Stepping up when the steaks are high: an interview with Ian Davies
We talked to Ian Davies about how he launched an online meat shop during lockdown after his restaurant was forced to close.
6 min read
Ian Davies, Founder of The Steak Shop, knows all about the ups, downs, challenges and opportunities of 2020. When his steak restaurant was forced to close its doors in March, he used his existing network to launch an online, high-end meat shop that has been an astounding success.
The Steak Shop has been nominated as one of the Most Adaptive Small Businesses of 2020 by QuickBooks UK.
Thanks for speaking to us today, Ian! Can you tell us what your company does in a nutshell?
The Steak Shop is a company that sources high-end prime steaks from all around the world, including Txuleta, Wagyu and Argentinian steaks. We offer a service of cutting and portioning steaks and sending them within one or two days of the online order. We carry a large stock of products from what we think are the best international suppliers.
Tell us a bit about your journey into entrepreneurship.
I’ve been in the restaurant business for around 20 years. I have owned a number of restaurants including a chain with a New York deli theme. However, I always come back to steaks: my steak restaurant in Ealing, Steak on the Green, has been extremely successful.
“Prime quality steak is my passion and my focus.”
I’m also no stranger to internet trading. I first got involved in the early days, around the year 2000 when things kicked off with Google and the internet became a part of people’s everyday lives. I got involved in a company of early SEOs, and set up a travel business that we sold to TripAdvisor in 2008.
I knew how the internet worked and how I could use that knowledge to convert a steak restaurant into a viable online sales business. It was a big advantage to understand the fundamentals of online retail.
Tell us more about that - how have you adapted your product offering to this year’s changing circumstances?
I made the restaurant website myself in Wix, and enjoyed creating it. When lockdown hit in March 2020, I went onto the CMS of my website and noticed that you could enable shopping functionality using Wix. It sounds funny but that sparked the idea of selling steaks directly to customers at a time when I couldn’t allow any diners into the restaurant.
“In truth, I stumbled across the concept during the stricter first lockdown.”
I adapted my current website and sold steaks online. I already had connections from buying steaks for the restaurant, so I found new suppliers for buying in bulk by finding out where the restaurant suppliers got theirs from and built up a robust network of my own.
We were able to use the facilities in the restaurant to butcher and prepare the steaks, and I was happy to be able to employ my restaurant staff to do the work rather than leaving them on furlough. In the first few weeks we only offered click and collect to customers in the immediate vicinity.
Next we introduced a courier so that we could offer home delivery, which proved very successful: within two weeks we had 100-200 orders a day nationwide. This enabled us to employ more couriers, which allowed us to increase our capacity. A couple of months into lockdown we created a separate website and The Steak Shop became its own entity. The restaurant kitchen became too cluttered to scale up the business so we found new premises, and now it’s completely separate - which is ideal, because my plan was always to open up the restaurant again as soon as we could resume business as usual.
“Despite only launching in March 2020, The Steak Shop is on track to have a turnover of a million pounds within a year. All profits are being invested back into the business.”
There is no question that when we launched there was a captive market for buying premium steaks. Even just six months ago it was much easier to get orders and cheaper to advertise. Customers now are a bit more sophisticated in terms of their requirements and their knowledge of the online meat market, so we need to be more on the ball. There’s also more competition than there was six months ago.
“All online businesses evolve - what was once a novelty becomes the norm. I have always known that we will have to adapt and scale, and I welcome the challenge.”
What are your top tips for managing your business finances in 2020?
You need to be on the ball in terms of cash flow. Do forecasts all the time of where you want to be; have an overview of where your business is currently and where it will be in the next six months, taking all different scenarios into consideration. I always look at a worst case scenario and plan from there.
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I took advantage of all of the available help from the government for the restaurant, including furloughing the staff and applying for a grant, which we received. Steak on the Green has only been trading for around five months out of 12 in 2020; we’re fortunate that the restaurant was very busy before and that demand was still there after the first lockdown. I’m confident that we will recover quickly again after the second lockdown too, but I can certainly see how the lack of trade this year would impact less busy restaurants.
Who are the people, products and practices that have helped you cope with the uncertainty this year?
I think the biggest difficulty in times like these is self-motivation - it’s very difficult to operate if it doesn’t come from within. Isolation is isolating! When you’re shut off from your customers and other professionals who you can bounce ideas off, it can be hard to find sources of inspiration. For me, watching the news every day and keeping abreast of other things happening in the world was crucial. The media was where I would find knowledge, and - in turn - inspiration.
The other thing that I think has helped me this year was the amount of time I had to devote to my new business.
“It hasn’t cost me anything but my time and my effort to build The Steak Shop. Most businesses will cost a lot of money and time - mine has only required time, which I had a lot of thanks to lockdown.”
What inspiring or encouraging words would you send to your fellow entrepreneurs?
In every adverse situation there is opportunity - it’s just a case of finding it. I strongly believe that people who work hard and are able to see the different angles and opportunities of difficult circumstances will come out on top.
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This interview has been edited for clarity.