The OWO is a huge undertaking. Tell us about it
It’s 71,000sq meters and we’ve dug down five floors in London clay. Around £1.4bn has been invested into the building and what’s been created is phenomenal. We’ve opened six of our seven internal restaurants and bars – The Guards Bar and Lounge, which is a grown up hotel bar; The Spy Bar downstairs, which is only open to hotel guests and residents; Mauro Colagreco at Raffles London at The OWO; all-day dining restaurant Saison; and Mauro’s Table, which is a more elevated experience with a longer tasting menu that can be used as a private dining room. There’s also The Drawing Room for afternoon tea and Pillar Kitchen, which serves grab and go healthy food and which will open later this month. As well as these there are five independent restaurants, two of which are open – Paper Moon and Café Laperouse - with Langosteria due to open mid 2024. Endo [Kazutoshi] will open a rooftop restaurant as well as a sake bar downstairs in January or February next year. There will be 760 covers in total in F&B when everything is open.
How has it gone so far?
Opening one restaurant is challenging, but to open five at the same time is another level. So far it has gone really well though. We opened The Guards Bar on 29 September at midday and by 12.30 it was full, and people were complaining at 6pm that there were no reservations available.
How long have you been working on the project?
For 14 months. It’s been a lot of hard work but the anticipation of opening something is sometimes a lot worse than actually doing it. You want to open it and see how the cookie crumbles and then get on with the fine tuning. I’ve not slept a huge amount in this time but there’s nothing of this scale in London. It’s almost like a collection of restaurants with rooms rather than a hotel with restaurants.
What are the biggest challenges of an operation such as this?
Having five independent restaurants that lease the space and have their own teams can be a challenge. We have seven internal sites and if you need something done those teams react to you, but the hardest part of my job is managing the relationship with the independent spaces because although we provide shared services they don’t report to us. I’ve had to build good relationships with different teams.
Is operating in a building that used to be the War Office also tricky?
It can be. Mauro’s Table works well with the central kitchen but for Saison the kitchen is a floor below and everything goes up in lifts, which is challenging. The lifts are shared by departments and each has different priorities, so if food for a table for six has to wait five minutes for a lift it has to be recooked. The knock on effect of this in terms of service is huge. The kitchens for The Drawing Room and The Guards Bar are two floors below, which makes hot food service very difficult - you need an army of people to be carrying things through, which is tricky in terms of payroll. But you throw people at the problem.
Talking of people, has recruitment been hard?
We thought it would be a huge challenge, however it has been remarkably good. We pay over and above market rate and I think the excitement of Raffles coming to London and the history of the building has made it a lot easier to fill the senior positions - we could have filled them 10 times over. It’s more the commis waiters and commis chefs where it’s harder to recruit - many will have no idea who Mauro Colagreco is or know of Raffles the hotel group, they are there just for the wage. We are 80% there in terms of recruitment and F&B will have a 320 headcount for the hotel. When we do an event for 500 people, 60 casual staff come in from agencies, which is challenging as well because with the best will in the world they are never as engaged as your own team.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I’m in at 7.30am to have a look at breakfast service and answer a few emails. At 9.15am we have a hotel meeting to go through arrivals, departures, VIP guest and diners and events and at 10.45am we relay that to all the F&B teams. I try to get back to my desk for a while but that doesn’t seem to happen very often and then in the afternoon I have a lot of meetings. I’m often entertaining people in various departments in the evening so leave at about 9pm or 10pm.
What’s been the biggest surprise about the opening?
Just how phenomenal the building is and the history of it. The fact that Churchill worked in the building is humbling. The Churchill Suite is the room in which the course of the world’s history was changed, which is awe inspiring. Opening hotels and restaurants is hard work, I don’t think anyone would argue with that, but the decisions that were made in this building and the challenges faced by people puts into perspective our operations.