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paul jackson

Searcys: a taste of the action

As part of Big Catering Month, Conference News editor Martin Fullard talks to Searcys managing director Paul Jackson on all things food, future, and sustainability. 

It’s Big Catering Month at Conference News, so who better to kick start our month of food-led articles than the new managing director at Searcys?

Paul Jackson (pictured above) joined Searcys in July 2020, in what in pandemic terms already sounds like a lifetime ago. But, as 2021 rolled by and more and more restrictions were lifted, Jackson has been able to finally flex his hospitality muscles.

Searcys, which has multiple properties across London, including at the top of Gherkin, 116 Pall Mall, Vintners’ Hall and several more.

I met Jackson at The HAC, the Honourable Artillery Company near to Moorgate station, to learn a bit more about his vision for the brand and corporate hospitality more broadly.

The View
The View

How has Searcys responded to the pandemic?

How have we faired? Well, we’re here. I think that alone is a massive credit to the people around me, but equally the organisation that we are part of as well that supports Searcys and sees the value of that in the future.

We have had to ‘right-size’ the business, as any hospitality business has done. We are now in a place where we’ve got to structure and seize the great opportunities going forward, but the journey to get there has been hard work and we’ve needed each other to get us through that.

I started in the heart of the pandemic, so my normal process would be “fantastic, let’s go and meet the teams”, but you couldn’t even do that. The day I started I said: “What are we going to open?” The poor guys have spent six months closing everything, or everything’s been sitting dormant.

Now things have reopened, and the business can really get going again, which is great news for everyone.

How have you evolved to meet the current needs?

I’ll answer that in two ways: the first is about the safety of the guests, the safety of the customer and our team, that’s front and centre. How do we position tables and guests; what are the processes to enter the building; what data are we collecting to make sure they feel safe? That was the first thing we needed to do across the estate and make sure we could not only demonstrate to our staff, our guests, but also our clients, that we understand the rules and we can operate safely.

The second is the ability to be flexible. Open, close, open, close, booked, not booked. So, you take a deposit, you don’t keep that deposit, you defer it, or you work with the event booker, or you refund it, because fundamentally, it’s gone on far longer than we ever thought. We must help clients get their experiences happening, so that means working with them and being flexible.

The View
The Library, The View

Have client needs evolved/changed?

Weirdly, I still believe in looking after the enquiries. We are going back to people wanting to go into a room and have a lovely canapé reception and sit-down dinner, or conference.

Hybrid events have a part to play, the screen, as much as we shout at it, still has a part to play and there’s a bit of positivity around how we can be more efficient in using technology. We were going in that direction, typically that journey would take maybe three or five years, what’s happened is we’ve taken those three to five years and turned it into three or five months.

The other piece is probably around pre-booking and pre-paying, so from a retail restaurant point of view, the habit of the guest has changed slightly. They have to think ahead a little bit more, they also have to respect that they’ve made a booking, so they need to turn up, which is something which was being discussed a couple of years ago, people were booking tables and not turning up.

So, I think a lot of that is going to disappear now as people are going to respect the requirements for that process. And apps, they’re featuring everywhere. I do feel that they have a part to play, how much? I’m not sure. You load them up, they work, they don’t quite work, then you have to put your details in, by which time it’s been half an hour and you’re gasping for a drink.

How are you going to make sure your guests get the best experience?

I still think we’ll return to what we were doing before, I really do, I don’t see how it can’t. Therefore, the level of food, and its competitiveness, has raised expectations and standards: everyone’s an expert now.

Television chefs and the media have been really great to the sector over the last 15 years. You can have any type of food arriving at your front door in about 15 minutes. It’s the service that matters, it’s the guest experience, which is going to make a massive difference and it will be the member of staff, how they meet and greet, how they take that person on the journey, what they’re spotting e.g. does that person look like they’re rushing off for the last train? It’s all those other extra bits that’s going to be the piece that makes the difference.

Are matters of sustainability core to your business?

Absolutely, we were part of the Sustainable Restaurant Association since 2019, I think we got t stars out of three and weirdly at the start of 2020, we got three stars, which underpinned our approach to the sustainability side of things.

As you can imagine, it’s a whole audit and criteria based which is not only about our supply chain, but about food waste, menu compilation etc. And we’re proud, now we’re three stars, we want a year where we can actually make use of that now, which we haven’t unfortunately. But that for us has demonstrated and underpinned our approach going forward.

The View
The View exterior

How do you see the next three, six, 12 months developing in our sector?

I’ve always said this, even last year, I’m positive about what’s going to happen going forward, whether that’s opportunity, the greater respect for our industry. Kate Nicholls Chief executive of UKHospitality] has been great leading it front and centre, it’s a household name now and we probably weren’t there before.

The last quarter of this year, I think, is going to be great. Businesses need to be bring people back to an element of collaboration and they absolutely need to do that. I think we’re going to have to be quick on our feet, we’re going to have to be a lot more creative in what we can do or what we can offer clients.

There’s going to be a massive amount of opportunity. I think 2022 is going to be a great year to take stock on what our world is going to look like, a nice clean calendar year, what percentage are we going to ramp up to? Everyone talks about comparing it to 2019, where are we going to be? People talk about potentially 70% of 2019 business in January in 2022 and how is that going to ramp up? Some people think no, we’re going to ramp up to 90%. So, 2022, is going to be critical, 2023 is going to be business as usual, whatever that looks like at that point.

It is also an important year for Searcys, when we celebrate our 175th anniversary. We are are approaching our significant birthday with a couple of new partnerships  The Savoy Place and 116 Pall Mall, with all our restaurants open and full. We are seeing an incredible short-lead pick up in corporate events business.  So there is a lot of optimism in the team.

They’ll be a new comradery between guest and vender, and vender to vender as well. We’ve come together as an industry which is lovely. Industry leaders have rung each other up and cried in their soup a little bit and realised they have the same problem as well and that’s been helpful actually. People perceive that leaders have all of the answers, I think they have a direction of travel, but they don’t always have all of the answers. To collaborate and talk around what that could like in the future has been invaluable.

Founded in 1847, Searcys is one of the UK’s longest-running events hospitality companies. In 2020, the company gained the top Three Star Food Made Good rating by the Sustainable Restaurant Association. 

Searcys operates Europe’s longest Champagne Bar, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Blenheim Palace,  and one of the first skyscraper restaurants, the Gherkin.