Hackney Road cave-restaurant The Laughing Heart will expand its online platform, Big Night, into a fully fledged restaurant delivery service, aiming to offer what restaurant owner and platform co-founder Charlie Mellor describes as genuine restaurant (delivery) service, through considered recruitment, comprehensive training, and careful scaling. Between this, and a new menu occasioned by the limitations of COVID-19, Mellor says the east London space is becoming the restaurant he and chef Tom Anglesea have “always wanted to run.”
It’s an evolution of the online shop, hosted by a third party, that propelled the restaurant through the earliest uncertainties of lockdown; exacerbated by having just invested in a space geared entirely towards good food, good music, and dancing. These things are not socially distant. “The big development for us at the beginning of the year was the new cave, which launched a week before lockdown. An amazing, very expensive space to build — but it was looking promising, and we had our second highest turnover two weeks before lockdown. But it became so unviable so quickly.”
Mellor says he was concerned, at the time, about paying a “fortnight’s worth” of wages, and that the online shop the restaurant launched was both a plaster and a bruise: it offered income, but didn’t offer the level of service and functionality that The Laughing Heart required. “We couldn’t do pre-orders, we had to have staff on all the time; and at the time the market for couriers was so overwhelmed that there were poor people, unprotected, riding packed streets. And we were receiving service complaints for the first time. That was entirely unacceptable to me,” he says.
Mellor’s solution was to establish his own platform, Big Night, which he and product manager Pavel Baskakov have built. Initially, it was simple: Mellor offered out-of-work hospitality staff £5 per delivery, and with enough volume, they were soon earning above London Living Wage. More restaurants in the city — like north London trio Westerns Laundry, Jolene, and Primeur; Michelin-starred Shoreditch restaurant-turned-chicken spinner Leroy; swank Clerkenwell Italian Luca; and Hackney’s Sager and Wilde — expressed an interest, and it quickly became more efficient for Baskakov to build one platform instead of a series of microsites.
Mellor says he has a “target list” of restaurants would like to see on the platform, and points to the kind of operators who are interested in delivery but not interested in bending to the will of larger platforms. He’s amazed, he says, that basic breakdowns of sales, price points, and other data are not being made available on larger platforms. “It astounds me,” he says.
In pushing so many restaurants towards delivery, the coronavirus crisis has ironically underscored the limitations of platforms whose end goal is simple monopoly. Big Night — and its contemporary, The Great Feast — look set to offer an antidote, with a considered, controllable offering that allows individual restaurants to bend the platforms to their needs, rather than the other way around. Mellor says commission is currently as low as 5 percent — compared to rates that often hit around 30-40 percent for Deliveroo and Uber Eats —and he is intentionally aiming for small, “curated” marketshare to maintain the platform’s integrity and provide the considered, conscientious service that its restaurants are known for. Just, outside the restaurant. Other alternative platforms — like Supper and the thus far ill-fated The Cook and the Thief — focus on preserving culinary integrity with technology, while Mellor and Baskakov seem more intent on doing it with hospitality.
Paying restaurant workers — many of whom are currently out of work — a London living wage and letting them lend their expertise to service outside of restaurant doors is important to Mellor, who says that the neglect of workers by larger platforms is key to his aversion to their services. Masks and hand sanitiser are mandatory for deliveries, and a living wage is guaranteed right now, but it is still the gig economy, with all its precarities, no fixed hours, and ultimately no protections for workers. While right now, this might be useful for hospitality staff unable to work at their restaurant, and “having a bartender or chef from the restaurant that you’re ordering from dropping off the food is a great start,” it’s not a solution to the well-documented labour inequalities at Deliveroo and similar platforms that he himself sees as problematic. Mellor recognises this limitation, and says that the “guarantee of income” from pre-orders — as opposed to Deliveroo’s unguaranteed sign-in-and-hope model — is his way of at least partially correcting it.
The small-scale focus at Big Night also applies in the restaurant itself, with a new fixed-price menu offering intense focus for the chefs and a tightening of supply chains, and costs for the restaurant. With dishes like line-caught red mullet with greens from the outstanding Namayasai farm, and the longstanding Sichuan peppercorn crème brûlée, the menu is still playful and improvisational. But “pâté in a bun” has sadly made way for a more gentile “chicken liver pâté, Madeira, and brioche,” and the framework of three or four courses offers a new tightness to an offering previously geared towards spreading dishes across tables like, well, pâté on brioche. Mellor describes it as “growing up.”
The downstairs cave, envisioned as a raucous late-night haunt, has now been repurposed as a private space for socially distanced gatherings, with dishes from the kitchen designed to be left out as “handheld” snacks, repurposing by-products from the main menu upstairs.
Mellor says that while Big Night is two years from profitability, it can “wash its face” in the meantime, with a few new restaurants in the final stages of signing up. While he says that, as for so many restaurants, the last months have been at times impossible, he is hopeful that what he calls a “reset” will build a stronger business for the future, without losing any the atmosphere that fits the restaurant’s name.