The right stance

Visiting St John restaurant in the Clerkenwell area of London for the first time in about 15 years was an enjoyable experience, partly because of the familiarity I felt even though I can hardly call myself a regular.

The White Stuff: the stark decor, wine list and uncompomising menus of St John Restaurant have not changed

From my recollection, very little seemed to have changed over the intervening years apart from the fact we were eating in the bar area because of the need to space tables further apart. The decor looked the same, the menu still included some of the same dishes (notably the signature roast bone marrow and parsley salad), the egalitarian style of service was unaltered, and the wine list remained resolutely French.

There is still no pandering to the whims of vegans and vegetarians with its menu despite myriad other restaurants now recognising the dietary trends and adjusting their proposition to appeal to this growing group of people. You see more greens on a snooker table than on the St John printed A4 sheet of options (same format as on my first visit). Roast tomatoes, goats’ curd and mint was the sole concession to non-meat eaters. 

The wine list also sticks to its original format – with the options being French or French. It eschews incorporating any English wines despite their dramatic improvement since St John opened its doors in 1994 and the fact it continues to so beautifully champion British ingredients and support UK producers. When I enquired why the list had remained so Gallic, the waiter simply stated the restaurant opened with this preference and nobody has found a reason to make any change.

From my observations, I concluded St John has a characteristic that I do admire – it is uncompromising. This can so often be seen as a negative because of the connotations of being unbending and an unwillingness to accommodate and make concessions to others. But then the upside is that taking such a stance can show commitment to a cause. For a business, it might mean life is very tough initially but success can, ultimately, be achieved because a hard-fought proposition invariably proves to be well differentiated in the market.

Businesses can clearly succeed or fail through taking an uncompromising stance. A few years back in the craft beer epicentre of Bermondsey in south London could be found one of my favourite bars, The Bottle Shop. It stood out because of its founder’s uncompromising policy on beer selection. Unless it was a limited edition brew or an ultra-rare import, he saw little appeal in stocking it. This made it a great place for the modest number of aficionados such as myself but for the more mainstream drinkers it simply made it an expensive place to visit with a beer list that was difficult to navigate. Needless to say the business model was flawed and it failed. 

For foodservice businesses in the current (seemingly now frustratingly never-ending) climate, it must be so tempting to change the model and operate with more flexibility than in the past because this is what has been so absolutely necessary over the past year or so in order to ensure survival. But care has to be taken now that dining rooms are back open.

St John had been offering takeaway and home delivery but there seemed to be some pleasure that it was now being wound down somewhat because it was seen to be impacting the dining room experience. As if to prove the point, my dessert of baked-to-order madeleines was accidentally given to a take-away customer. Its uncompromising stance that has seen it remain a success for so many years means it is unwilling to accept this scenario.

As customers we want some reassurances as we come out of covid-19. We desire a return to normality whereby we can reacquaint ourselves with the things that we’ve been most comfortable with in the past. Those businesses that have some of the uncompromising gene might well find they are giving returning customers exactly what they are looking for.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.