh. We had an annual electricity bill that was £130,000, which is now £530,000, without us even opening Shoreditch. And that’s unbudgeted. It’s money we have to find. The difficulty, not just for me but for every restaurant now is working out what gives. Where do I look at my P&L and what can I change or reduce the cost of, and how does that impact the customer experience, the team, their training and development. And I don’t want to give up any of these things, so the long and short of it is we’ll just end up making a lot less money.

Do you have any confidence in the new Government offering meaningful help?
I’m more confident in this Government, dare I say, than the last one. Previously there was no firm talk around business support for energy prices, but it looks like something is finally happening. But will it happen quick enough and what will it be? What we need is something is immediate and sustainable. We don’t want kneejerk quick fixes, we need a solution we can rely on, a reduce cost to VAT or business rates – something we can physically budget for so that we can more assured when we’re spending money in our business. It’s the uncertainty that’s stifling us.

Are there plans for further expansion at Temper?
Covid slowed us down, but we do want to grow. We want to move into different parts of London and potentially different parts of the country. Covid taught us that we need to behave in a different way as a brand. All of our restaurants are in central London locations, and that’s risky. So, we are looking to expand, and we want to be more flexible about where we do that.

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