"When you’ve been in business as long as Kevin McMullen, few things faze you. But the veteran Liverpool businessman admits that the coronavirus pandemic “knocked us sideways”.
After returning from London to his Liverpool hometown back in the 1970s to purchase a pub on the city’s world-famous Scotland Road, Kevin went on to own six pubs, a 4 star guesthouse and 35 apartments and at one stage employed 86 staff at the height of his expansion. When his daughter, Rose, met former Masterchef professional and Michelin star winner, Anton Piotrowski and they decided to settle in Liverpool, Kevin negotiated the purchase of a property on Liverpool’s famous Rodney Street and the pair launched high-end restaurant, Röski.
Building a reputation
“We opened in December 2017,” says Kevin. “Despite Anton’s Masterchef accolade and having earned a Michelin star at his previous restaurant in Plymouth, it takes time to build in a new city. That all changed overnight when restaurant critic Jay Rayner visited undercover in 2018. His review was fabulous, headlined ‘use any excuse to eat here’, and by the end of the next day we’d taken 1,013 bookings.”
The 28-cover restaurant went from strength to strength. Included in the Top 100 restaurants in the UK listing in 2019, Röski was soon turning over £800,000 a year. Not bad for Kevin’s initial £156,000 investment. When COVID-19 arrived and the business was forced to close in March 2020, it was a huge blow, but the strong foundations of the business and some canny decision-making during lockdown have been fundamental to its survival.
Success comes from spotting an opportunity and taking it.Kevin McMullen, Director, Röski
Investing for growth
“When the pandemic hit, we were running on credit, which was a big advantage,” says Kevin. “It gave us time to react, but with bills mounting, it was clear we needed to do something. HSBC were in regular contact with us to check how things were going and to offer support. The killer for us was wages. We were paying out around £16,000 a month because we only employ top class staff, so the furlough scheme was a real help. We also decided to take advantage of the bounceback loan that HSBC offered, which came through in just two days. That gave us options.”
One of those options, which may seem surprising during a crisis, was to invest further in the business. “Success comes from spotting an opportunity and taking it,” explains Kevin. “We’d seen Röski grow from nothing to £800,000 turnover in such a short space of time, which on a small customer base, was phenomenal, so we knew the potential was there for it to recover quickly. Our voucher scheme had continued to be successful – taking £20,000 in lockdown. But we knew we would have to adapt and in a small space, with screens being used, it would take our maximum covers down to 20.”
The answer came in adapting the Victorian building’s generous basement space to accommodate more diners and still meet the needs for social distancing. “We’ve used the time while we’ve been closed to good use, ripping out the old fittings in the basement and hiring a master carpenter to create a fantastic space with 10 additional seats,” says Kevin. “We’ve invested £40,000 with the cost of the screens on top of that, but it will allow us to spread customers out and insulate us against any future pandemics.”
What we’ve learned from the crisis is to expect the unexpected and to think ahead about how to manage that.Kevin McMullen, Director, Röski
Learning from crisis
Booking enquiries once lockdown was eased started to pick up quickly. “Anton is a fabulous Chef and he has built a stellar reputation here using the freshest produce to really put Röski on the map,” says Kevin. “That puts us in a great position to recover quickly and all the signs are that we’ll soon be back to the same level of turnover we were before the pandemic.
“What we’ve learned from the crisis is to expect the unexpected and to think ahead about how to manage that. It’s also brought home the need to have a strong foundation to your business – in this case, the reputation of the restaurant and the fact that we had cash in the business when the crisis hit really helped. But there are also opportunities and sometimes, investing in the business to adapt to meet change is the right thing to do. By growing the available space, we’re meeting the need for social distancing and not having to turn away trade now, but it’s also future-proofing the business for when normality returns.”