You may not realise it, but Busaba is now 15 years old. Created by Alan Yau, the same guy who gave the UK Wagamama – as well as Michelin-starred Hakkasan and Yauatcha – Busaba came about because of a gap in the market for a modern Thai eatery that was casual but well designed.
Central to the ethos was amazing food. With the original menu developed in partnership with David Thompson, the only two Michelin-starred Thai chef, it is a theme new CEO Jason Myers believes rings true today.
Myers joined Busaba in May 2014 to oversee an ambitious roll out into new parts of Britain. When the time comes for our interview with Myers, he is fresh off the phone from putting in a bid for a new restaurant spot – an exercise he revealed is now a big part of his day.
Looking back at Busaba’s first location, on Wardour Street in Soho, London, shows just how far the business and the sector has come during 15 years, Myers believes. When it set up shop on a street many would not have gone down for fear of being mugged, there was one pub and one restaurant, Busaba. Now, Wardour Steet is the number one or two restaurant street in London, with 30-40 retail offers calling it home.
Myers explained how the market has evolved with the creation of clearly defined categories such as “premium dinning category”, of which there are about five or six in the market. Busaba places itself in the premium casual, where it butts heads with the likes of Cote, Carluccio, Bills, Drake and Morgan, Wahaca and Burger and Lobster.
Busaba’s latest turnover stood at £23.7m, placing it at number 79 in our list of the UK’s fastest growing companies in The Hot 100 2015 – producing a profit of £1.7m. Three-year compound growth rate was clocked at 32 per cent, impressive for a business which is in such a competitive space.
New sites around the UK will form a key component of increasing all three of those figures, with 12 of Busaba’s restaurants being in London, and one in Kingston Upon Thames.
“We’ve done a lot of research around our consumers. Our plan for the next few years is to take Busaba National to many of the big cities, the next opening is a 7,000 square restaurant and bar in Manchester Exchange Square ” Myers revealed.
When I ask him about the competition for new space, he exhaled and simply said “huge”. “We want to be in the best places at the best times, so we compete on all of those. We also look at how we can go find property that no one else is looking for. That’s tricky as it often means change of use and involves investing a lot of time and energy, but you have to be proactive.”
Myers’ ability to select the best locations, off the beaten track or not, stems from a long and successful career in the hospitality sector. Stating he was “born into hospitality” and has it “running through his veins”, Myers first did a hospitality degree before moving though brewing brands and then into restaurants.
His role with Gondola Group between 2007 and 2010 saw him become part of the team responsible for turning round the Zizzi brand. He then went out to the Middle East to work with luxury hotel and resort group Jumeirah as managing director of Jumeirah Restaurants and VP of RnB worldwide. Here he was exposed to anything from QSR in water parks to three star Michelin quality and some of the worlds most iconic restaurants, as he described them.
His eventual move to take up the reigns at Busaba came when he received a call from Phoenix, the private equity owners of the business. Myers was well aware of Busaba as he’d looked over the company when the investment deal was done in 2008 and been excited by its potential.
For any other offer he probably wouldn’t have returned to the UK but, having met with its investors and owners and looked at the business plan, decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
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Rather surprisingly, he doesn’t see Busaba as having changed much in the last six years – besides opening new restaurants. “The brand is incredible, people just seem to love it. Busaba has never really engaged in discounting, promotions or heavy marketing,” he said.
“When I did my personal brand test on it, it was staggering that, after a six-year period, and with five restaurant openings in that time, the offer had hardly changed but was still doing really well, a true test of the brand width and our consumers love of Busaba delicious food.”
With many more than five new openings planned during the coming six years, what does Myers believe is key to building a profitable business. Well, three key things apparently. “You need to make sure the business is built on strong foundations, understand the DNA and magic ingredient and evolve with the times,” he said. “Then you need to have the capability and talent to go on to the next stage. We’ve still got many colleagues who have been at Busaba from day one and, with the introduction of some new talented colleagues to compliment the long-serving team, creates a nice balance and mix.
“Finally, it’s an ability to grow through acquisition, growing the existing estate and showing strong returns.”
Myers has just made the final two appointments he needs to create a top-level management team capable of taking the Busaba brand nationwide. Some, he added, may argue that the business could be a little top heavy in terms of the amount of leadership compared with the number of locations it currently operates. But he is investing now as the business is growing dramatically, and getting the right people in place early ensures it grows well and is best placed to take advantage of its expansion.
Despite already having a restaurant in Dubai, Myers and Busaba will be focusing domestically for the next few years. While taking fast casual brands overseas may be viewed as easier to execute, just involving buying property and selling a simple product, Myers sees running a premium casual business with Asian food as far more challenging and needs the correct recipe to succeed. “The delivery of what looks simple but is sophisticated means you can’t just look at franchise, you need JV or partnerships.”
Myers and the team at Busaba are approached by possible partners at an average of three times a week, but will only consider potential partners that know how to acquire the best asset, role out and operate full scale dining restaurants well coupled with the finances, resource, resilience and business plan to convince us that Busaba will work in a proposed territory.
Busaba has used the last 15 years to bed down in the London market, honing its craft and creating a brand that is strong enough to now hang a bit of risk off. Under the leadership of Myers, and his team, Busaba will now look to build on its enviable turnover and profit levels by bringing premium casual Thai dining to the UK masses. You’d be a fool to think it won’t win there too.