We sit down withAlexandre Santamaria, founder of AWARE Hospitality, restaurant and bar concept designer and strategist, who tells all about his impressive career so far, revealing his innate passion for the industry.
Alexandre, please tell us how your career in hospitality began and how it has progressed to where you are now.
I started my career straight out of hospitality school, age 20, as a private butler for the French Ambassador in London. It was an amazing job and one of the best tables in the world to work for but, long-term, it didn’t have any real career prospects or room for me to progress. No matter how good a butler I was, I would never become an ambassador! After two years, I left the French Embassy to work in various fine dining restaurants and international groups, working my way up from Head Waiter to Restaurant Manager, GM, COO, all the way up to Global Brand Director at Hakkasan Group.
Four years ago (two months before the pandemic), I founded AWARE hospitality; an international firm with offices in both London and Paris, focusing on two things:
- Strategic and financial advice to investment funds and private investors
- Concept creation and execution
Please can you tell us more about AWARE Hospitality – what services do you offer hospitality venues and how are you helping the industry to excel?
We can split our services into two verticals: the advisory and the execution. Advisory services encompass feasibility studies, master planning, capital raising, expansion strategies, company valuations, support, and due diligence (operational and commercial). Execution is all about concept development, pre-opening project management, team training, openings, and on-going support.
AWARE owes its international success to the fact it bridges both the gaps, and works to provide a full-service package. In Food and Beverage advisory, the common gap we fill is between personal taste and business planning. Everyone has an opinion when it comes to creating or finding the right F&B concept but very few can explain their choice. Our philosophy for our advisory activities is that food and beverage is not an art, it’s a science.
The second gap we fill is on execution activities. As we all know, a great idea is worth nothing without precise execution. As such, we don’t just tell our clients what they should do, we do it with them. We train the teams, unpack the deliveries, collect feedback from customers during the opening and trouble shoot etc.
Congratulations on the business’s accomplishments so far. 2023 was an amazing year for your team! As we enter the New Year, can you share AWARE Hospitality’s goals for 2024 and any future projects you have coming up?
On the advisory side, we keep increasing exponentially our volume of missions for various real estate and private equity funds in supporting their acquisition strategies.
Our execution division has several exciting projects coming to fruition, including the new development of several luxury hotels and beach clubs in Greece, a new 5-star hotel in Mayfair, off Shepherds Market, the concept development and roll-out of a luxury café brand (an off-shoot of a globally acclaimed existing restaurant), the concept creation and relaunch of outlets at The Savoy, the repositioning and relaunch of an iconic restaurant in Dubai, and a partnership with a much-loved celebrity chef (to be announced soon…).
What do you love most about the UK’s hospitality industry, and where do you see it against other countries around the world?
London has a long history of design-led restaurants, a trend started by Terrance Conran, a prolific restaurateur, but primarily an acclaimed designer. This, together with historic venues with unique period features and architecture, offers interest and atmosphere that new developments often lack. Middle Eastern markets, for example, tick a lot of boxes when it comes to luxury travel, but high-rises and ground-breaking architecture are often lacking when it comes to interiors and creating charm and character in a restaurant space.
The UK has seen a huge change in attitudes towards food in the last few decades, eating out has become the everyday and food has become part of popular culture. Even young kids know what a Michelin star means these days, which is exciting for the future of hospitality of course.
I see the UK as one of the most innovative and competitive markets in the world, along with Hong Kong. Here in the UK hospitality is diverse, we embrace and elevate other world cuisines and food cultures. London is truly a melting pot of cultures and cuisine, something which has been integral to the emergence of multi-cultural fine dining, and Michelin’s recognition of this, with Indian, Chinese, and Latin American restaurants receiving stars. Other markets in Europe do not have this diversity, which makes the UK dining scene so unique and exciting.
I also think that restaurateurs with large investments behind them think differently here, planning long-term strategies for the roll out of their brand. The first site is not where the money is, it is about licensing the brand abroad. Knowing that they can afford not to make money on the first site means they can be courageous and experiment with new formats, and chefs can really let their creativity shine.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming hospitality venues? What are the crucial elements of success in the current climate/industry?
Be hands-on and be adaptable. Nowadays, running a restaurant is about leadership and not just management. We have an on-going staffing crisis so retaining skilled staff is vital, and you can only do that with the right culture and high standards. Owners, think about your own job description and ensure you are leading from the floor alongside your staff, and setting the right examples.
How would you advise already established bar and restaurant venues to maintain their success, in terms of elevating their venue and staying up to date with industry trends?
Understand that service is extremely important for your business. It is not a form of art we focus on for fun: it has a major impact on sales and success, whether it’s the second bottle of water, the second coffee, the regulars coming back, or the speed of service allowing a quicker table turnaround etc.
Please share the trends you believe will take the hospitality industry by storm in 2024.
I call it “smart healthy”, which advocates for a balanced approach, encouraging healthy choices where possible, without sacrificing all pleasures. When you can, use organic, low-sugar, and nutrient-packed choices.
A second food trend leans towards simplicity, favouring high-quality ingredients and techniques, chosen with meaning over intricate preparations.
Another notable trend is the incorporation of comfortable workspaces within hotels but also all-day dining restaurants, acknowledging the growing number of entrepreneurs and freelancers who mix work with leisure.