Zoë Paskin, Restaurateur
When someone asks you if you want to go for dinner at The Palomar you know you're going to have a good time. It's exactly the place you want to go for beautiful food, unstuffy but brilliant service and a fun atmosphere. Co-founded by Zoë Paskin and her brother Layo and inspired by a trip to Jerusalem we caught up with Zoë to find out more about the business of running a successful restaurant and where she eats when she's not at work.
What did you study? Was it psychology? Has this come to be useful in your career?
Yes, I did (I had grand plans of being Agent Starling in the Silence of the Lambs but swiftly realised I was way too squeamish). Seriously though, it has been very useful. I am fascinated by the psychology of the workplace and I think that emotional intelligence is absolutely key when managing so many people. It’s great that I have still been able to enjoy these skills but a lot is also learnt on the job of course. Hospitality is people at every end – making people happy.
I interview most people who join us and I stay pretty hands on to be sure we’re creating a happy place they feel valued and enjoy coming to each day.
You took over running The End and worked with your brother. What did you do to turn things around?
The End was a huge success as a cutting edge club venue but it was just keeping its head above water and most importantly had historic debt. It started by me coming in to trouble shoot AKA (adjoining restaurant and Cocktail bar) which was losing money month on month. Simultaneously Layo’s career as a DJ & producer had really taken off and so he was away travelling all the time. Since I had been successful in turning around the fortunes of AKA I was supported by the board to be a temporary Managing Director as Layo was moving into the role of Creative Director. In the end, we never appointed another MD and I continued running both businesses.
It didn’t happen overnight, but I started by systematically shaving every possible cost I could. I reassessed every part of the business from the cutlery we ordered, what was purchased through petty cash, unreasonable contracts with suppliers to the PR company we worked with. With the staffing, I cut down on the people who weren’t really committed and instead built up a really strong and enthusiastic team. We did most things on a shoe string whilst we steadied the ship even decorating the offices over Christmas with an arty best friend to make them brighter when everyone returned in the new year to mark a new era and better creative environment. We looked at optimising the private hire opportunities and worked on our marketing strategies, bringing more nights in-house so we had control over their destiny. It was a complex interplay of things that happened over time. Layo and I could then play to our strengths and what began as a month’s trouble shooting role morphed into ten amazing years working together.
What is your approach to setting something new up? Is there a healthy dose of naivety or do you plan things meticulously?
You have got to plan everything really thoroughly. A lot of careful research is essential. It is always a good idea to pick the companies you work with cautiously, so with solicitors or designers for example, meet several, get costings and compare how the potential of each relationship feels. The second time around it is easier as you can build on the relationships you have already. Even then you should revisit decisions you have made in the past and reassess them to check they are still relevant to your new business. Some grow and feel like another arm of the company and others don’t necessarily rise to the challenge.
What about research? Do you go away on research trips? How do you stay inspired and make sure the food is original?
We have gone travelling a lot when developing our ideas and will definitely continue to do so for future projects. It’s important to take the inspirations that work, you can’t just cut and paste a whole culture as some things don’t translate or appeal to a London audience. I think we went to Barcelona, Seville, Cadiz, San Sebastian, New York, Austin and Morocco between us …
Before we opened The Barbary, Layo and the head chef Eyal Jaegermann went on a big trip to Northern Israel, which was really consolidating for The Barbary. At the same time, elements of the feel of The Barbary go back to when I was living in Barcelona in the late nineties as well as things we evolved more recently.
But it’s not always about huge trips, it can be subtler than that – you can be in a good bookshop and see a cover design that think would work well on a menu.
In terms of staying inspired the crucial thing is to create places you really want to be in. You have the greatest chance of making it work, and will find it easier to tweak it when you get it wrong.
The restaurant business is notoriously difficult to make money in and stay afloat. When it comes to the business side of things what do you make sure you keep on top of?
We try to select sites where we feel we can trade for as much of the week as possible. Both from an economic and social perspective, staff don’t want to just work nights. And you have to get the experience right first time, as it’s not like with nightclubs, where a customer might not have liked one style of event a club puts on, they would still go back for another. People don’t often give a poor first impression at a restaurant a second chance. They might forgive it if they have a had several good times with you previously.
It’s also imperative to put a lot of energy into the team. If they are happy you will have a far greater chance of appealing to the general public. Reasonable P&L forecasts based on what you can realistically can achieve are also important …otherwise it’s just an imaginary business!
What are your favourite things to do outside of the restaurant?
Eating! I really enjoy food, cooking it, spending time eating in restaurants. It’s the best way to catch up with friends. I live in North West London and love walking or running across the Heath whenever I get the chance. I am a pretty social person so often meeting up with friends but these days I love it when I am not on shift, have no plans I can just go the peace & quiet of my home. Alternatively I love to get away and travel.
Where do you eat dinner when you’re not at The Palomar or The Barbary?
My favourite has got to be Barrafina. I also love Asian food in all its forms, so that could be anything from Bone Daddies for ramen, Hoppers for Sri Lankan or Yuauatcha for dim sum. There’s so many. I ate at Kiln yesterday which I loved.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learnt since starting the restaurants?
It’s taught me to be a lot more patient…. A better person. We live in a world where everyone wants what they want, when they want it and it isn’t reasonable and must come at a cost to others or the planet. In my experience of working with the public, the people who are the most charming end up getting the best from the team. I think people can think by (over) asserting themselves they will have a better time. If I catch myself taking out something bad from my day on some ‘innocent bystander’ I quickly check myself.