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Polpo Founder Leaves Influential Venetian Small Plates Restaurant [Updated]

“Things change,” Norman says, after the seminal 2010s restaurant group parts ways with its creative force

Russell Norman
Stuart Matthews

Updated 13.08.2020 with comment from Russell Norman

Restaurateur Russell Norman, of seminal 2010s Venetian small plates restaurant Polpo, has left the company he co-founded with Richard Beatty in 2008.

As reported by Bloomberg’s Richard Vines on Twitter yesterday evening, Companies House filings show that Norman’s directorship was terminated on 11 June, 2020. Vines quotes Norman as saying only that “things change.” Propel’s Paul Charity says that Norman had “stepped down.”

The restaurateur subsequently posted a statement to Instagram, saying he remains a joint shareholder of Polpo Limited but had no operational involvement in the restaurants.

He said: “I resigned as director of Polpo Ltd in June for reasons that I will happily talk about when the time is right. Or maybe when the time is wrong. Or maybe not at all. But it was my decision and I thought about it long and hard before doing it. My Magic 8-Ball came in handy too.

“My business partner and I are still sole joint-shareholders of Polpo Ltd but I have no operational involvement in the restaurants. We continue to work together on other projects. It’s a simple as that.

“In the meantime, I’m continuing to write, I have a couple of cookbooks lined up, I’m growing all manner of Italian chicories in Pluckley in Kent, I’m bloody inundated with courgettes, I’m attempting to set up a small business in Venice (NOT a restaurant!)...”

The past two years have been difficult for the London-based mini-chain: After news broke that the company owed over half a million pounds in tax and overspent on management came as a shock to the industry, it closed two restaurants as part of a “restructuring” deal last June. Then came the attempted sale of Polpetto — the sister restaurant Norman and Beatty opened with chef Florence Knight in 2014. The newsy chef appointment of Andrea Stephenson, designed as a watershed moment for the restaurant, ended abruptly in her sudden departure four months later. Together, these missteps marked a significant change in fortunes for a restaurant group that symbolised a new optimism in the mid-market after the 2008 financial crisis.

Norman — a veteran front-of-house of the Mayfair dining scene — seized the opportunities presented in the wake of that economic downturn. Far from inventing the idea of small plates, as creative director, he demonstrated that operators could monetise them in new ways; through a combination of Venetian charm, accessible northern Italian cicchetti, rivers of Aperol Spritz, and a healthy dose of Manhattan-chic, Norman set a new template for dining — attracting younger diners on the proviso that they could spend less, even if they didn’t end up doing so — that took off.

But since 2017, the mid-market changed: post-EU referendum result, the pound dipped, the punter grew more discerning and neophyte, there was more competition, business rates went up, and so did ingredient costs. Polpo, which at one time looked like a nationwide chain-in waiting, felt the effects of all of those factors. COVID-19 hit at a time when restaurants like Polpo could ill-afford such an interruption to business.

The Polpo group now comprises just two restaurants: the original on Beak Street in Soho and a newer site in Chelsea’s Duke of York Square. At its height, the portfolio included two restaurants in Covent Garden (Mishkin’s and Da Polpo), a second site in Soho (Spuntino), Polpo in Notting Hill, another in Clerkenwell, and its only property outside London — in Brighton.

While there are yet no clear reasons for Norman’s departure, it is the end of an era.

More soon.


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