Did you know that Jeff Bezos used to photograph everyone he met so he wouldn't forget who they were? Neither did I, but when Simon Davis interviewed him, Amazon was still a startup - and it's just one of several gems Davis, founder of the London Restaurant Festival (LRF), The Rosebery and former journalist, wheels out when I meet him. After stints goafering and film running in the States, Davis landed a week's work experience with The Telegraph. "The first piece of advice I received was 'whatever you do in the features meeting, don't say nothing.'" When the "fantastic Emma Soames" reached Davis, he announced he'd met a "kooky" actress while working as a runner. And so it was that his interview with Angelina Jolie, following her role in Hackers, made the front page of the Telegraph's Magazine.
Taking punts paid off for Davis. "It seeded the entrepreneurial thing - you've got to go out and do it yourself. My great-grandfather owned and managed a prominent boot factory in Northamptonshire, then a brick and tile company, then an electricity firm. He was a real entrepreneur - I've got some way to go to top him." But he's made a pretty good start. Davis isn't just the creator of The Rosebery (a luxury routemaster designed with food, drinks and happy times in mind) and LRF, but he's the guy who came up with the Tatler Schools Guide and The 1,000: London's Most Influential People. He was Gordon Ramsey's sidekick in Ramsey's Best Restaurant, and has presented, alongside several art programmes, Country House Rescue.
MAKING AN INROAD
It was in 2008 that he made the jump into business. "I thought it was best if I started something I already had a passion for, and had some contacts in. Obviously it wasn't the best year to choose to start a business, but I have subsequently been told that, if you build something during the storm, it is more likely to weather the calmer times." Davis settled on a restaurant festival for London, and looked to New York Restaurant Week for inspiration. "We wanted all events to take place in the restaurants themselves, but we wanted some extras." It was LRF which, in its first year, served the food of award-winning and celebrity chefs in a capsule of the London Eye. Sponsor American Express has been "fantastic", and Davis is working with the company to roll out in America and Europe. "We'll touch 50,000 people in London this year; I'm proud of that."
But Davis shares his success. Business partner Chris Wright has been there since the get-go: "you always hear that entrepreneurs are lone ideas people with a singular vision, but you really do need a wingman. I'm very aware of my strengths and weaknesses, and am fortunate enough to have a partner who can do what I can't." Davis and Wright are childhood friends, which meant "setting up together was a gamble. We could lose the business and our friendship." It took a six-month trial period before they were sure (and Davis had "accepted [he] needed to slacken the reins a bit"), and the pair now manage the LRF and their newest baby, The Rosebery, together.
Davis found the old routemaster, (named after Rosebery Avenue, its final route) in a scrapyard in Hemel Hempstead. The self-confessed and tirelessly enthusiastic Anglophile then transmogrified it into what can fittingly be described as "a private members club on wheels". The bus is now a homage to British design: the floors are oak, the silverware is monogrammed and the leather was sewn by Bentley.
MORE THAN A BUS
It took two years and £200,000 to renovate, but now in its second year, The Rosebery is thriving. Davis aimed to do 25 days with it this year, and he's already done that. Guests don't just eat and drink - the bus can become the focal point for all sorts of experiences. Whether a corporate or domestic event, picket fences and croquet lawns can spring up around it. Last weekend, The Rosebery nightclub was set up in a neighbouring marquee to celebrate a 50th birthday. "It's a slightly anachronistic vehicle, but everything about it is unfalteringly British. When I found her, I'd just finished filming Country House Rescue. I guess she's sort of been my own little country house rescue."
For a party of 16, The Rosebery costs £8,000 to £10,000, which means it's starting to make financial sense. This is something Davis knows he needs to get right: last year, he set up the Great British Tea Festival, but it didn't quite go to plan. "Both Chris and I are constantly coming up with ideas. But you have to stand back and say, 'will this actually work?'. There's a misnomer that you should pursue every idea you have - but they must be interrogated." Just a couple of weeks ago, Davis cooked up "MOTeezie", a bespoke, internet-enabled, pick-up service for getting your MOT out of the way. But, having run it past a VC friend, he's thought it best to drop it. "One of the reasons I went from media to entrepreneurship was because I knew a little about a lot, but I wanted to become someone who knew a lot about a little - and manage to make some money out of it."
BEYOND THE HORIZON
Now, the pair are focusing very carefully on turning The Rosebery into a brand. "People often talk about it like there's a fleet - but it is just one. Creating another means getting everything just right. We've had so much interest from abroad, but it's got to be done at the right speed, and that's slowly."
Having found a suitable partner in the US, Davis is now going through the motions to get Rosebery II across the pond. "Imagine a garden party in the Hamptons - but it's a British garden party: British food, music, waiting staff." Of course, the franchise model is fiendishly difficult - "and we're so young, we've got no legacy to speak of yet, and that makes it harder". But over the next few years, expect Roseberys in New York, the Middle East and Shanghai at the very least.
Meanwhile, Davis is working on his latest project, the National Cookery Schools Guide, which the firm is creating in partnership with Kenwood, and which will go live next year. "It's a fractured industry with no comprehensive database of record out there; we're going to change that."
He's also refreshingly clear on his exit strategies. "We definitely have a plan for LRF - although we don't see it coming to fruition for three years. And it's so exciting to run - we'll probably stay in some management capacity. We'd like to see two or three other cities in the UK, and New York, Miami and Chicago bedded in. With The Rosebery, I have no interest in going anywhere for five, ten years at least. We're going to build a franchise; and I'm only 43 - I've still got plenty of spinnakers up."
CV SIMON DAVIS
Company name: London Restaurant Festival and Rosebery Brand
Founded: 2009 and 2014
Number of staff: Four full-time
Job title: Managing partner
Studied: English and Drama at Manchester University
Drinking: Tea, red Burgundy
Eating: British, Lebanese
Currently reading: The Legend of Colton H Bryant, by Alexandra Fuller
Favourite Business Book: Avoid. Spectator, FT Weekend
Talents: Cooking. Ping pong
Heroes: Grandfather: WW1 submariner; Great-Grandfather: boot and shoe manufacturer/entrepreneur
First ambition: Submariner
Motto: Do less, better
Most likely to say: Let’s do it
Least likely to say: Let’s blue-sky it
Awards: ‘Best Dad’ mug from my three children