Enlightened hospitality is what Simon Mullins both practices and preaches.

The label he’s given the underlying philosophy of his business makes it sound like an Ayurvedic vegetarian restaurant group serving a lot of lentils to quietly happy people. His Salt Yard Group, a collection of four Italian/Spanish tapas restaurants, is almost the opposite. Judging by the lunchtime crowd at Dehesa in Soho, yes the people are happy, but they are good naturedly noisy with it, bursting into a round of ‘Happy Birthday’ among the lively chatter. And they are eating a lot of cured meat.

Mullins’ ‘mantra’ is not even remotely based in hippy sentiment – it is actually about taking on and developing staff who are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the restaurants and what they serve. It’s his absolute passion.

At the compulsory weekly training sessions staff learn not only about menu items but also about the history and culture of the regions in Spain and Italy where the food originates. The following week they are tested and prizes are given to the person with the highest score both that week, and overall for the month. These are often meals at competitors’ restaurants.

“We make budgets available for our staff to go to other restaurants. If you are a junior, it is expensive to eat out, but it is important for the staff and the industry to have that excitement about our sector,” Mullins explains.

Again, it’s a tenet he not only advocates but actively pursues: “Pretty much everything I do revolves around food and drink. Even if I go away, I’ll be looking up what good restaurants are nearby.”


Creating a virtuous circle

Encouraging his staff (there are now about 150 of them) to share his enthusiasm is something that works for him as a businessman too. Not only is the group usually able to recruit internally, Mullins says the staff churn rate is very low. Also, he believes that the positivity creates a virtuous circle – for example, the Argentinean sommelier from Opera Tavern was tasked with creating a cocktail list for the group’s first cocktail bar in the basement of its latest site, Ember Yard, which opened in Soho in late 2013. In keeping with the site’s focus on charcoal grilling and smoking, he created a list of unique drinks including spirits infused with smoked wood from authentic Spanish sherry barrels and ‘smoked’ ice cubes.

It has proved so successful that spend per head at the site is higher than the £30 average, including drinks, for the group (although he won’t reveal by how much) and has led to the staff at the other restaurants clamouring to introduce their own cocktail menus, now under development.

“Fantastic food and drink at a reasonable price point, served by passionate staff has always been our philosophy and will always remain so. To have great staff – both in the kitchens and on the floor – is the centre-most important element of our business.”

It is not uncommon to hear a restaurant owner these days talk about the importance of their staff, but Mullins takes it to the next level. The thing he finds most rewarding about being in the restaurant industry: “The people”; what he’s been most proud of in his career: “The progression of our people” – he’s particularly proud of Yannis Alary, the former general manager of Dehesa, who originally joined as a waiter and has now gone on with his brother to open his own restaurant, Blanchette Soho, in which Mullins is an investor:

“From day one he said he wanted his own restaurant. I think it is better to have staff with that kind of ambition and then be part of what they do, than lose them completely.”


Creating a qualification

To ensure the trickling stream of potentially good employees does not dry up, Mullins ensures the company talks to pre-GCSE students at local schools to promote the restaurant industry and engages with catering students. He is also currently working with education bodies to create an in-house apprenticeship programme with a transferrable qualification at the end of it, which will be tested from next January before hopefully starting in earnest in September 2015.

“We need to dispel the stigma that the industry is second rate – it is changing. For example we have people come to work for us with a background in things like finance and law,” he says. “We need to tell the next generation now that unqualified, intelligent, hard-working people can do very well in this industry and be earning very good money within five years.”

Mullins himself is a good example. In 2005 when he and now ex-wife Sanja Morris (who remains a shareholder), opened their first restaurant, Salt Yard in Goodge Street, they were self-confessed rookies. Morris had been working at the British Council while Mullins started his working life in advertising but decided on a career change based on his long-held passion for food and drink. He worked in gastropubs in London and went travelling in Australia, picking up work in kitchens.

It was upon his return that a chance sampling of jamón Ibérico in a London market opened his eyes and palate to tapas and led to his job at Brindisa, the then Spanish food importer and now, too, retailer and restaurant operator. Mullins and Morris had in mind a plan for a scaleable Italian concept, which he is reluctant to give details about (other than it would be at a similar price point to Byron) as it is an idea he may give a go in the future.

However, they came back from an impromptu last minute cheap flight weekend break in New York where their experiences of the city’s take on both the Spanish tapas and Italian enoteca, got them thinking about combining the food and drink of the culturally-related countries and putting a London spin on it. When the Goodge Street premises, came up, complete with working kitchen, their wine bar idea evolved into a full restaurant.

Despite their inexperience, they had an unannounced (and unrecognised until they took his credit card for the bill) visit from Time Out’s food and drink editor Guy Dimond within the first week and got a great review which helped propel their reputation to the level they enjoy today. The restaurant format was replicated with subsequent openings in 2008 and 2011 (Dehesa, then Opera Tavern in Covent Garden) and most recently Ember Yard in Soho in 2013.

Mullins still thinks there is a place for a bar-focussed tapas chain – another idea he may revisit in the future. Now the restaurants achieve average weekly turnover between £30,000 and £45,000 and last year’s £5.6m group annual turnover is on track to reach £7.5m for the year to end March 2015. But it’s not all been straightforward success. The group dipped its toe into retailing in 2008 with The Blackfoot Butchers, a butcher/deli combination close to Salt Yard but, despite good reviews, it did not survive long.

“The week after we opened, Lehman Brothers crashed and people’s appetite for expensive beef waned,” Mullins laughs. “We learned a lot. Apart from the timing being a ‘bit’ out, I discovered that for that kind of retailing I prefer to be a customer.”


Prospect of better contacts

Over the past few years, the group has beefed up its operations team and is ready to up expansion to openings around every 18 months, compared to the previous programme of one every three years. This will be helped by the recent investment from Alcuin Capital Partners, which also backs Krispy Kreme UK and Caffe Nero.

Although neither party is revealing the exact value of the deal, Mullins is looking forward to enjoying the benefits of the better contacts with banks and the industry that their partnership will bring and to having a “top level sounding board”. Mullins says that nothing has been signed yet for the next site but he is fairly confident that restaurant number five will open in mid-2015.

The West End remains the prime target, although Mullins also has one eye on the City. Key to locations for him is the “holy trinity” of residents, local offices and tourists enabling restaurants to build a lunch trade.

Mullins says that the group has three defined concepts that it would like to take forward next, each taking a more specific regional focus. Again, he’s not giving anything away on the record.

Mullins doesn’t say, either, how many restaurants he’d like to build his group to, but he’s not worried that he’ll get to a size where maintaining that necessary passion for the product among employees could become an issue, citing Caprice Holdings and Hix as good examples.

“I don’t think quality is limited by size,” he maintains. “That only becomes difficult if you are looking to scale rapidly and increase margins.”