Music passion, restaurant fashion

EP’s Unusual Hospitality Stories

The first in the new series for 2019:

Michael Gottlieb is a renowned restaurateur who would have been a music man had he not had a natural flair for hospitality. Despite achievements he does not class himself as having an abundance of passion for restaurants, he simply enjoys them, and the hunger that drives him is towards business success.

Serendipity is the word Michael uses to describe his journey. There have been highs as well as lows, but music has always been closely intertwined and this is where Michael clearly gets excited. He lights up when he describes the experiences of the 1980s and setting up renowned Smollensky’s but also taking that passion throughout his many experiences.

“We’re all on a trajectory” is how Michael describes the journey’s people go on during their life. The relaxed restaurateur is known for his knack of turning previously successful restaurants around when they enter difficult times. “My trajectory has been strongly linked to what I would now call an independent attitude, and along the ride I’ve always kept trying and haven’t known when to quit.” He adds.

Along this route, one of the driving forces for Michael has been music, whether the sounds in the restaurants or listening to music at home, there has been a constant beat and melody in his life.

After London Business School Michael worked in marketing for Ann Summers in the early days of the now globally recognised brand; “the ultimate hospitality?” he jokes; the travel industry; briefly in the gambling sector in casinos, as Head of Marketing for Hertz Car Rental and all before entering restaurants through The Chicago Pizza Pie Factory.

“I got fired a lot during these times and I put that down to my independent attitude again. Some may argue that these may be seen as failures, but I don’t believe that’s true, you’ve not failed or succeeded, you’ve just kept trying during the ups and downs.”

Michael was heading up marketing for Hertz across Europe, the Middle East and Africa when he was fired at the car rental company. He speaks with pride that he caused mass turbulence internationally in the business. “They know how I felt at the time, and I must point out they have cleaned up their act a lot since, but I felt it was one step away from organised crime. In those days it was unfair to consumers and there was almost a secret book where the aim was to charge as much as possible to the customer. It was all big bills for small bumps and that just didn’t sit right with me.”

This is fine example of the calm and confident Michael Gottlieb who sticks to his principles. Often when one meets Michael, they feel find someone with an aura of self-confidence. However Michael openly admits that despite this belief in doing what’s right, he doesn’t actually have a solid plan he’s sticking to. He explains, “When I originally went to The Chicago Pizza Pie Factory they only had one restaurant in Hanover Square. On my first day I descended the stairs into the basement where the restaurant was located and was hit by that morning restaurant smell which I’ve never liked and asked myself ‘what am I doing here?’” The opportunity had come by chance after American marketing man and restaurateur Bob Payton placed an advert in the Daily Telegraph. Michael applied and following unsatisfying experiences in the travel industry, and despite having no experience in restaurants persuaded Bob that he was a quick learner and thus stepped into hospitality.

Michael went from General Manager of the one site to being granted an 8% equity position in the business after the first year and helped grow the business into five units. He describes this time, “I wasn’t passionate about the business, but I found something I was good at. I enjoyed getting to know the names of everyone I was working with and believe I have the knack of knowing what makes people tick.” This lack of passion towards work isn’t in regard for not working, Michael obviously worked very hard, but likens his attitude to “business being business” and that desire for success can be driven in other ways.

“I believe in another life I would have been a music man, a singer, I feel that in my bones. If I had had the talent, I would have tried to make a living from it but instead always ensured music has an important role to play in my life.”

This may be one of the reasons why, Smollensky’s Balloon opened in the mid-1980s and was famed for its music. Michael is a fan of multiple genres from jazz pianist Oscar Peterson to French DJ David Guetta. “I really feel music and adore many genres from pop to classical and I’m always trying to listen to new artists. I’ve tried to get into artists like Ed Sheeran but I find the music bland but the writing good. I recently saw Don McLean live and even he joked on stage about Ed’s music saying he and his modern ilk were talented but needed to know how to construct a really good song.  All I need is a good melody and solid beat. It’s true that every generation comes up with a new genre and I’m always exploring but just can’t get into what so many millennials like these days.”

“Smollensky’s was really a semi-music venue and when we first opened, we held a music contests to source the house band.” Instead he discovered Belfast Born pianist/songwriter Dave Lewis and hired him on the spot with an unheard-of salary in the mid 80’s of £28k per year. Dave stayed with him until Smollensky’s was sold 15 years later.

Music infiltrated the next Smollensky’s site Smollensky’s on The Strand but when it first opened, “It was dying a slow death”. The site had no debt and was fuelled by the positive profit being generated by Smollensky’s Ballon where £80k was coming in per week. However, the second site just wasn’t working and whilst they had created a purpose-built stage for a three to five piece band, the lighting and seating just didn’t flow according to Michael.

“I’ve only been ill once in my life with a temperature of 104 and it was during this time that I signed off on the double basement 11,500 square foot Woolworth’s site on the Strand. There was also the recession of the late 1980s and so all combined it just wasn’t quite right.”

Michael went to his love of music to turn fortunes around. He describes this part of the journey, “We worked with record companies and sourced great acts from around London, we ran a joint marketing campaign with Jazz FM and soon had 250 people coming in on a Sunday night- originally our quietest night. We believed that music fans must want to go out on a Sunday night so sourced the best acts to drive this crowd.”

The second site soon started making a greater profit then the original and started to pay off the additional £350k that had been pumped into it after it opened. Michael describes the experience as frightening when the business wasn’t doing well and despite his perceived persona “was like jelly underneath.”

He believes this success was also down to partly instinct but mainly the ability to try something new rather than a self-belief. “I didn’t even notice when the business has turned around, it just happened over a year or so. I’ve never really known when to quit so that was never an option, I just continue to test and test.”
Michael Gottlieb
Renowned Restaurateur

Michael admires others in the hospitality game who he has met over the years. Despite eventually coming to fall out with Bob Payton, he describes him as a “larger than life character who had a great sense of marketing and fanatical attitude to detail” and Café Rouge co-founder Karen Jones; “she has a calmness and thoroughness that gives her the ability to run both large and small operations at the same time. That’s a real skill.”

A time when the music didn’t play was when Michael becomes MD of Christopher’s Group and inherited a restaurant group that had fallen on hard times. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life. We turned it around in 18 months, but it was the most intense experience. I fired the restaurant GM in the first week and had to quickly stop the business losing fistfuls of money. My strengths lie in understanding people and delegating but during this time there wasn’t anyone to delegate too.”

Michael applied his skills in the business and their restaurants became profitable. All but one, The Enterprise on Walton Street in Knightsbridge were eventually sold and he still runs that to this day.

It’s a fine example of how Michael applies his experiences and knowledge. The entrepreneur continues to work with a number of businesses in turning their fortunes around and if he can, he is likely to get his passion for music into the offer. Michael’s principles eventually led him to joining the committee of the Restaurant Association of Great Britain which he ran as Chairman for seven years. He remains active and involved in the newly formed UK Hospitality which now represents hospitality businesses of every stripe. These days he relaxes for a month or so each year and travels in far flung places around the world, absorbing the cultures and listening to the sounds. His fashion may be restaurants but the passion, remains, the music.