The hospitality industry has been through the ringer, but Andrei Lussmann – the owner of four Hertfordshire restaurants – sees light at the end of the tunnel
Andrei Lussmann is well-known around Hertfordshire, with four restaurants bearing his name, as well as a commendable approach to sustainability. He is a founding member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, winner of the Food Made Good Awards 2018 ‘Source Fish Responsibly’ and now the only restaurant group currently in the UK to be completely MSC-friendly. But then along came a pandemic. “We might be a sustainable restaurant,” he muses, “but the most sustainable thing you can do is make sure your staff get paid.”
We are speaking a couple of weeks before diners, finally, can head back inside their favourite restaurants, but rather than twiddling his thumbs for the past 15 months, Lussmann has been busy. “It’s been quite an exhausting year,” he adds “and it’s been a year where the core team have had to rely on their resilience and their ability to innovate.” When the first lockdown arrived and hospitality closed, Lussmann wanted to continue to support the local community with a food ‘To Go’ delivery service, so he had to turn the business into an e-commerce site within 30 hours. It was the start of something special. Lussmanns began delivering simple pre-prepared cook-at-home dishes, but also artisan breads, sustainable fish, fruit and vegetable boxes, premier cheeses and drinks. The service was very popular right from its launch.
With the arrival of summer and the easing of restrictions, Lussmanns created burger and hotdog BBQs outside its main restaurants. After a brief period when restaurants reopened and then shut down again, Lussmanns changed the burger business to a ‘Saturday Night Takeaway’ order and collect service (then also a midweek version). The ‘Strictly Burger’ was enjoyed by hundreds of Herts residents while watching Strictly on the telly.
And recently Lussmanns devised the ‘Celebration Boxes’ – premium supper boxes (think steak, lobster, premium sustainable fish) to share, with everything needed to mark a very special occasion, including sauces, vegetables, sides, puds and wine. These flew off the shelves for Valentine’s and Mother’s Day and proved that, a year on from the first lockdown, people were still craving a luxury experience for that special day.
You’d think, as owner of a business that has created something that has been in demand, Lussmann would want to continue offering this side dish to the main course – but you’d be wrong. “We are closing down the ‘To Go’ service,” he says simply. “I am very aware we need to get back to basics of what we do best, and that’s the right thing to do. There are examples of people pivoting and creating new businesses from their existing offering, but most of us will go back to what we were doing well before.”
It typifies Lussmann’s approach to the industry and business in general, which from a foodie point of view began nearly two decades ago. “The idea was to fuse together the best things that make a brand successful – good cost structure, very consistent, accessible to a wide audience – and the other thing was there was nothing sustainable on the high street,” he looks back. “Lussmanns would be an alternative, so people wouldn’t feel they had to go to a high-end restaurant, which is invariably Michelin star, to buy into those ethics. You could go to a normal fish and grill restaurant and enjoy all the trappings, and know fully the power is green energy, it’s LED lighting, everything is recycled, the staff are looked after… There are 101 things we do, but without the sustainability being a badge you waved too loudly. I always believe restaurants are a home from home – you don’t go out to be told about the wonderful virtues of a business, you go out for the company of somebody else.”
It’s fair to say it’s worked. Since first opening in Hertford in 2004 after being frustrated time and time again with trying to find a location in London, Lussmann has not looked back, now having restaurants in St Alban’s, Harpenden and Hitchin too. “I have made lots of mistakes along the way,” he admits, “and I have had to make lots of changes in order to improve and stay in business, but I think we have got better at running a business and I think we have become more sustainable. Quite often as businesses get bigger and bigger, what happens is they become less sustainable because it’s about making decisions that are more financially driven, and being sustainable isn’t the most financially competent decision to make in a business. I am happy that, for nearly 20 years, we have every year become more sustainable in what we are doing.” It helps, too, that their menus – from the heart-warming classic options, to really good value set courses – consistently offer up dishes of the highest order.
So we come, hopefully, to the end of a year like no other, and Lussmann is looking forward to what lies ahead in Hertfordshire. “I think we will have a busy, hedonistic summer of 66 where everything will be fantastic,” he enthuses. “The sun will shine, everyone will enjoy a brilliant summer, and we will not really be going abroad, so it will add to the unique charm. Restaurants that are good will carry on doing well.”