Marco Pierre White is reclining at home in Bath, gazing out a window at the English countryside, when we speak on the phone. “It’s snowing here,” he says, followed by a satisfied sigh that suggests he’s comfortable living in the moment. He was the youngest ever chef to be awarded three Michelin stars in 1994 at age 33, but five years later gave them back to build a multimillion-dollar restaurant empire. He retired, a globally recognised veteran of French cooking, in 1999.
Talking with the former Masterchef presenter is like speaking with an old friend as we discuss the launch of his new Australian restaurant-deals food-tech start-up, EatClub. The man on the phone is as British as tea and scones and oozes charisma, a far cry from the tantrum-throwing, impudent chef reputation that precedes him (he's been known to tear tablecloths from beneath rude customers). He's got a formidable energy, and a manner that suggests he worked ferociously hard to get to the top, which he did. White moved from Leeds to London at the age of 16 without any cooking qualifications, £7.36 to his name, a box of books and a bag of clothes.
White’s latest project, the EatClub app, was created with former Foodora Melbourne CEO Pan Koutlakis, Matt Cantelo and Ben Tyler, and launched in Melbourne last October. It went to market with 300 restaurants on board, including Bhang and Bontempo, before spreading to cover Sydney on February 12 (Chur Burger and Carpiccio are early adopters).
The smartphone app is the restaurant world’s equivalent to Lastminute.com – a digital platform helping restaurateurs advertise last-minute meal deals during “off peak” times – but instead of filling vacant rooms, White is filling empty restaurant seats. His aim is simple: he wants to see more people dining out, more often, and for less.
The app works by connecting customers to nearby restaurants with spare tables and offers last-minute meal discount deals to get them through the door.
“How many times do I walk into restaurants in Australia, or Britain, and they’re half empty on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday night? And how many of these restaurateurs do a really good job?” he says, almost as if the thought of a half-empty venue incites pain. “So, we’re putting a spotlight on these restaurants,” he says, adding the app is especially useful for smaller, independent operators as they often can’t afford PR or marketing teams.
“If you look at hotels, their prices change according to the day of the week, according to the season. They need to fill their rooms. Look at the airlines, in the summer the prices go up and in winter they go down, don’t they? It’s about creating profit and the restaurant industry is no different,” he says.
White says using new technology is simply good business sense. He suggests restaurateurs should think of themselves as retailers and use anything in their arsenal to sell dishes. “What’s the difference between selling a plate of food, a dress, a suit, or a can of beer? We’re shopkeepers, making a living in a competitive world,” he says. “Cooks and restaurateurs are artists living in the corporate world, dominated by the big conglomerates..”
White might have grown into a numbers man, but he clearly still cares about food: 45 minutes of the conversation is dedicated to his love of the affogato. The 56-year-old retains the same passion for dining out as he did as a 16-year-old commis in London’s Le Gavroche kitchen with Albert and Michel Roux.
But asked if he thinks home-delivery companies such as Deliveroo and Foodora are luring customers away from restaurants and encouraging people to eat at home, White is quick to sing their praises. “It’s fantastic, isn’t it,” he says, lighting up. “Sometimes you just want to have dinner at home and don’t want to cook. When I lived in London, I had Chinese takeaway once, twice a week. Whether you sit in a restaurant or at home, it’s the same, [the owners] get the income.”
Sure, but delivery companies take a cut from the bill, will EatClub do the same? “I am not in the business of standing on people, I am in the business of helping people, supporting your people. And to have a business, you have to make profit.”
EatClub works by charging a small monthly-membership fee to operators and a $2 per-diner fee for any guests EatClub brings into the restaurant. So far, it has seated 35,000 customers in Melbourne, and already 5000 in Sydney in the two weeks since its launch.
Empty restaurants aren’t just bad for businesses’ bottom lines, a lack of atmosphere can ruin the diner’s experience, too. “Customers walk away; the energy just isn’t there,” says White.
EatClub doesn’t just help with ambiance, it also tries to combat customers who don’t turn up. In 2016, online booking company Dimmi introduced a blacklist program, allowing restaurateurs to bar customers for up to a year for not showing up for a reservation, to reduce its crippling effect.
White can’t pinpoint any one reason why some restaurants are closing or struggling to make capacity. But he believes eating out will have to become about “affordable glamour” to survive: meaning the service, food, atmosphere – the entire experience – needs to be elevated to entice punters. “It’s a number’s game,” he says. “If you want to charge fuck loads, you have to make [the atmosphere] affordable. You’ve got to package and wrap things nicely, delivering them at a [good] price point.
“I’ve seen friends of mine go bust, and they risked it all and did a beautiful job. People only have so much money. Sometimes you might say, ‘Actually, let’s not go out for dinner tonight, let’s buy that new TV instead.’ With these deals [through the app], they can do both.”
When asked whether restaurateurs might be put off signing up to EatClub because discounts are seen by some as below them, the fierce edge and attitude of a boy brought up on rock’n’roll and cigarettes rears its head. “It’s the reality,” White says curtly. “The diner can eat for less and the restaurateur has more consumers walk through their doors. That’s not embarrassing. Let’s dissolve the snobbery and let’s be honest – it’s more embarrassing having a half-full restaurant, than it is to be full.”
EatClub is available to download on both iOS and Google Play in Sydney and Melbourne.