Life is a carnival

Barbecue concept Cabana aims to make Brazil the next big South American cuisine in UK casual dining. Tom Holman and Peter Martin met founder Jamie Barber

Carnivals, sunshine, beaches and football: Brazil is renowned for them in the UK but its food has not tended to get much recognition here. Now with Cabana on the dining-out radar, restaurateur Jamie Barber plans to change all that. 

For Barber, it has not been a conventional route into casual dining. He started out as a solicitor at entertainment practice Harbottle & Lewis, whose clients led him to Geoffrey Moore, son of Sir Roger, who wanted to establish a restaurant. They joined forces, knowing little more than to model it on aspects of the top haunts of the late 1990s they frequented, such as the Ivy, Met Bar and Mirabelle. The result was Hush, which remains a celebrity-stuffed Mayfair institution to this day. 

“I’m an accidental restaurateur. I had no idea, no track record, no money and no sites,” Barber remembers. What he did have were the personality traits to understand that he needed to hire in the skills he lacked. “I found my strength and weakness at the same time—that I didn’t know how to do it, but I made sure I surrounded myself with people who did. I knew early on that I had to fill the gaps with the best people I could find.” 

Hush proved a huge commercial success, albeit not, initially, a critical one. Bruised by some harsh reviews, Barber set up Shumi in St James, an Italian-Japanese fusion that won critical success but struggled commercially and it closed after 18 months. Villandry and Kitchen Italia came next, but the economic downturn meant Barber’s shareholders put their investments on hold so he decided to sell in 2010 and strike out on his own. 

“It got to the stage where I wanted to be in control of my own destiny,” Barber says. He still wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but he knew it had to have an energy and vibrancy that went well beyond the plate. “The food and drink is obviously critically important in casual dining. But what you are really selling is fun. People want to have a good time,” he says. 

Fusing authenticity
The lightbulb moment came in a conversation with friend David Ponte, who had run a Brazilian restaurant in London that failed because it was too formal and stuffy. After a visit to Brazil and some of its churrascarias, the pair realised that the food needed theatre—something that the kind of grilled steak, chicken and pork on giant skewers cooked over searing-hot coals that are popular across Cabana’s home country could provide. 

They wanted other authentic elements, and so brought back with them posters made on a 1920s printing press in São Paulo and fabric for banquettes recycled from jeans in a Brazilian favela. Authenticity has been important to Cabana ever since, but Barber and Ponte have fused it with the British casual-dining ethos. “It’s our own take on Brazilian food—it’s not all traditional and it’s a new style of Brazilian cooking,” says Barber. “But it’s steeped in proper heritage. Whether or not that adds value, it makes us feel good about ourselves, and that’s important.” 

Cabana launched with what might at first seem a peculiar strategy—two new sites in the same week in late 2011, in the just-launched Westfield Stratford, and St Giles by Covent Garden. Most operators find it hard to get one up and running, but Barber says his ploy worked. “I knew I wanted to grow it, so I had to know if it was successful—and, if it was, whether it was down to the concept or the location. One site tells you nothing except that you’ve managed to get something built.” 

The first Cabanas had to overcome three challenges: new locations, no brand identity and sketchy awareness of the food it was selling. “We were battling immature centres with an immature brand and an immature concept,” Barber says. 

Both restaurants were slow builds but like for likes have rocketed as their followers have grown. More London restaurants have followed in Islington, Wembley, the O2 and Westfield’s sister centre on the west side of the capital at Shepherd’s Bush. 

Graduating from Nando’s
Cabana’s appeal is greatest among those in their 20s and 30s, and in one interesting demographic segment in particular—what a round of research termed “Nando’s graduates”. Barber says: “It [the research] showed us that everyone loves Nando’s—I love Nando’s—but when you get more disposable income you don’t necessarily want to eat in the same place as your younger brother or sister; you want to spend a bit more money and have a slightly more grown-up version. If that’s true then we’re very happy with that.” 

Food accounts for 70% of Cabana’s sales, but as is the case at many casual dining operators, drinks are an increasingly important part of the mix. The range, initially leveraged off the renowned bar at Hush, has become more authentic, led by cocktails with Brazilian spirits and imported craft beers. Bars are becoming more stylised as Cabana chases a greater share of the post-work market. Barber believes there’s “a big opportunity” for Cabana in drinks. 

Even after the success of Hush, Villandry and Cabana, Barber doesn’t feel completely at home on the front line of running restaurants. That he is laid up with a broken ankle from playing tennis when Peach Report meets him is not the only reason he leaves the day-to-day operations to others. “I’m a lousy operator,” he admits. 

Where he excels, however, is in entrepreneurial drive, an instinct for a concept and a knack for timing: interest in Brazil has probably never been higher as host country of football’s World Cup last year and of the Olympics in 2016. 

Barber knows when to seek and take advice, especially on roll-out, and name-checks veterans including Ian Neill, Robin Rowland and Paul Campbell as sources of ideas. “There isn’t quite the same ruthlessness you see in other industries,” he says. “I think people feel there’s enough room for everyone, and the guys that are advanced like to help the ones who are up and coming.” 

The other challenges he envisages as Cabana grows include the need for consistency. “As much as you think you can de-skill an operation, there is skill in cooking food on a grill. How that is trained and monitored is what we are focusing on right now,” he says. 

Retaining the right spirit is important, too. “Our challenge is on retaining the culture and passion we had when we started.” To that end, it will be flying many of its managers and support teams out for a field trip to Brazil soon. “We’re asking these guys to sell Brazil for us, so we need to show them what it’s all about,” he says. 

Seven up
Now at seven restaurants, Cabana will reach 10 sites by the end of 2015 and Barber thinks it can get to 20-25 within three years. He reckons the brand has already got through the kind of growing pains that some operators experience after the exhilaration of the first few openings. “There’s definitely a hump around five sites—you see people with three or four who suddenly find it gets hard. We seem to have overcome that,” he says. 

The bulk of Cabana’s expansion will be beyond London, and Barber says the company won’t be overstretching itself. “Return on capital is the important driver for us. We’ve rejected some fantastic sites that we felt were too aggressive [in costs] to get the returns we wanted.” Intense competition in casual dining as well as property costs, will be a big threat, and Barber sees at least as much rivalry coming from one-off independents as from multi-site operators. Pan-Latin American group Las Iguanas might be seen as Cabana’s most significant direct competitor, but he is more taxed by what he calls a new wave of distinctive, premium brands, like Wahaca, Turtle Bay and Byron. 

One of Cabana’s advantages will be that it is among the few growing groups that are privately funded—by Barber and Ponte and various supportive investors. This summer the pair raised an extra £5m in equity backing. “We’ll see where we are when we’re up to 25sites or so—it maybe at that point that we take on private equity money to expand, or we might feel comfortable at that run rate,” Barber says. 

Another level
For now, he is relishing the opportunity to take a brand to another level. Hush has spawned a couple of sister brasseries in Holborn and St Paul’s, and Villandry added new sites under his guidance, but Cabana’s potential is in another league, he thinks. 

That throws up new issues and obstacles, but he relishes them. “I love the excitement of the start-up and the building. There’s a huge buzz about starting with a piece of paper and an idea and doing all the things that are needed to make it a reality. It’s like being a film producer—you have to assemble the team, raise the money and get the thing made.” It’s all about the thrill of the chase and spreading the word for Barber. “We’ve gone out there and told the story, and people have come back. That’s been hugely exciting,” he says. 


BRANCHING OUT OF TOWN
Cabana has more openings to come in London, but it is training its sights well beyond. It made its first move out of the capital at Trinity Leeds last year, with Manchester to follow in September and Newcastle in November. Beyond that, it wants to go further north to cities including Glasgow and Edinburgh, and south and west to the likes of Southampton, Bristol, Bath and Cardiff. Leisure schemes associated with retail elements are the best fit for Cabana, Barber thinks, although high streets can work, too. 

The time is right, he argues. “You feel very comfortable in London, and there’s the beauty of being able to get to all your sites easily enough. But we knew that at some point we had to come outside, and we wanted to deal with that sooner rather than later. Any casual dining group that thinks it’s going to get to any kind of critical mass without moving outside London is going to hit a brick wall.” 

There is another good reason to edge away from the ferocious rents of central London, he suggests. Business rates in two years’ time will be revalued based on rents that businesses are paying today, potentially adding huge extra expense. “If we think it’s hard now, wait until 2017. We will all be paying significantly more in rates, and some people are in for a nasty surprise,” says Barber. 


BOOKED UP
Cabana is one of a crop of restaurant brands to have published its own cookbook and as well as pulling in handy extra sales, it has served as a useful brand-building tool. 

Wagamama, Leon, ASK and Wahaca are just some of the operators to have produced their own tomes in recent years to generally warm receptions. Operators, including Hawksmoor, have found that you don’t necessarily have to be a national brand to make books work, while other hot names like Pitt Cue Co and Pizza Pilgrims produced theirs before they had even opened a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. 

The success of The Cabana Cookbook is no surprise then, especially given the dearth of Brazilian cooking titles on the market. Barber says publisher Quadrille would have been satisfied with sales of 10,000 copies, but it is now past the 50,000 mark since launching last summer. A second book will follow next year, ahead of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. 

With many of the book’s recipes collated on a research trip to Brazil, it has served as a useful learning exercise for Cabana. The book has also got the brand known well beyond London, helping to pave the way for restaurant openings, and it has bolstered its Brazilian credentials. 

Barber says: “It shows that we have some roots and authenticity. People can flick through the book and realise that we haven’t made things up on the back of a fag packet. We have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk, and the book helps us do that.”