Interview: Thomas Mercier, General Manager, Stovell’s (Sept 2016)

Posted on: September 27th, 2016 by sysadmin

Thomas Mercier has enjoyed a distinguished front of house career in the UK, delivering the finest service and hospitality to a generation of happy and returning guests. Born North-East of Paris, Thomas studied under the inspirational Emmanuel Fournis in Paris.  A subsequent move to the UK saw Thomas develop his trade over the following decade or so, through positions at Michelin firmament recognised establishments, at The Waterside Inn, Cliveden, The Vineyard, Coworth Park, Pennyhill Park and now General Manager at Stovell’s in Chobham, Surrey.

Thomas’ relaxed charm is a trade mark, coupled with his effortlessly natural ability to make a guest feel at ease and comfortable in their surroundings, warmth of welcome, world class hospitality and high quality service standards follow.  Here, Thomas found the time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide about the insights into the tools of his trade to date…

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1) Tell us some background about your move into restaurants and service…

My family foundation was strict and based on respect, honesty and hard work. My home town is Meaux, just north-east of Paris, and I had an early introduction to catering when cleaning plates and glasses in a local, traditional French restaurant at the age of twelve.

Sometime later, I considered working around computers but my father said I should work in the vineyards first over winter and summer. I was actually driven to be independent thinking and found that working in restaurants was a great escape, offering a different way of life while enjoying not playing by the book of following a strict course of academic study.

So there was no particular ‘moment’ when I made a decision about a future in the industry, more a gradual realisation, I enrolled at Catering school in Paris and in my second year met the tutor Emmanuel Fournis who opened my eyes to a gamut of styles of service and food preparation, this ignited the passion that I retain to this very day.

As part of his studies, we had a front of house practice restaurant, which when not busy, Mr Fournis would send us to the college teachers to sell the menu to gain bookings. It was so rewarding to end each week with a fully booked restaurant.

There were always new techniques to learn; practice and discipline helped to perfect these new skills – from flambé to carving. To improve dexterity, the class once had to carry four plates covered in sauce and run out into the forest and back without spilling or dropping anything!

I competed in the ‘George Baptiste’ which was a form of intense training on top of college study; five months including working weekends, again the focus was on acquiring knowledge, skills and performance through practice (of details).

Through developing connections I worked in a variety of well-known establishments in Paris such as Le Meurice, Automobile Club de France and La Coupole before taking my parents advice of moving to the UK to further my experience.

However I am delighted that I remain in contact with the inspirational Mr Fournis who is now part of an association spotting the talents of tomorrow which promotes the art of service.

2) What is your restaurant management philosophy?

A leader must set a good example, as a good example is well followed. To borrow a phrase from another, ‘constant gentle pressure’ is also so true, to keep the team motivated, always aspirational, and keeping standards in place. I do still think it is important not to forget the ‘old-school’ methods as these remain the foundation of the industry, whilst adapting techniques to the modern team, as well as modern clientele.

I believe in certain practices that I learned at corporate style hotels that includes things such as on-going appraisals to monitor how staff are progressing; keeping open mutual lines of communication and feedback, allowing team members room to succeed. It is important across the team to have mutual respect and loyalty.

It is also important to choose the right people; people who will flourish and reflect their own personality back into the restaurant in the context of the disciplined ‘relaxed formality’ of service. As a rule this might mean holding appropriate conversations with each guest based on an instinctive judgement of what the guest is looking for from the front of house. This will vary across guests and can only be developed in staff over time.

Staff must not fall into too much of a routine, so adopt methods to keep people fresh and motivated, while continually practicing techniques and new techniques every day.

Managing the interaction between front and back of house is important, in particular the restaurant and kitchen teams. This stems from instilling mutual respect, not only between people as human beings but also respect for the hierarchy of the business. You have to understand who is who in the restaurant and adhere to that to progress in the business.  The location of the kitchen compared to the dining room can be a logistical challenge as the chef likes to see that his food is being delivered and presented properly.

All staff members go through an induction of how to go about their job professionally, they receive a starter pack with all information about the restaurant that will include modern day Health & Safety.

3) What is involved in being a general manager as you are at 4 AA Rosette Stovell’s Restaurant?

Everything from managing people from the top to the bottom of the business through to the challenges encountered in the maintenance of a Grade II listed Tudor cottage!

A big part of people management is identifying and developing talent and then giving them the right tools and coaching to unlock their potential. Team members must be encouraged to develop and take on board responsibility as well as think through projects to their conclusion.

Listening, understanding and acting as a leader and mentor in decision making. The process of making those decisions must be owned by the staff member – some ideas (not all), will demonstrate a place in the vision of the business and thereby motivate staff as they see their direct contribution to the overall brand of the company. Giving staff feedback is vital, this has to be carefully constructive.

We had a recent example with our linen that needed changing. I passed the project to the restaurant manager (Cameron). It was a successful process and procedure, but only after drawing up a proper plan of action including cost and supplier analysis. We needed to improve the linen quality and service provision while reducing cost (the perennial challenge) and through the delivery of the project plan the results were very pleasing. This exercise was then extended to the waiters so that they could be part of the implementation, it shows that if you give your teams the right tools and guidance they can succeed and deliver momentum and benefit to the business.

As well as maintaining the building, within the context of a quality brand with realistic budgets, we also need to look at best use of the space. To do this, I have a personal project to make the cellar, the dry store and the gin rooms incorporated in the theatre of dining at Stovells. This is naturally becoming more and more a part of the value add of fine dining – customers want as much as possible from the dining experience, successful restaurants will be the ones who deliver a great product.

4) How does this compare with the front of house roles at the large hotel environments you have represented?

An independent restaurant is a very hands-on job that requires constant dedication, alongside anticipating any issues that may arise. From both a customer and staff perspective this means there is a far more intimate working environment that naturally creates more of a family atmosphere.

As GM of an independent restaurant you need quick, agile thinking and take on board a lot more practical knowledge, compared to Coworth Park for instance (where I was restaurant manager for nearly 5 years) any building maintenance would require one or two (at most) in-house phone calls, at Stovell’s on the other hand, it is a full scale personal project plan.

Likewise payroll, staff issues, purchasing, staff accommodation were all taken care of by other departments. In an independent restaurant the GM is each and every department! So you learn a lot by wearing many hats, whereas the flip side is that you spend a smaller percentage of your time working the floor of the restaurant during service.

5) What would you say makes great service from the front of house of a top end restaurant?

People are our greatest assets. Yes, there are certain training skills and techniques that need to be implemented to learn the precision that comes with excellent and seamless (award winning) service, however it cannot be robotic. As long as the service fundamentals are there, there needs to be a certain charm to engage with the guest and keep them talking about you and your restaurant: It is a pleasure to make people happy and if you don’t succeed then you have not done your job.

Service must run smoothly through organisation. Planning and good management skills are the foundation of any service team, which will likely include; recognition, training, product knowledge, upselling, consistency, attention to detail and a proactive eye.

Personality and being natural with the guests are the final steps that will ensure repeat business; using skills to adapt yourself to different guest personalities while putting your ego to one side. When diners walk into a restaurant they are expecting everything to be perfect and they do not need to know about anything going on behind the scenes. It is crucial to talk with the guests and get feedback and be part of their dining experience, and not just to rely on the food. Perhaps true hospitality is when someone leaves your restaurant feeling better about themselves, not about you, but returning to meet you again because you have that magic dust of world class hospitality.

6) What is your view of trip advisor and social media generally (as a means of customer interaction)?

Trip advisor is beneficial as it provides a platform for ‘free’ feedback which can show trends and highlight patterns for areas of improvement – this is all valuable.

Bogus reviews from people who never visited, demonstrates a system that could be improved through vetting whether a diner has actually eaten at the restaurant? Social media is a free marketing platform – twitter, Instagram, Facebook and trip advisor – must be treated with careful consideration and caution as each, in different ways, are double edged swords.

7) What piece of advice would you give to a new starter in hospitality?

It is more of a lifestyle than a job and you will know when you fall in love of this industry – work doesn’t feel like working. A tip to a new starter would be: “The drive of excellence through repetition will lead to peak performance over time.”

8) Who have proven your greatest mentors and what have they taught you?

Emmanuel Fournis taught me how to coach others and how to spot talent from early stage by attitude. He also instilled an appreciation of the value of young people, because our society is evolving and we have a duty to adapt our leadership skills to show a contemporary image of the profession.

Diego Masciaga for his on-going support, both personal and professional, he is inspirational in so many ways, he shows how to hire young talent from a well-connected world and then develop them in ‘the Diego Masciaga way’

Both have made an impact on my way of managing teams. They taught me that if we want to have an impact on our diners’ experience it must start with team members and the way we recruit, listen, develop and retain staff. Our new generation must be shown the right path to excel for the future. This is almost a sense of duty for managers today, to be custodians of the art and science of service for future generations.

9) What bodies are there to support front of house staff and are they useful and effective?

A business like this relies of having a flow of part time and casual staff to adjust to business requirements, part of this maybe seasonal. Location plays a part, leafy surrey has a good supply of casual workers from say local colleges who may offer resource to do anything from runners to a host. This helps with flexibility of working conditions to enable rest and holidays for staff.

At the professional level, The Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is a good body for developing staff, there are also numerous other effective bodies such as Royal Academy Culinary Arts, Gold Service Scholarship and Acorn. Many suppliers also offer educational events for staff to help them develop and learn.

Booking systems such as Top Table are really easy to operate at the same time help optimise bookings. Their support systems are available 24/7 and are amazing! We can allocate tables with confidence and provide time slots to suit our schedule. We don’t take bookings for certain times of an evening service as this allows us to stagger service to the benefit of the kitchen and customer. We may also get the opportunity to turn 3 or 4 tables from early bookings on busy services.

10) Describe ‘a day in the life’

I get in at 9am and catch up with Kyle Robinson, head chef and the kitchen team, followed by meetings with Tami (office manager) and then Maria (Housekeeper). I will then walk around the property to see if everything is in order. After the front of house team arrives there is a briefing with the restaurant manager, Cameron Bownes, regarding staff matters. I am then in the office until the lunch briefing at 11.45am.

12.00pm lunch service starts with all team members in position. At 3pm I hold a reservations meeting with Chef Patron Fernando Stovell to discuss the business forecast. This will also be conducted with managers once a week. 5.45pm is the dinner briefing. 6pm dinner service commences.

11) What are your aspirations for the future?

To continue to develop people and teams as I gain so much pleasure and satisfaction from sharing my knowledge and experience. My current aspiration is to see a Michelin star here at Stovell’s as a reward for Chef Stovell and all the team.