Ex-Linklaters lawyer opens Benito's Hat
Ben Fordham trained at Linklaters and qualified into the tax department there. Last week he said goodbye to law at 1yr PQE and embarked on a new path that will see him open his own restaurant at 56 Goodge Street in July 2008. We wanted to talk to him at this point, while the decision is fresh in his mind, to find out how he’s done it.
mtl: Hi Ben, please can you start with your legal background?
Ben: I trained at Linklaters and qualified into tax because I found the work very interesting due to the problem solving nature of it, the fact that it involved “real law” and because it was a really good group. I never disliked the job. However I worked very hard and although I thought it was “fine,” it became evident to me that I wanted to be passionate about what I was doing.
Concurrently I met my business partner two years ago through my sister. We’d had a similar idea about opening a restaurant and from that point on it moved from being a pipe dream to a real possibility. We began to meet up once a month to discuss things and that finally led to me resigning in March 2008 when I was sure that everything was in place and that it would actually happen. I left in early May 2008 and so this is week one outside of law…
mtl: Tell us about your wish to open a restaurant – where did that come from? And how have you turned it into a reality, while working at Linklaters?
Ben: I love cooking, have worked in lots of restaurants and have always had the passion to run one. Since being a teenager I thought it would be wonderful. Part of my degree involved a year in Texas, where I met my wife and got to know Mexican food. I noticed the gap in the market in London a couple of years ago and felt that opening a Mexican restaurant could be financially viable as a concept. I find the idea of bringing authentic, good Mexican food to London really appealing and exciting. The food will be simple, with fresh ingredients and an emphasis on quality.
My business partner works in private equity and our legal and finance skills have been a good combination. The relationship works well because we have become good friends but can be very frank with each other as there hasn’t been years of history between us that could be at risk when we disagree over something.
When we first got together, we talked about, honed and agreed the concept, which took six months. We then prepared a 40 page business plan, which took another six months and made us examine whether we could actually make a financial go of it by investigating every possible cost. Our combined professional experience was very useful in that we were able to prepare the financial model, look at risk factors, list investment highlights and explain the passion behind the project. We then put the document out to nine banks and friends, family and acquaintances to raise money. Four of the banks were very positive and by Christmas 2007 we had secured the finance that we needed.
Simultaneously, we began to look for a 120 square metre site and I often went to view these before work. We finally found the right one on Goodge Street by Christmas 2007, which coincided with arranging the money. We are taking over a 25 year lease which has 12 years left to run. I also met with suppliers and contractors, taking the odd day of holiday as and when I needed it and otherwise working for an hour or so in the evenings and half a day at the weekend. I found our contractor on the internet and our architect is a friend of mine. Both have been very impressive and have given us a lot of help along the way.
The other major issue was finding a head chef and this happened quite by chance. I was talking to my wife on the tube about the project and the manager of The Green and Red Bar and Cantina (a Mexican restaurant in Bethnal Green) was standing next to me. He gave me his card and offered his assistance. I ended up working in the kitchen there for a few days to see what it was like.
One of the waiters at Green and Red was about to return to Mexico, having abandoned his dream to open his own restaurant in London. He asked if he could join my team and after testing out his cooking skills I offered him an equity package if the restaurant does well. This way he gets a stake in a business with less cash than if he was doing it himself and I get a trained Mexican chef. Finding him was a huge weight off my mind and I have complete confidence in him to take charge of the kitchen. I will work with him in the kitchen a couple of days a week so that I can run it if necessary. I think it’s important that I can do all roles and then I can pull back a bit when things are more settled.
mtl: What do you still have to do before opening?
Ben: We should complete the lease five or six weeks before we open and it will take the contractors about five weeks to do the interior. We have designed the interior lay-out but haven’t bought the furniture or chosen light fittings yet. In the next few weeks I will be choosing suppliers for the food. I also need to hire waiting staff and will eventually promote one of them to being a manager. In the mean time I will manage the restaurant on a day to day basis. I have been a head waiter and have run bars before so feel confident about that.
I’ve done the menu, which consists of simple, quality, fresh, quick food plus a daily special (and beer and wine), and will be tweaking it in the next few months. My wife has been a huge part of formulating the idea and how it could work best. She has more experience of Mexico than I do and one of her mum’s recipes may make it on to the menu! The focus will be on lunch time and after work with hours from 11am-10pm, six days a week. There will be a deli counter service where you choose what you want in different combinations and a server will take you along the line. You can then eat in or take-away.
I’m also preparing the marketing and PR side of things and have a list of newspapers, food critics and restaurant guides to contact, as well as the local businesses in the area, which range from small shops and offices to a hospital and a university. I did market research with a counter on Goodge street and found that 1500 people walk past in ½ hour, so we are hopeful of getting the volume of customers that we need to be successful. If we do well then I would love to expand the concept. However we will focus on this one restaurant first and get it right before we open any more.
mtl: Do you have any concerns at this point?
Ben: The finances are very scary but also very motivating. People have shown great faith in us by investing and I obviously don’t want to let them, or myself, down. However excitement is by far the greatest emotion and drive.
It would be wonderful if one day everything suddenly falls into place. At the moment there is always something not quite there or ready. When we thought the money was sorted out, other things popped up. However I reached the point where the big things were all in place and there was too much to do while still working full time. When I jumped, I knew that I wanted to do it so it wasn’t scary, though I had a run of sleepless nights leading up to my resignation. It was hard to make the decision but I actually felt more relaxed when I was committed to a certain path. There is no going back now!
I heard somewhere that only about 2% of people quit to do what they really want to do. I’m sure lots of them don’t succeed but if I don’t do it now when I am relatively free from responsibility then I don’t know when I will. And I take comfort in the fact that I have a solid career that I could go back to if I need to.
mtl: Thank you Ben and of course good luck. We look forward to hearing how you get on.
Ben’s first restaurant opened in August 2008. You can see the website for it here.
Law with American Law, Nottingham
LPC, Oxford Institute of Legal Practice
Teaching in Buenos Aires
Tax assistant, Linklaters
Left Linklaters to open Benito's Hat