Being fortunate to have the CEO of Delicious Group joined us at our Breakfast Talk event, we took this opportunity to get an insight of the Londoner who currently manages the renowned café business, Delicious café with 10 outlets spread across Klang valley, Penang, Johor Bahru and Singapore.
I am Steve Allen, the CEO of Delicious Group. I am a chef by trade. I have been working as a chef since 16, but started in the kitchen since 13. My parents were also in the culinary industry. My grandma used to teach me at the age of 8, and that is how I got into this field. I was working with Gordon Ramsay for nearly 11 years in United Kingdom, and I decided that I didn’t want to be stuck in the kitchen anymore.
What prompt you to come to Asia?
I came to Asia with the mind set of taking on a managerial role instead of a consultant chef. That’s how I landed with CEO position in Delicious Group.
How is it like to be the CEO of Delicious Group?
It is interesting. Before I started the job I looked three years ahead, I looked at what I would achieve in the next six months. I know it would not be a lot, I know there were going to be problems but it is basically getting systems and structures together. It took me two months to get my team together. There are certain things I have to rely on people, I do have the people I feel like I can trust. Let’s say negotiating a contract of rental for one of our outlets. I am a hard talker but I am not exactly the person who knows exactly how much we are currently paying. So I need someone with me to fill these blanks. At the end of the day you got to have the right people with you. What I will say as a CEO, it is definitely an experience you will never fall asleep. The job is quite exciting.
Running Delicious Group
It is not too far different from running the kitchen. I used have a restaurant where I used to run it with 110 staffs and now I have 10 restaurants with over 300 staffs. It is all about what we are cooking and managing work delegation. I worked in the kitchen where it is structured and has system in place, like following the recipe. Make sure everyone follows his or her duty and they do how they are supposed to do it. It really is not too far off from being in a kitchen.
The team’s acceptance level?
In fact, it was the staffs who wanted me to apply, they knew what I am like and they knew I am quite fair. Sometimes I can be quite harsh but I don’t go around chopping heads in front of people. At the beginning, I came in with a Gordon Ramsay reputation but then I have to preach to myself, ok this is how I am. The point is it is not just the right people but how you develop people. I don’t have the mentality of firing people, I believe you are only as good as the person you chop, and you are only as good as your manager who train you. The manager or the trainer are responsible for them. So I am responsible for my team and my team of managers are responsible for their people, to motivate them and bring them up to the next level.
“I believe you are only as good as the person you chop”
Think about it, you are not good enough chop-chop go, and you get someone else in. That is not the right way to run the company. It ruins the whole morale of the company. You need people to have the trust in you to run the company.
What does “Courage to Manage” means to you?
I think having courage means to admit when you are wrong. To have the courage to say, “Hey guys, I’m sorry, I’m wrong”. My way of working is you be honest with me and I will assist you. The first thing I did here (Delicious), I got all the staff here all the way to the back, and I said, I want everyone to be honest with me, tell me what is the problem tell me how we can make it better. No one could open up. But as soon as one person spoke up, everyone did! We were there for six hours! And you know what? It was the best feeling ever, because everyone was sharing.
So I think courage to manage is all about honesty, admit you have done wrong, and know when you have done right, and carry on doing them right.
How did Gordon Ramsay influence you in managing people?
Well he puts his trust in me, what he is like he puts his trust a lot. He has the same sort of attitude I have in relation to work, he develops people. The first day we opened the restaurant in Claridge’s, I was told to get out of the kitchen. But I came back the next day and he asked why did you come back and I said, that is because I want this. I think he understood me, and from there I build my way up and became head chef.
I have not really seen him sack anyone just because you are not good enough. I have the same philosophy of what he taught me. He really is a good manager. He shows you “face”, he will take you to a room and scolds you down, gets back out and doesn’t make it look like you’re getting too much (of scolding). I have pretty much copied what he has taught me, those 11 years.
Two things you learned from him.
How to cook a perfect duck breast.
To be honest there are a few things I learned from him, it all relates to food but it all relates to management. You can’t run something on your own.
The first thing from him is honesty, he will be honest with you as long as you are honest with him. When you did something wrong, you tell him, and he will tell you what he thinks about it. He won’t hold back and that is exactly why I worked for him. If you see him on TV, that guy is really honest yeah? I want someone to tell me what I have done wrong, like “You got to speed up, you got to do this and that, wham-wham-wham!” I used to get shouted every single day but I like it! Not because I am some sort of masochist, but because someone is telling me what I am doing wrong. If you don’t know what you are doing wrong you will never get it right. Managing a big company is to be honest with your staffs. Sometimes you got to put it in a right way and not too harshly, that is the biggest thing.
Simplicity is always the key. When you start complicating stuff and you realize you are out of touch, you can’t achieve it. Keep it simple. Let’s say bak kut teh, bak kut teh is quite simple. Meat, herbs, and the stock is amazing. You go to a bak kut teh shop, you want to have bak kut teh. You don’t go there for anything else. If you do then there is something wrong. This country is famous for simplicity, you do one thing you get it right.
First thing I do with Delicious is I cut half the menu, the way we cook things and do things, we get it back to basic. If we can’t manage a menu of 150 dishes how can we even make it good? We cut it (menu) down to 75 dishes, and we keep it simple. We do what we are famous for, small little things.
This is what I learned from him. Never lose sight of what you are doing,
What contributed to your success?
“Stick to what you know”
Stick to what you know. I came here and they put me to a steak restaurant, and I said I don’t want to work in a steak restaurant because I don’t have passion for it. I want to work in Delicious because I have more passion for it. I want to be proud of what I do.
Have a clear vision of what you do and just follow it, make sure you really think you are right for the business. Know that you can actually make money and it will work. Not all businesses will work, know what you are doing and go into it with the right mind-set and attitude.
If you got real passion, do it. If you got passion but you don’t know how to do it, don’t! I know how to serve on the floor, I know how to cook in the kitchen, I know how to wash up, and I know all about the operations side here, so that is why I do it. Don’t do things for fun. But work and make it fun.
Make sure you plan it. I plan Delicious and I know we are losing money at the moment. But I look at where I am going to start making money and I already see it coming, I already see the stepping stones where we are at.
Like Simon said, good to great. He is right. Getting great keeping great, this is my vision in future. We have been in a good business, we started with a good run but competitions came up we went down. Now we need to know how to get back up to that level and keep it this time, to win back the public. Not being too complacent. We’re great, but we are not great enough.
As we walked out of the interview room, I realized how down to earth Steve Allen is for a man who carries a big title. Every word he said was truly from experience. If I must describe Steve, he is clear, precise, and focused. Perhaps we should start keeping things simple too and cut down on any shenanigans.