The Chilli Pickle: How To Successfully Scale A Restaurant Business
Every month the Brighton Chamber of Commerce invites a successful local scaleup to address its monthly breakfast meeting. This month’s speaker was Dawn Sperring, co-founder of the renowned Indian restaurant, The Chilli Pickle, and I could not have been more excited to book my ticket.
In this article, I’m going to share some of my key takeaways (no pun intended) from the talk as it contained so many nuggets of wisdom about how to build and scale a business. But first, for readers not familiar with The Chilli Pickle, here’s a brief background about this Indian stalwart on the Brighton and Hove food scene.
Now in its 11th year, the Chilli Pickle is run by husband and wife team, Alun and Dawn Sperring. Serving an ever-evolving menu of regional dishes, the food is inspired by their years of travel throughout the Indian sub-continent. The vibe is more canteen than fine dining. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped onto the set for a Beetles’ Sergeant Pepper and His Lonely Hearts Club album! That’s intentional. The branding, a riot of psychedelic colours, was chosen to recreate the vibrant, confounding and intense experience that is India.
The canteen vibe isn’t reflected in the quality of the food. The Chilli Pickle has been voted in the top 100 restaurants in the UK every year since 2011, held 2AA rosettes every year since 2009 and a Michelin Bib Gourmand since 2010, not to mention winning the British Curry Awards for three years running. The menu itself largely eschews obvious Anglo-Indian dishes, favouring high-quality seasonal British ingredients, mainly from Sussex, served with flawless Indian technique.
Alun Sperring oversees the kitchen drawing on his annual travels to Indian, 100+ collection of Indian cookery books and time working with the Cinnamon Kitchen’s Vivek Singh, one of the UK’s most successful and respected modern Indian chefs. Here he experiments and recreates the authentic flavours, culture and heritage of the country. Every year, Alun and the family take off for a holiday-cum-research trip to explore the street food of a particular region and refuel their creative passion. One trip saw them root out the best biryanis and Haleem in Hyderabad, while another took them to the beachside chat stands of Mumbai.
Now that you know a little more about The Chilli Pickle, let’s discover how Alun and Dawn Sperring have set about scaling their business. I’ve picked out six key themes.
1. GROW ORGANICALLY
The Chilli Pickle started life as a 45-cover restaurant on Brighton’s Meeting House Lane. Inexperienced and untested in running a business, suppliers refused to extend credit terms to the couple, meaning they had to pay cash up front. The business got off to a slow start, which must have meant enormous pressures on cash flow. But the couple worked hard and persevered. Hard work is a theme Dawn returned to repeatedly during her talk.
Gradually word got around and the business started to work as the compound effect of word of mouth referral brought in new customers. The Chilli Pickle built up a loyal customer base, was regularly fully booked and started to create a positive cash flow. This loyal customer base was to prove invaluable in The Chilli Pickle’s growth. Initially, the quality of its food and service marked it out when there were only a handful of decent places to eat in Brighton. Now that the number of high-quality restaurants has increased dramatically, the goodwill built so steadfastly in the early days means that The Chilli Pickle has retained its position as a market leader.
2. DARE TO BE DIFFERENT
A white chef cooking the cuisine of another culture or country is considered controversial in many quarters as Jamie Oliver and more recently Gordon Ramsey have learnt to their cost. If you’re going to serve food from outside your heritage, you have to be seen to research, understand and respect the food of that country.
Alun initially faced criticisms for serving Indian food until people understood that this was an authentic decision for him. Having travelled to India countless times with Dawn, coupled with an inspirational stint at ‘The Cinnamon Club’ and a big Indian influence in the kitchens in Dubai where he worked for three years, the decision to open an Indian restaurant was a natural one.
3. TAKE A CALCULATED RISK
With their 45-seater restaurant operating at full capacity, Alun and Dawn started to look at how they could move the business forward. They identified a site at Brighton’s My Hotel on Jubilee Street which they believed they could make work. Their bank however refused to give them a loan, believing that the sizeable Jubilee Street site could only be run by an experienced London operator. This, despite the fact that the two previous leaseholders, Aldo Zilli and Table, had both been shuttered.
Fortunately, the founder of My Hotel, Andreas Thrasyvoulou, was less risk adverse than the bank, realising that a Brighton based independent with a proven track record had a better chance of succeeding where others had failed. When he learnt that the bank was unwilling to put up the finance, he said he’d sit down with Alun and Dawn to find a way to make the lease payments work.
The move to a larger site meant the Sperrings were able to achieve greater market penetration by selling more of its existing products to its existing market.
4. DIVERSIFY REVENUE STREAMS
With the restaurant booked, Alun and Dawn looked to other ways to reach more customers and increase their revenue streams. Takeaway and delivery has become a key part of the business model, focused on thalis and railway trays served in cleverly designed boxes filled with biodegradable tubs of curries, dahls, side dishes and pickles.
This is a good example of a product development growth strategy. This is where a business aims to introduce new products into existing markets. This strategy may mean learning new skills and requires the business to develop modified products which can appeal to existing markets.
Initially, takeaways were delivered by an in-house team of drivers. But dealing with time-consuming logistics problems, not least that Brightonians eat between 7 and 8pm, led Alun and Dawn to bring in Deliveroo to deliver their takeaways.
When Deliveroo opened an Editions site in Portslade and Hove - offering delivery-only kitchen space to restaurants – the Chilli Pickle was able to extend its customer base to Hove and Portslade, reaching a new audience of customers. This is a good example of a market development strategy where the business seeks to sell its existing products into new markets.
5. BRING IN EXPERTISE
With the move to Jubilee Street, the team jumped from 12 to 50 staff. Where Dawn had managed the recruitment, payroll and HR, this was no longer viable if the Chilli Pickle was to retain its reputation for excellent customer service.
Suddenly Alun and Dawn’s roles altered, and they realised that they needed to bring specialist knowledge and experience into areas such as HR and financial management. Wisely they understood that you can’t be an expert in everything and made the decision to surround themselves with people who made up for the areas where their expertise ended.
6. SECURE BUSINESS FINANCE
With the restaurant operating efficiently and making good profits, Alun and Dawn were ready for another challenge. A second restaurant. Very few businesses have the resources to fund their growth plans independently which is why they looked to business finance. Raising business finance allows you to generate significant amounts of capital, as well as access to the skills, expertise, and connections of your investors. They will often have been successful entrepreneurs themselves and be able to offer a wealth of invaluable advice to guide you down the best path on your business journey.
Alun and Dawn set about crowdfunding the sum they needed for a second site but ended up pulling the deal when their intuition told them this was the wrong course of action for their restaurant. They were subsequently approached by a long-time customer who, it turned out, ran Brighton-based boutique investment agency, Imagine Capital.
With financial backing from Imagine Capital, The Chilli Pickle has opened a second site in Guildford, a market town generally viewed by branded retailers as a key location in the south-east thanks to its affluent demographic and popularity with London commuters. Unlike Brighton, Guildford’s restaurant market is dominated by chains so The Chilli Pickle will have less competition from other independents.
This is another good example of a market development strategy, in this case entering into a new geographical market. This is a more risky strategy when it comes to scaling a business. One of the ways in which the Sperrings mitigated this risk was by conducting extensive market research of Guildford.
ADDITIONAL ADVICE FROM DAWN
Dawn’s advice to Brighton Chamber members centred on five key themes:
1. If you believe in what you do, your passion will shine through and be infectious to others.
2. Surround yourself with people who are knowledgeable and have greater expertise than you.
3. Never stop learning and developing.
4. Welcome newcomers to your sector or industry because they’re a positive addition to a town.
5. Lift other people up and you’ll find that support reciprocated.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE CHILLI PICKLE?
With overheads so high in London, Dawn doesn’t envisage setting up shop in the capital. Winchester, Worthing and Tunbridge Wells have all been talked about as possible locations for a third site. With takeaway such a successful part of its business model, it could make sense for The Chilli Pickle to open in Worthing, a few short miles along the coast. This is where the Brighton diaspora are moving, priced out of the Brighton property market. I imagine they’ll be looking to see how Masterchef winner, Kenny Tutt’s new restaurant Pitch fares as they weigh up their next move.
While Dawn identifies herself and Alun as risk takers, the Sperrings have actually followed a very smart business strategy. First, by building up a loyal following to achieve greater market penetration. Second, by offering new products (takeaways) to their already loyal fans. And thirdly, by extending new markets. In the first instance the lower risk decision to deliver takeaways to the Hove and Portslade area. And in the second instance, to open a second restaurant in Guildford once they’d reached market capacity in Brighton.
OVER TO YOU
What stood out for you about The Chilli Pickle’s growth strategy? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share let me know in the comments box below.
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