London is a city that holds plenty of promise for Natasha Sideris. The South African restaurateur has had aspirations to open a restaurant in the capital for nearly a decade, and next week that ambition come to fruition with the opening of Tashas on Prospect Way at Battersea Power Station. The all-day concept, which Sideris established in Johannesburg’s Atholl district in 2005, taps neatly into the capital’s lucrative brunch market, with an emphasis on comfort food served in a warm, laid-back environment.
Sideris, who runs the Tashas Group in partnership with her brother Savva, may be somewhat unknown on British shores, but on the international stage she’s already a well-established restaurateur. Tashas has grown to 15 sites across South Africa and also expanded into the UAE with five sites in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi. She also has several other concepts under her belt including Dubai restaurants Flamingo Room and Avli, both of which feature on The World’s 50 Best Discovery database; and Galaxy Bar, also in Dubai, which is currently ranked number 50 on The World’s 50 Best Bars list.
Was London always a target market for you?
Yes. In fact, when I first begun expanding outside South Africa, I was approached to open a site in London. But the truth is I was petrified of opening here, and in some ways I still am. It’s highly competitive and has significant barriers to entry. Rents are high, as are labour and set-up costs, so I chose not to pursue it and instead went to Dubai, where the costs are a lot less. But the plan was always to come to London eventually.
It’s 10 years since I first opened in Dubai. We’re more grown up and established within the international market but we’re still cautious. There’s no grand plan to expand right away. A lot of brands come here with these huge ambitions to grow quickly. Focusing too much on the future and not what you’re doing right now is a distraction. We’re going to try and deliver amazing food, beautiful interiors, and great service. If people love us then once we have settled we’ll consider a second location.
Diners in London are unlikely to be familiar with the Tashas brand. How do you get their attention?
A key point of difference for us is that we prepare all of our food to order. Many restaurants in London do a lot of mise en place and then they get other stuff like sauces and dressings externally prepped, but we don’t do that. Everyone thinks I’m crazy for trying to do that here, but it’s the way we are and how I like to do things. If you order a fruit salad with us it isn’t pre-prepped, we cut and peel it to order; for the chicken salad, the meat is grilled, and the leaves are prepared to order. It brings an authenticity and homeliness that underpins our brand - and you can taste the difference.
What was the appeal of Battersea?
It’s an area with good quality restaurants, but it isn’t oversaturated yet. We’d like to be in more central locations like Marylebone, Knightsbridge and Sloane Square, but those areas have a much higher density of restaurants. This is a great platform for us to establish ourselves.
Given that your name is above the door, how often do you plan to be over here?
A lot. It’s very important to me that the founder of a business has to be present. You cannot expect people to behave and perform in a certain way if you’re not showing them. People ask me how I am going to do that when I’m opening so many restaurants, but for as long as I possibly can I will always be at the launch and will come back every month. It’s going to take a while for this place to get on its feet, and we’re aware that we may have to tweak menus, staffing models, style of service, etc. It’s all a learning curve, and it's important to not come into a new market with arrogance. We have a big, successful portfolio of restaurants and so we could come here with a level of arrogance, but the truth is I’m very nervous. London’s market is tough and unpredictable.
Will the menu be the same here as it is elsewhere?
It’s slightly smaller, but that’s part of something we’re looking to implement across the entire Tashas estate. We’ve also added a ‘small bites’ section to the dinner menu, which we don’t have anywhere else. It suits the area, which has a lot of both office and residential footfall.
What are the signature dishes?
I love the tuna mayo - it's a reimagined classic that includes all of my favourite flavour profiles. It has a tangy green ‘goddess’ sauce, celery, chopped greens and feta. Even though I don't have a sweet tooth, the sweet toast is a favourite too. It’s a fresh take on French toast that’s made with homemade almond paste, apricot jam, and spiced syrup-soaked brioche.
What’s the state of restaurant market in South Africa?
There’s a lot of challenges there. The economy has had a downturn and as the Rand has got weaker it’s become a much tougher environment. All the costs have gone up and we can’t raise our prices to keep up, which is eroding into the bottom line. The quality of produce is becoming more and more of an issue, too. And now the country is closing its doors to Zimbabwe migrants, who are the backbone of the country’s hospitality sector, so recruitment is getting harder.
How about in Dubai?
Dubai is the land of milk and honey. There’s no issues, whatever you need, you can click your fingers and get it. There’s enough labour, and rent prices are fair. The only problem there is it is highly competitive, and the population is quite small. The market is becoming more and more saturated, and that’s something we’re going to have to keep an eye on going forwards as it will reach a point where there are too many restaurants.
What are you ambitions for the UK?
We think we could have about 30 sites here eventually. They wouldn’t all be Tashas, we’re also keen to bring other brands from our portfolio over here too. Mainly that would be concentrated inside London, but we’re also interested in exploring opportunities in other cities too. But for now, all of our focus is on Battersea.
Are there any other markets you’re keen to conquer?
I’m very ambitious, and I would like to continue growing our portfolio across the world. We would love to see a Flamingo Room in Paris, for example. But having said that, I do think there comes a point where something loses its distinctiveness. For us it’s about knowing where that point is, and we’ve done that really well so far. It’s 18 years since I launched Tashas in South Africa. We could have opened 60 of them by now, but instead we have 17 because we believe in slow, steady growth. We don’t want to oversaturate, and we want to make sure that what we are doing, we’re doing really well. While the plans are ambitious, they will always be measured against that barometer.