Sarah Willingham: J’accuse.

You can judge a man by the company he keeps. So what is Raymond Blanc, distinguished chef and successful businessman, doing in The Restaurant with the grating and graceless Sarah Willingham?

I have previous with Willingham. It dates back a few years to the time she became Managing Director of the once great South London provider of takeaway curry: The Bombay Bicycle Club. When I lived in Putney, Hammersmith and then Battersea, it was something of a love affair for me. I couldn’t get enough of the ‘BBC’s’ majestic murgh dhansak ramro, the glorious onion bhajis or any one of a dozen fine and flawless dishes. I waxed lyrical, praised them, promoted them: I was not just a happy customer, I was an ecstatic one. I was spreading the joy. I’d tell people: you cannot do better.

And then Willingham took over in a self-confessed, ambitious landgrab with the aim of expansion. Within months, standards started to slip. The once super-prompt delivery became almost-late, perfect curries became merely pretty good and they started sending less generous portions of inferior of mango chutney. On more than one occasion they claimed to have run out of pilau rice and I think an Indian takeaway actually has to try pretty damn hard to do that.

I stuck with the Bombay Bicycle Club for a while, ordered less frequently, but my passion was dulled. It died completely when one day they sent a stone cold meal. I emailed Willingham (her email address was on the back of the menu) and she didn’t respond. I never phoned for food again.

So when I see the unspeakable Willingham on The Restaurant sneering and criticising the (admittedly sometimes hopeless) hopefuls, I get a bit angry. This is the woman who destroyed one of the few brands and restaurants I have ever truly loved. She simply doesn’t deserve to be in a position where she’s passing judgment on others: physician, heal thyself.

She is the worst type of unimaginative, cost-cutting, ‘process first’ MBA who thinks that paying customers won’t notice the penny-pinching and are willing to settle for less. Like the wife-beater, she thinks we’ll stay because there’s nowhere else to go. The balance sheet looked healthier, it’s reported, and she’s sold her shares in the business. Good for her. But she chose mediocrity over excellence. On her business plans ‘customer loyalty’ is probably a ‘nice to have’. I don’t think that’s the Raymond Blanc way and it isn’t sound advice for a budding restaurant owner.

9 thoughts on “Sarah Willingham: J’accuse.”

  1. *applauds*

    Though it scares me how many of the people on The Restaurant (I nearly wrote The Apprentice there…) have absolutely no clue about how to make money, or apparently even that they should be making money – particularly, this last series, the chap who’d been regional manager for some chain, and ended up having 90%+ of his turnover as food costs.

    And I’ll give her this: she spoke up for the people I wanted to win (won’t say who in case you’re still watching the series), who were kind of improbable in both foodie and business senses, but who were fun in a way that none of the others were.

  2. Ouch!
    A stinger from DW there.

    I used to love Bombay Bicycle.
    Stopped using them when moved away. Top quality scran in my experience. Not sure if I was pre Willingham though.

    A housemate of a friend used to ride a moped for the Putney branch. One of their drivers said to be a total loon. Spent all his money on his moped, then slept rough, chained to his moped. Allegedly. Haha. Good / bizarre story, anyway.

  3. bon chance to both dan and sue when you apply for the next series of the restaurant – obviously being better qualified than any of the applicants, or indeed one of the judges!

  4. Harriet,

    I think you misread my points. I am in no way better qualified than any of the hopefuls. Indeed: bonne chance to them.

    My criticism is of a ‘judge’ who favours mediocrity rather than distinctiveness and excellence. See the three brands she has been in charge of The Real Greek, Tootsies and The Bombay Bicycle Club. I think she represents something that anyone passionate about food and enjoying food should be wary of.

  5. I too was a regular at The Bombay Bicycle Club for many years. I recall post take over, Sarah Willingham inviting the regulars to discuss a refurbishment of the restaurant in Balham to get our views! Much appreciated it was too as you know how teritorial we get about our much lived ‘local’! I also once had a meal where the service was a tad slower than usual. Normally I would not have bothered but as I had met Sarah and she solicited this feedback by putting her name on the menu (Very brave I have to say) I called her just to let her know. A bunch of flowers arrived the next day with a note of apology! So top marks for customer service from my experience. And the food quality remained excellent till it was sold a few years later. T

  6. I will never understand the fascination with this woman and how she managed to grow her career into a third series of the restaurant by stating the obvious in that supercilious manner of hers. It’s interesting to read her press and see that several of the claims about her career are somewhat overinflated – amazing what a PR slant can do to glam it up! And all of that talk about her lovely family – also interesting to think she never mentions that securing her husband was at the expense of another woman’s marriage …

  7. This is all very belated on my part but the idea that SW is a successful entrepreneur is farcical. As far as I am aware, she didn’t raise the finance for the purchase of the Bombay Bicycle Club, as is claimed. This money was raised by David Paige ex Pizza Express who raised £15mn when he started Clapham House back in 2003/2004. This money was used to buy the Real Greek, Gourmet Burger and in April 2004, Bombay Bicycle Club (BBC). Willingham was bought in to head up the BBC operation and as part of this was given the option of buying 9.5% of the equity of the purchased entity. Was never quite clear whether this was a share option transaction or whether she committed the risk capital herself, but given the fact that the purchase price was only £1.8mn she may have put up less than £200k herself (much less than if she were a real independent entrepreneur and was launching her own small restaurant…I speak from experience here). Part of this agreement gave Clapham House the option to purchase SW’s stake at some time in the future. From then on, SW was an employee of Clapham House, drawing a salary. Sarah Willingham claims that in 2007 she “successfully sold on the business”….hmmm this is streeetttcching the truth; all that happened was that Clapham House exercised their right to purchase the 9.5% stake back off SW. They paid her £750k, so she maybe had a £500k profit or so on her involvement… nice enough but as can be seen the facts don’t really fit the biog. We can also suggest that this was something of a sweetheart deal. When Clapham House bought SW’s stake, it effectively valued BBC at £7.89mn, however only a short while later Clapham House actually disposed of BBC for £4.4mn (sold to the owner of Tiffinbites), writing off goodwill of £1.9mn in the process! And why you might ask were Clapham House happy to dispose of BBC? Well it would seem that under the leadership of SW, the BBC was a loss-making business. At the time of disposal, BBC ran a loss in the yr ending Mar-08 of £484,000. This sits in rather sharp contrast to suggestions from her own PR, that she “turned a heavily loss making business of 6 restaurants into a profitable group of 17”. And what did Sarah do next? Well her PR spin continues to suggest that as Development director for Clapham House, she was also “responsible for” also The Real Greek, and Tootsies brands. Does she really want to claim this? Let see; The Real Greek, once slated for a multisite rollout was ultimately a damp squib with Clapham House being forced to dispose of TRG property ahead of their own sale to Nandos last year…anyone who has ever had the misfortune to eat at this Greek Mcdonalds will understand why (and SW dares criticize people for food quality!). As for Tootsies, this is a pretty strange involvement to have on the CV of any “successful restaurant entrepreneur”. Clapham House’s purchase of Tootsies for £25.4mn in 2006 has to go down as one of the largest disasters in UK restaurant history. SW failed spectacularly in attempts to turn around the brand, and to arrest the losses at Tootsies and in March 2008, left Clapham House “to spend more time with her young family”. Subsequent to her departure Clapham House claimed that the new management team put in place after SW’s departure had begun to “stop the rot” but ultimately the tide couldn’t be turned and Clapham House was prompted to write-down £24.2mn of the value of Tootsies in July 2009, and eventually put the chain in administration in October 2009. Yep that’s £25mn down the drain in 3 years…good work. The only ‘brand’ that SW didn’t have her hands on at her time at Clapham House was Gourmet Burger Kitchen, the company’s only real success but evcentually under the weight of the mistakes related to BBC, TRG and Tootsies Clapham House eventually succumbed to a bid from Nando’s last Summer worth £30mn…and even this was a 31% premium to its traded price. Certainly looking at this period of time, SW has no history of innovation or value creation in the restaurant industry, she does though have a pretty decent track record of destroying value.

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