Celebrity chef Neil Rankin is the face of Temper, but admits the fledgling restaurant empire would be nothing without managing director, Sam Lee. Mel Flaherty meets her to discuss her partnership with Rankin and the development of a constantly evolving brand.

Neil Rankin is not hard to recognise. He is the chef with a CV that includes working with Michelin-starred Michael Wignall plus time at Rhodes 24 and as head chef at Pitt Cue Co. He published his own bestselling cookbook, Low and Slow, in 2016 and has numerous TV appearances under his belt. He has also recently opened his third barbecue restaurant, Temper, in Covent Garden.

Sam Lee is managing director of Temper. Her face might not be so familiar but she is absolutely happy with that.

“My worst thing is having my picture taken whereas Neil is a natural on the telly. We had MasterChef in at our Soho restaurant and I spent my time trying to stay out of shot,” she says. “I have every desire to be successful but none at all to be famous.

“His star is on the rise, which is great for the business,” she adds.

The pair design the restaurants and develop the strategy together but in terms of running the business, Rankin does everything to do with the food and is the face of the brand while Lee is responsible for the operational side.

“If it is remotely ‘sexy’, then it’s Neil; if it’s not, it’s me,” is how Lee describes the division of the work.

“I do HR, financials, all the exciting stuff,” she jokes, “but I really do love all that.”

To be fair, her ability and experience in these areas is the reason she was brought in to work with Rankin who had approached Imbiba, the leisure and hospitality investment outfit and backers of Darwin & Wallace and Albion & East among others, with the idea of opening his own restaurants. They liked him and his barbecue concept but were only willing to support the plan if he worked in partnership with someone with a business background. Lee went through seven interviews and was chosen above at least six other candidates partly, she believes, because her experience was not gleaned solely in restaurants. She and Rankin immediately clicked when they met and developed his idea into what is now Temper.

Lee’s latest role is undoubtedly raising her own profile in the industry. Not only have the Temper restaurants received critical acclaim but the company was Imbiba’s first start-up to exceed expectations. Lee won’t quantify that success, which is based on average spend per head of £40 for dinner at both Soho and the City and around £30 at Covent Garden, save to say: “We are doing alright. It is a multimillion pound turnover business across the three sites and given the size of the restaurants we have opened, we are really happy.”

The last filed accounts for the firm (which is actually registered as Casper & Cole, a twin-named moniker of the type apparently beloved by Imbiba, going by its portfolio, but not really used day-to-day by Temper), are for the year to end of February 2017, when the first restaurant had only been open just under five months and so don’t give the most representative picture of the business now. However, turnover was £1.14million with gross profit of £826,692 and an overall loss of £638,395 was reported.

The fact that the company has opened three large restaurants in just two years is an indication of how well it is doing and is expected to do. The first site, which opened in Soho in 2016, is 5,000 square feet and seats 192 people; the second 6,500 square foot unit opened in the City last year and has 240 covers while the newest restaurant in Covent Garden has 146 and occupies just over 4,100 square feet.

The original plan was to open the first large site then do a couple of smaller ones, but the realities of securing sites and, in particular, taking the opportunity to snaffle particularly good ones as they became available, dictated Temper’s course.

“The lesson I have learnt is that it is good to have a plan, but it is also good to be flexible. If one perfect site came up every nine months, that would be ideal, but of course it doesn’t happen like that,” Lee explains. “Covent Garden was never on our radar but someone else had the site then had to give it back so we went for it.”

She says that the next couple of sites will definitely be smaller “for everyone’s sanity” and is hopeful that Temper number four will be up and running by this time next year. The current aim is to be London-centric, although she has looked at sites in other cities and considered overseas locations but feels for the moment in time, at least, the brand would be best served with herself and Rankin easily able to get to every restaurant easily.

Lee says the company’s flexible approach has also been applied to the development of the product offering. She admits that as they were opening Temper Soho, she and Rankin had no idea how they would translate the brand at any second site.

The culture of the brand, in terms of the inclusive approach to staff management and the acceptance of and support for the differing career needs of its employees, was quickly established at Soho, Lee says. The core tenets of what makes a Temper restaurant also became clear early on, she adds. Sustainability is a key feature. Rather than having bulk deliveries of certain cuts, Temper takes whole animals which it butchers itself and then uses as many parts as possible on its menus. Also, there is now a blueprint of sorts, in that all sites have a central open kitchen and are based on “fire, wine, another food and a spirit.”

The result is a fluid brand that has a distinct identity yet offers something different at every site – Soho has a South American influence with tacos and tostadas on the menu and a gin a and cocktail-heavy drinks offer; City has an Indian flavour with tandoori and thali dishes alongside the steaks, beer and cider while Covent Garden has Italian leanings with pizza, cured meats and vermouth. Lee believes Temper’s very much non-chain-like approach to rolling out has played a big part in its success to date and puts it in good stead for the future at a time when the media are happily highlighting the demise of every high street restaurant brand that shuts sites.

Lee loves the fact that the company has the freedom to make and implement decisions quickly and that despite Rankin’s edging on celebrity chef status, no egos get in the way of making changes if they are needed. She says that the City site is currently reviewing its menu, to better serve the needs of its meat-loving customers, and that at Covent Garden, the size of the pizzas has been reduced as the clientele are keen to order more sides but getting too full. She is a firm believer in listening to people – customers and staff – and giving them what they want.

Adopting a flexible approach is something Lee learnt to do early on in her own career. She originally wanted to be a criminal lawyer but ended up in area management at Greene King, assigned a “horrendous” collection of pubs in North East London. She soon discovered that Greene King’s one-size-fits-all approach to running them was not what its punters wanted and ended up allowing the communities they served to influence the operation (which in the case of one pub in Becton meant karaoke seven nights a week), with great success.

Likewise, when she moved to Chester Boyd, the event catering firm whose venues are all livery company buildings in London, she persuaded her rather traditional bosses to allow her to promote the sites for society weddings. Bookings went from two a year to 170.

While her current job is very hard work, it was more at the beginning of her career she felt that being a woman in a then much more male-dominated environment was an added challenge, although she describes the unprintable (not in a worrying way, just rather colourful) examples of this with the humour and the ‘just had to get on with it’ attitude that is evident throughout conversation with her.

It was her job as managing director of Vinopolis, the former wine events and attraction business, that really stoked Lee’s passion for the hospitality industry, she says, after which she was chief operating officer of Convivial London Pubs. The role of managing director of Inn or Out events catering followed, then operations director of Searcys, the restaurants and events business. She says that, in retrospect, contract catering was not something she particularly enjoyed:

“It’s great money, but it serves one purpose – it is so cost-driven that it is hard to be creative and drive quality; they wanted champagne quality at lemonade prices.”

Prior to joining Temper Lee had her own company, Scarlet Events, in Singapore – splitting literally half her time between there, where her partner was based, and London. Being female and Western was a barrier, she says, but one that her androgynous first name and Oriental-sounding last name helped overcome, at least to get appointments to see businesses in the first instance. She missed home and had a love/hate relationship with the travel so the opportunity to get involved with Temper was even more welcome.

Now, Lee is feeling fulfilled although she is keen to spend more time on the learning and development side of the business, which is what really floats her boat. Beyond Temper, she does not have any particular unrequited ambitions, and she can see Rankin ending up on his own TV show, “probably while muggins here is left running six or seven restaurants,” she laughs.