The restaurant guru who never put financial gains on his menu

Annabel Denham
Follow Annabel
Annabel Palmer meets Ben Warner, the original Pret franchisee and now founder of its hugely successful rival Benugo

A COMBINATION of hectic work schedules and a growing desire to be healthy has enabled a plethora of lunchtime eateries to crop up across London. But 15 years ago, the market wasn’t so saturated, nor so dominated by a few key players. As such, Ben Warner – founder of restaurant chain Benugo – found his first foray into the hospitality industry easier than you might today.

Warner never took an interest in school; his passion was food. At 16, he went to work at Maison Blanc. A cookery course then led him to the super yachts of Saint Tropez. But he soon returned, and with his father’s financial backing (to the tune of £200), he started a small business making and delivering sandwiches to offices across the city. Before long, he had a sandwich bar on Broadgate.

Soon after, Warner was approached by Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham – co-founders of Pret A Manger – to become its first franchisee. Warner is keen to show his support of Pret and its “inspiring” founders. But this doesn’t stop him pointing out its key flaw. “The likes of Pret, Eat, M&S Food, and so on are really just serving an embalmed, plastic-wrapped sandwich chilled to 4C”. As a franchisee, Warner was aware he was simply pursuing someone else’s dream, and he didn’t enjoy “toeing the company line”. Instead, his vision was to create a chain of restaurants modelled around the New York delis he had frequented on his travels to the East Coast. When Metcalfe and Beecham decided Pret would buy back its franchises, the timing couldn’t have been better.

It gave Warner that much-needed push to follow his own dream, along with an essential injection of capital. As such, the company has never sought investment from financial institutions, aside from loans from local banks. But five years ago, hospitality company WSH bought out Benugo’s founder shareholders. Warner doesn’t think having a parent company has affected his business, either from an operational or consumer standpoint. The company retains its own central support office in Clerkenwell and its own human resources team, for example.

That decision does appear to have paid off. In its first ten years, Benugo’s annual turnover went from zero to £30m. In the past five years, it has leapt to over £70m. It plans to open around 15 more shops in the next three years, adding to its 10 existing cafes, as well as concessions in museums and galleries across Europe.

But hospitality is a tough industry. Rocco DiSpirito’s famous announcement in 2003 that nine out of ten restaurants fail in their first year of business may be an exaggeration now, but a high percentage fold before reaching their first birthday. Little wonder, therefore, that Benugo has encountered bumps along the way. In 2003, for example, it spent £500,000 on a shop fit for a new site in Soho. To walk in, Warner says you would think the shop was doing a roaring trade. “But the people in Soho were more interested in eating-in, and our high street shops survive on 70 per cent takeaway”. Without that takeaway crowd, the store was forced to close after a year. “We lost the cost of the fit, and a lot of money while it was open. But you do learn from these financial tsunamis. I know now that you have to be so selective in the sites you choose.”

The market is constantly improving, and competition is fierce. Warner thinks that “being liked as a brand” helps Benugo fend off competition from Pret, Itsu, M&S, and so on. And his willingness to innovate has helped. Last year, Benugo won a £40m contract to operate three concessions in the British Museum, adding to its existing stores in museums and art galleries across the London. And its menu is constantly evolving to cater for shifts in public appetites. “The most notable of late has been the move from sandwich to salad,” he says. “The high street is like the Wild West. You have to continually innovate to survive”.

The life of a cowboy seems to suit him. He informs me that he doesn’t view Benugo as his job, rather a hobby. “I see no difference between a Sunday morning and a Monday morning.” But the key to his success, he thinks, lies in never having set out to make money. “Food is an act of passion. Ask any chef, and they will tell you they do it for the love of cooking. A by-product is that, one day, you might make some money out of it.” With predicted revenues of £75m this year, it seems he has the recipe for success.

Company name: Benugo

Founded: 1998

Company turnover: £70m

Number of staff: 1,700

Job title: Founder

Age: 49

Born: Oxfordshire

Lives: Islington

Drinking: Sipsmith Gin Martini

Eating: Tinned sardines with chopped red onion and capers, on sourdough toast with lemon juice

Reading: Dead Man’s Time, by Peter James

Favourite business book: Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain

Talents: Cooking, getting along with people, rowing, running, cycling

First ambition: To represent GB professionally in rowing

Heroes: Julian Metcalfe (co-founder of Pret A Manger)

Motto: “Treat others the way you want to be treated”

Awards: London Lifestyle Award and a Catey in 2012 for contribution to the food industry