Licensee Interview: Giving Back
Christmas is a time of year when our thoughts turn to family and friends and also to those less fortunate than ourselves and how we can do more to help them and show that we care.
This is very much the spirit in which father and daughter team Dean and Layla Gassabi have opened their latest restaurant Maison Bleue at Home – although its legacy will remain long after the Hogmanay hangovers are a distant memory and we have given up trying to shed those extra pounds.
The pair have teamed up with Josh Littlejohn of the Social Bite sandwich chain to form a new company, Social Bite Restaurants. All profits from their new offering in Edinburgh’s West End will go to charity – 50 per cent to Social Bite and 50 per cent to three charities chosen by Dean and Layla – an organisation helping Syrian refugees, Asthma UK and Diabetes UK.
Additionally, they have created a special meal service, made possible by ‘pay it forward’ contributions from customers, which sees them invite up to 50 homeless people to dine in the restaurant on Monday afternoons.
The venture, which will also provide training and employment programmes for members of the Social Bite Academy, a four-year paid course for homeless people, is supported by board members including Dean, Michelin-starred chef Martin Wishart, David Wither of the Montpelier Group and restaurateur Simon Littlejohn – Josh’s father.
Layla (36) explains: “Dad has been in the restaurant business for almost 25 years and we’ve got to the stage now where we were really ready to do something a little bit different. We knew that this project was going to be very challenging but also one we could really put our heart and soul into.
“We are bringing together all the elements that make Maison Bleue successful – fresh produce, delicious food and excellent customer service – to offer a great dining experience to some of the most vulnerable members of our society. It’s a great way to give something back and the feedback has been very positive – people really enjoy themselves.”
The scheme has also gone down well with other diners – around 95 per cent of them choose to pay it forward and many of those pay for actual meals (£10 for one person or £20 for two) rather than a simple coffee (£2).
Layla says: “People have been incredibly generous and we had one group who left £100 which was amazing. People feel good about the fact that they are coming in for a nice meal themselves but can do something to help somebody else as well. We’ve had a lot of bookings for Christmas, a time of year which is obviously very hard for homeless people and a time when you really want to give something back and I think a lot of people have that in mind when they are choosing to come to us this year.”
Dean (60) and Layla have a huge emotional connection to their business and are rightly proud of what they have achieved. But they also have a better understanding than most of what it really means to have to leave a place, move somewhere and start over again. The family, including Layla’s mum, Joanne, and brother Nassim (37) were evacuated from Algerian capital Algiers, where Dean ran a successful construction company, in 1993, as political unrest mounted in the wake of the first Gulf War.
Dean and Joanne met and fell in love after he came to Edinburgh to study architecture, so they had family in the city and even a house – but the move was still a traumatic time for all of them. Initially Dean opened shops in the capital because he had friends in retail. From there, they took on Pierre Victoire franchises but it wasn’t long before Dean decided to open his own place – and Bleue, which later became Maison Bleue, was born.
Layla says: “We moved back suddenly because of the political situation. All foreign residents were evacuated and it was very traumatic – literally one day we were there and the next we were gone.
“My dad has always been an entrepreneur, so he was always going to start something himself but it was very much a family business from the start. Mum was very involved, she did all the front of house side of things and my brother and I used to work in the restaurants too.”
A passionate and talented cook himself, Dean created the menus for all his restaurants – inspired by North African, French and Scottish influences.
Today the dishes at Home range from delicious chicken tagine with artichoke, preserved lemons and green olives, through Shetland mussels and French escargot to haggis balls.
Layla explains: “Food has always been very important in our family. I still go back to Algeria now and I’m woken up at 6am by the smell of cooking, which is lunch being prepared, and there are cakes all the time.
“In the restaurants our dishes are always a twist on something classic, with a strong North African influence, but all the ingredients are 100 per cent Scottish.”
Layla studied psychology at Leeds University before heading back to Scotland after graduating in 2002. She worked as a manager in the restaurants but has also spent time away from the industry. She lived in London, worked in recruitment, volunteered with an environmental NGO in Central America and New York and went travelling – but somehow she always found herself coming back to the restaurants.
She says: “I wanted to do something a little bit different so I went off and worked for the NGO and travelled in Central America – Panama, Nicaragua. They were some of the best times of my life and I had some really eye-opening experiences. It was about doing something a bit worthwhile and it was very good for the soul.
“But when you have your own business and it’s something as special as Maison Bleue it’s hard to stay away, it’s very dear to my heart and when you’ve worked for other people you realise that maybe the best thing for you is actually right on your doorstep.”
“I know the trade like the back of my hand and I’ve always enjoyed being in the service industry. I’m very hands on – you are constantly trouble-shooting in restaurants. There are so many different aspects that can go wrong all the time – you walk in and something has not been delivered or a piece of equipment has broken – it can be crazy and that’s even before you start service. You have to be there, leading from the front. The worst thing you can be in this business is the invisible boss.”
Over the last two decades Dean has opened a string of restaurants, but what he created in Maison Bleue has proved to be a winning formula.
Last year he and Layla carried out a major refurbishment of the Victoria Street venue and in April this year they opened Bistrot, followed by Maison Bleue at Home in September which they turned round in a matter of weeks.
Layla explains: “We completely stripped it out and took it right back to the stone work and put in new fixtures and fittings including tables with lovely rustic reclaimed wooden tops. We had just opened the Bistrot so there was a crazy amount going on and then literally when the Festival finished we got the contractors in at Home and got stuck into that.
“There were three of us involved – Dad, Josh Littlejohn from Social Bite and me – all with three slightly different ideas about what should happen. The end result is very much a collaboration.”
That collaboration started when Dean and Josh met through a mutual friend a year ago and started talking about a partnership.
Layla says: “This is the first time I have encountered homelessness but I’ve always been interested in social issues and I was blown away when Dad said he was thinking about doing this. I feel very blessed to be involved.
“The restaurant is run as a normal business so we have to watch margins and keep an eye on our costs but any profit goes straight to charity.
“The homeless people who come to dine here are referred by Social Bite, Crisis and The Big Issue and it’s a really lovely atmosphere.”
Dean and Layla have clearly created something very special in the Maison Bleue brand – and both work well together, giving each other the space to play to their individual strengths.
Layla explains: “Dad is the business aficionado and he’s very much in control of the menu, the kitchen, the food side of things, whereas I’m very much on the front of house side of things, managing people and bringing everything together.”
She adds: “We’re not a big company, we are very much a family business and we are not going to become a big chain – that’s just not who we are.
“There’s always a danger of expanding and becoming run of the mill and that is never going to happen here. Dad and I are at the core of the business and what we do is fundamentally our creation and it is something we are absolutely passionate about.”
Clearly they are just as passionate about helping others – and doing something that really makes a lasting difference to people’s lives. The restaurant has already clocked up its first superstar diner – with a recent visit from Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
The Oscar winner tucked into Dean’s Posh Mac and Cheese during a visit to the capital to speak at the Scottish Business Awards.
Layla says, “Leonardo DiCaprio’s visit was a fantastic success and allowed us to showcase what we do as a restaurant and social enterprise. My dad headed up the kitchen that day having designed a special menu for the lunch.
“Leo spent the lunch talking about Climate change and social issues with various people around the table, including Sir Tom Hunter, and Chris Evans and Rob Brydon made an appearance later on.
“It was such a special day for all the Maison Bleue staff, as well as the ex homeless Social Bite chefs who were extremely proud to be a part of it.
“We were very lucky to have had this opportunity and the day will most definitely go down as one of our all time highlights.”