Business profile

Passing the Baton: the man charged with The Wolseley Hospitality Group’s growth

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

How Baton Berisha is leading the growth and evolution of The Wolseley Hospitality Group

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Charged with leading the growth and evolution of The Wolseley Hospitality Group, Baton Berisha is looking to bring a contemporary flavour to the group’s more classical approach.

Manzi’s is a restaurant of firsts for The Wolseley Hospitality Group (TWHG). It’s the first pescatarian-focused restaurant in the London-based group’s portfolio; it’s its first foray into Soho; and, more unexpectedly, it’s the first restaurant in the group to have an in-house DJ… well, almost (more on that later).

It’s also the first opening for TWHG following an extensive period of change. Back in April last year, the group, which was then known as Corbin & King, came under the control of its major shareholder Minor International​, following a prolonged and very public battle for ownership with the group's co-founder Jeremy King. King was ousted in the process and the group’s name was subsequently changed​ to remove any reference of him and his fellow co-founder, Chris Corbin.

Since then, Minor has been developing an expansion strategy to grow the business globally, as well as delivering on the plans for the London business set out by Corbin and King prior to the group’s takeover. They include the launch of a second iteration of the group’s now eponymous Piccadilly flagship The Wolseley, which will open on King William Street just by Monument Square in the City this autumn. But first, there’s the matter of Manzi’s.

Set across two floors of Bateman’s Buildings in the heart of Soho, Manzi’s has long been billed as a more adventurous restaurant for TWHG, whose estate primarily consists of classically designed European-style cafés such as Brasserie Zédel, Colbert, Bellanger and Fischer’s. Paying homage to the now closed iconic seafood restaurant of the same name that used to sit just off Leicester Square, the décor here is decidedly more whimsical in nature with mosaic floor patterns of fish and seafood, mermaid statues propping up the upstairs bar, and a giant sculpture of Poseidon complete with trident protruding out the wall of the downstairs dining room.

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Credit: David Cleveland

“I want Manzi’s to be the pearl of Soho,” says Baton Berisha, the man charged with leading TWHG in a post Corbin & King world. “It’s a huge investment for us and we’re not sparing any costs to make it right. The design alone is costing us £10m. It’s going to be a special restaurant, for sure.”

Minor intervention

On the day of our interview, Manzi’s is still undergoing some last-minute touches, so instead we meet at The Delaunay, the group’s striking Covent Garden restaurant that takes its inspiration from the grand cafés of Mittel Europe. It’s midday, and the lunchtime rush is already starting to build. A group of friends sit in the bar sipping champagne; adjacent to us, a family gather for what appears to be a birthday celebration; and towards the back, a pair of businessmen share a joke over plates of devilled lamb kidneys and steak tartare.

A smiling waiter arrives to collect our order – I opt for the wiener schnitzel, while Berisha goes for the tranche of halibut. “These restaurants are institutions,” he says, gesturing towards the now full dining room. “I already consider the group to be a market leader, and I want to carry that forward and nurture that legacy.”

Berisha joined TWHG as CEO in August last year​, just three months after taking up the role as managing director at a rival London-based restaurant group, D&D. “The opportunities for The Wolseley Hospitality Group are amazing and I saw that immediately,” he says, when asked about his decision to jump ship so soon. “So, when I got the call from Minor asking me to join the business, it was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to. They were looking for a CEO who could take the reins, create a strategy for growth and execute it. I told them what I wanted to do, and now they’re letting me get on with it.”

“I already consider The Wolseley Hospitality Group to be a market leader,
and I want to carry that forward and nurture that legacy”

It certainly feels like a well-suited partnership. Berisha has long been a distinguished fixture of the London restaurant scene, having previously spent several years working for Richard Caring’s Caprice Holdings. He oversaw the opening of the Ivy Market Grill, the first Ivy Collection restaurant, in Covent Garden in 2014 and subsequently led the successful expansion of The Ivy into a national restaurant chain.

Berisha describes himself as being a long-time admirer of TWHG’s portfolio. “I’ve always watched this group as an operator and been impressed. Its impact in London has been enormous, and I always thought there was great opportunity for the group to grow and create new restaurants.

“Now I’m here, I can see the guest demand and how happy the teams are. All the restaurants are doing well, and we’re excited to add to them.”

Having Minor there to support the group as it prepares to expand is a definite boon in Berisha’s eyes, especially given the business’s international aspirations. “Our relationship is incredibly close,” he says. “They’re very supportive. Minor is a vast business and to have people all over the world I can talk to as we grow The Wolseley Hospitality Group internationally is very exciting. I feel like a spoiled kid.”

The making of Manzi’s

It speaks to the trust Minor have put in Berisha that one of his first decisions having joined TWHG was to overhaul the concept for Manzi’s. The restaurant was around 60% built when he joined, but Berisha decided to start from scratch.

“This is an evolution to the original idea,” he says confidently. “I looked at the history of the first Manzi’s restaurant. It was hugely successful, and the plan is to take that heritage, translate it into the current and future, and deliver that in the best possible way.”

Manzis_June23_0005[1]
Credit: David Cleveland

The restaurant’s design, overseen by Fabled Studio, very much plays into that – the aforementioned Poseidon sculpture, for example, probably wouldn’t look out of place in Bacchanalia, the latest Mayfair opening from Berisha’s former employer Richard Caring. Then there’s the upstairs dining room and bar area that also features the group’s first dedicated DJ booth​; perhaps the most major conceptual departure for TWHG, which reflects Berisha’s ambition to target a trendier and potentially younger demographic with Manzi’s.

“We need to be brave to evolve the business and move forward,” says Berisha. “I would never put a DJ in The Wolseley, but Manzi’s has a very different demographic of clientele and location so we can go a little bit crazy and be brave. What’s key is the atmosphere we are creating and the environment where people are coming to dine, so it has to be a destination restaurant. It is going to be fun; it is not going to be a boring restaurant.”

Berisha is clearly confident that he can make Manzi’s a success. The restaurant holds around 170 covers across its two floors, and features a 60-seat terrace that Berisha describes as probably being the biggest in Soho. The food, overseen by head chef Christian Turner, features a wide range of crustacea and fish – from oysters, clams and seafood platters, through to calamari, moules marinière and lobster thermidor. There are also more casual options available such as lobster rolls, and fish finger sandwiches.

The drinks, meanwhile, include an extensive selection of wine, as well as a serious cocktail offer developed by bar manager Vitek Melichar that includes a range of contemporary ‘signature’ drinks and a selection of ‘retro revisits’. The latter are designed to hark back to the original Manzi’s and include a Miami Vice, which consists of piña colada clarified milk punch with strawberry shrub; and a Naked & Famous with Del Maguey vida mezcal, lime juice, Aperol and yellow chartreuse.

Manzi_s_Plateau[1]

Prices are pitched at the upper end of the TWHG spectrum, neatly straddling the more high-end dining bracket whilst remaining accessible to an arguably broad crowd. Starters primarily range from £10 to £15, while main courses all hover between £20 and £40 mark. Then there’s the all-day prix fixe menu, which charges £28 for two courses and £32.50 for three.

“London needs a seafood restaurant like this. The market is currently dominated by either really high-end places or fish and chip restaurants, and we think there’s space to establish a middle ground that can really target a hip, creative crowd.”

Even the location, hidden down a somewhat obscure side street between Frith Street and Greek Street, doesn’t appear to be a concern. “It’s an opportunity to be something of a hidden gem,” Berisha continues. “We’re working closely with the local residents and they’re very excited to have this restaurant. If you do things right, people come, and we’re confident Manzi’s will do well. It’s going to be a destination.”

Rock DJ

As alluded to earlier on, Manzi’s isn’t actually the first restaurant in TWHG’s portfolio to feature an in-house DJ, having been pipped to the post by the recently relaunched Bellanger in Islington. “It’s all about ambience,” explains Berisha. “We’re not playing loud, pumping music that interrupts the meal, it’s designed to complement it. Islington has a younger demographic, and they go out on Friday and Saturday, so we wanted to make sure Bellanger appeals to that group. There’s no other restaurant like this in Islington.”

Bellanger has had something of chequered past. The restaurant originally launched under Corbin & King in 2015 as a high-end French brasserie but closed its doors in the summer of 2019​ with the group saying it 'just couldn’t make it the success it aspired to'. However, almost a year later, the group reopened it as a more casual venture​, after plans to sell the site fell through as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Berisha says the restaurant was doing ‘ok’ when he came aboard the group, but he soon saw an opportunity to freshen up the concept. “We’ve given it more clarity. We’ve overhauled the menu to give it a more contemporary profile, with dishes inspired by Europe’s coastal regions. And we’ve also put more focus, again, on the cocktail programme, which is inspired by the French tradition of L’Apéro.”

Bellanger_new_interior-29

Then there’s the design. Berisha says he wanted the bar to be more visible and to redo the floor plan in order to open the space up. As a result, it is now one of the largest sites in the group in terms of covers.

The Wolseley City

For now, at least, there are no plans to refurbish any of the other sites in TWHG’s estate. Instead, Berisha’s eye is on his next London opening, The Wolseley City, which is expected to launch in the autumn​. Holding around 260 covers, it will be larger than its Piccadilly sibling and feature two private dining rooms and three sweeping bar spaces.

Described as ‘a younger sister to the original, not a replica’, the decor will draw inspiration from the architecture of 160 Piccadilly, designed in 1921 by William Curtis Green. Interior features will include Byzantine chandeliers, Baroque ironwork, and intricate 1920s Egyptian touches. A reimagination of the vaulted ceiling and grand pillars will also be a focal point, alongside a tribute to the familiar ‘horseshoe’ entrance.

The menu, meanwhile, will pay homage to the original restaurant with an all-day offer that will feature favourites such as schnitzels; soufflé Suisse; steak tartare; calf’s liver and bacon; and coq au vin. There will also be a breakfast menu that’ll include signature classics from The Wolseley such as bubble and squeak; grilled kippers; fried haggis with duck eggs; and smoked haddock kedgeree.

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Berisha makes no bones about the importance of getting The Wolseley City right. “The original Wolseley is an institution that’s done incredibly well and recognised all over the world. For me, The Wolseley City is about retaining that and making sure we keep those standards to the highest expectation. It won’t be a mirror. The restaurant needs to have its own personality, but you’ll immediately know it’s The Wolseley.”

A prestigious portfolio

Retaining that sense of heritage and prestige, while also working evolve and modernise the business and push it forward is at the core of what Berisha aims to achieve as CEO. And he has a clear idea in his head of how to achieve it. “The challenges in the economy mean many business have become very reactive, but I’ve worked to remain proactive,” he explains. “You can’t compromise on the DNA and quality of what you do. The training is important. So is investment and having consistency; you can’t jeopardise any of that.”

Against a backdrop of mounting costs, Berisha particularly credits the group’s continued investment in its estate as being integral to helping it navigate the current financial crisis. “We’re in a fortunate position where despite the current economic challenges, our profitability has increased. And that’s down to the money we’re investing.” Part of this he puts down to ‘buying smarter’ across the group’s F&B. For example, the group recently changed to a new wine supplier that was able to provide the same wines sold across the portfolio before, but at a reduced cost.

“There are so many opportunities to create better profitability of the business while maintaining consistency,” he continues, before gesturing towards The Delaunay’s buoyant dining room. “Look at this. Everyone in here is having a good time. They’re focused on their own table and enjoying themselves.

“This group has a unique portfolio. There are no other restaurants like them. People from all over the world have visited us. And we’re incredibly privileged and humbled to be perceived like that and our goal is to deliver on the customer experience. That’s the magic of what we can do, and not everyone can do it. We don’t compromise in any way, and from the perspective of investment, there’s no expense spared in delivering exceptional hospitality.”

“We don’t compromise in any way, and from the perspective of investment,
there’s no expense spared in delivering exceptional hospitality”

With regards to training, Berisha, who started his career as a runner at Soho restaurant and members' club Quo Vadis, notes the importance of promoting hospitality as a life-long career, and plans to launch a training academy under The Wolseley Hospitality Group banner next year.

“I’ve been in the industry forever,” he says. “I’ve worked from the ground up and I try to show people that they can do it too. We have an induction process here for new staff, and I go when I can and make a speech, and I tell them a bit about the story. It’s inspirational and reminds me of my earlier self.

“I am incredibly passionate about that. I want to bring more people into the industry. It teaches punctuality, discipline, charm. For me it’s the best university you can have. I see The Wolseley Hospitality Group as a leader in the industry that has the space to create the future leaders of it.”

International ambitions

When reflecting on his own career, Berisha credits his stint working with Caring for helping prepare him for this role. “The Ivy expansion showed me the importance of structure when building a business fast and ensuring the growth can work.” In the long term, the aim is certainly to ensure TWHG becomes a global hospitality brand with Dillip Rajakarier, chief executive officer of Minor, recently suggesting that the group could double its portfolio in the next five years​.

To that end, the group made its international debut back in April with the launch of a Café Wolseley pop up in the Thai capital of Bangkok, and there have been suggestions that the group could open The Wolseley sites in Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai in the coming years. Closer to home, Berisha also mentions that the group is currently in negotiations for a site in Amsterdam.

The-Wolseley-Hospitality-Group-makes-international-debut-in-Bangkok-with-Cafe-Wolseley

With regards to the UK, Berisha is keeping his cards close to his chest, although he notes that it’s unlikely a third iteration of The Wolseley will open in the UK. “We’ve been approached by a lot of landlords in London and across the UK, as well as overseas, about opening new places, but I am very conscious that I do not want to dilute any of the brands and therefore the expansion strategy must be considered carefully.”

One site that he will have to make a decision on soon is in Notting Hill, on the old Royal Bank of Scotland building between Pembridge Road and Pembridge Gardens. The site is the last of the three acquired by King prior to his departure. Beyond that, though, the focus is squarely on the international market.

“For me the world is our oyster,” he says. “It’s about being smart, confident, and making sure we take our time.

“We’re not in a rush, and we have nothing to prove. We want to do things in the right way and make sure it works for the guests and for our teams.”

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