How I Got Here: Jack Applebee

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

Jack Applebee of Applebee’s Fish and La Gamba on making hospitality a viable career and his favourite restaurants in London

Related tags Spanish cuisine Casual dining London Tapas

One of the brothers behind Borough Market's Applebee’s Fish and the recently launched La Gamba on the Southbank on making hospitality a viable career and his favourite restaurants in London.

Why restaurants?
It all sort of happened by chance, I grew up surrounded by the restaurant world. My parents started Applebee’s Fish in 1998 when I was five years old, then a modest fish stall in Borough Market, which later became a restaurant/fishmonger at 5 Stoney Street. I had worked in and out of the restaurant, fishmonger and our seafood wrap stand during the school holidays growing up, but it never crossed my mind to join the business full-time. I had just finished University and I was helping on the restaurant floor, a complete novice, I’m not too sure the general manager was happy I was there. I was quite inquisitive as to why we operated in certain ways and would usually get the response 'that’s just hospitality'. Then, probably due to me, our general manager quit just before Christmas, and I decided I should probably stay a bit longer to help the family business. I fumbled my way through for a few years and began to fall in love with the industry, the gratification you get when your whole restaurant in smiling, both guests and the team, is like no other.

Tell us something you wish you had been told at the start of your career?
Never hire in a rush. Our team is everything and without them we would never have got to where we are now. Focus on your team and if you can hire great people and look after them, they will look after your restaurant.

What’s your favourite restaurant or group of restaurants?
I have admiration for what Hawksmoor have done in keeping such high standards despite growing to the size they are now. However, typically I try to eat in small independent restaurants. A couple of my favourites are Champor Champor in Bermondsey, they do amazing Thai food with a friendly service and quirky interiors. Another is Paradise in Soho, not only is their Sri Lankan food delicious, but the cocktails are also some of the best I’ve ever had.

What motivates you?
Creating a better life for my family and my team. Coming into hospitality fresh eyed, I saw many strange expectations of the team in this world, I mean in what other industry are people expected to work 15-hour days on their feet, often for low pay, get minimal sleep, and expected to do the same the next day? “It’s just hospitality” is a phrase I want to eradicate. 

What keeps you up at night?
Well, we’re opening a brand-new concept in February, La Gamba, which will be a new riverside tapas restaurant at the Southbank Centre. At night my brain is just a collage of ideas (some good, some terrible) for our new restaurant, whether it be dish ideas, service standards or even the best technology we should be using, it all seems to go into overdrive when I’m in bed.

Which colleague, mentor or employer has had the biggest influence on your approach to the restaurant business?
My parents. They’ve always had a focus on purchasing the highest quality ingredients and letting the produce speak for itself. It is what they have always been proud of and now so am I. As well as my parents, I’ve worked with David Haimes as a mentor & coach for many years now, he helped instil my people focussed approach as well as pushing me to keep out of my comfort zone. 

What time do you wake up?
Between 6:30 and 7am.

Coffee or tea?

How often do you check your email?
Probably not as often as I should – I definitely prefer a quick phone call. 

What’s the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?
Not even knowing how to change a flat tyre, I cycled from London to Barcelona solo to meet my friends at Sonar festival. Google Maps decided to send me on the motorway when I first got off the boat at St Malo, which was interesting.

Favourite holiday destination?
Sri Lanka – what a place!

What's been your best business decision?
Taking a leap into opening our first pop-up restaurant at the Southbank Centre. We initially planned to do a small Applebee’s Fish pop-up, which turned into a way over budget, outdoor restaurant with a team of 20+. It was petrifying to be frank, but I learnt so much from it and it gave me the confidence to open several more pop-ups in the years to come, and now La Gamba.

And the worst?
I think some of the knee-jerk reactions I have made to things not going to plan as I imagined. I’ll avoid some of the details but I once changed a concept three times in a week, to realise that the initial concept worked the best!

What piece of advice would you give to those looking to climb the rungs in the business?
It’s all about the people. Your people and your guests are everything, look after those and they’ll look after you.

If you could change one thing about the restaurant industry today, what would it be?
I would like to make it a career for more people. I think hospitality is seen too often as a stop gap for individuals, but it can be so rewarding and there are so many opportunities to grow in this industry.


Born in London, Applebee studied Mathematics with Economics at Loughborough University. Finding himself helping the family business in Borough Market for longer than anticipated, he focussed on growing the team and company and has since launched several pop-ups at the Southbank Centre. He recently opened a new bricks and mortar tapas restaurant there called La Gamba​.

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