Moving to England to sign for Middlesbrough at 29 years old after a career in Spain and Italy was a big cultural change for me. I am still here almost 20 years later as I love the country but during those early days I craved a few home comforts.
There is nothing that reminds you of home and brings back fond memories than the food you grew up with. When I went out for 'Spanish' food in England I was always left disappointed. There were only a few Spanish restaurants, and it just wasn’t authentic.
There was one exception. A place called Iberica. It was what I had been looking for, and I think I became their best customer! This helped me get to know the owners and we got on really well. I could see they were approaching things in the right way.
After my previous dining out disappointments, I realised there was a huge opportunity to replicate what they were doing in other places. I spoke to them about investing and that is how I started an amazing journey as an investor in restaurants.
Becoming An Investor
At first, it was more of a hobby and distraction from football, but it developed into an integral part of my life after retiring at 34 years old. Since my first steps into the industry, I have invested in many more Spanish restaurants across the UK with leading chefs.
At first, I realised I was a little out of my depth and just observed my business partners so I could learn all the different skills and intricacies of running the business. As my understanding grew, I got more and more involved in what we were doing and now I am a key part in everything we do.
I help find new locations, negotiate contracts with landlords, oversee the refurbishments, oversee hiring of staff and chefs, build the menu, create ideas for marketing and promotion and everything in between. Every small detail is important to me. I go as far as helping to choose which plates we use!
As soon as a restaurant opens, you have to be continually adapting as the restaurant business is always changing. How can we evolve the menu? Does our budget fit the local market? Are our promotions still having an impact?
Our restaurants in London, Manchester and Glasgow are all unique and tailored to the locations they are in.
One of the most important aspects is how you manage people. How do you communicate, delegate, recruit and, one of the hardest elements of the job, let people go? In our restaurants we try to create a family. Instead of feeling like you are in a franchise; we want everyone in our team to feel at home. We know that feeling transmits to our customers.
All these valuable skills and lessons I’ve learnt in the restaurant business would be very applicable in football. Managing people, adapting to changing circumstances, delivering results, planning for the future... All these are essential elements in a successful football club.
A New Purpose
I found the role so rewarding. I love seeing customers have an amazing and memorable dining experience. I love hosting business meetings or friends in the restaurants. I love celebrating success with our team. In that sense, it reminds me of the joy I got from football.
That’s not to say it has all been plain sailing. We have had to close restaurants that just didn’t work. We’ve had to let great people go who didn’t meet our high standards. You are constantly dealing with success and failure.
This last year has been our toughest. The Covid-19 pandemic meant we had to innovate and adapt. We went online to offer food delivery, cooking classes and wine tastings. Then Brexit happened in the middle which complicated importing products and saw staff return home to Spain. It will take a few years to recover financially, but it looks like we have made it through whereas, unfortunately, many other restaurants have not.
Advice for other players
To any players thinking of investing in a business, my first advice would be to know the area you’re getting involved in. I was a frequent customer of Spanish restaurants so had a fundamental understanding of what people wanted and what worked. Plus I was passionate about this area.
Secondly, I would strongly recommend you partner with professionals who have a track record of success. I learnt how to deal with different situations by watching what they did. They knew how to invest the money wisely and what to look out for. It would have been completely different alone.
Lastly, don't stand on the sidelines but get involved. Continually check the financial performance of the business. Ask questions and look for solutions. Be an active investor, not a passive one. There will be difficult times, but you will enjoy the experience and take so much from it. It has been very different from my playing career but the passion for what I do has been just the same.
Gaizka Mendieta was speaking to Doug Reed.