Feb 23, 2020

Russel Joffe, the restaurant talent-spotter who walked tall with Giraffe

written by Lisa Eason

It is said that culture is more important than anything in determining the success of a business. A company’s culture is mostly a reflection of the character of its leader. In short, a good boss breeds good culture.

I have been fortunate enough to witness such entrepreneurs in action a few times in my career. Russel Joffe, who sadly died this month at the age of 62, was one of the very best.

I worked with Russel for more than nine years at Giraffe restaurants — a business he co-founded with his wife Juliette. He was the chief executive and I served as chairman. I initially partnered him when there were just six branches; we sold out to Tesco having built the business to 48. It was an enjoyable and profitable journey.

Russel was a veteran restaurateur by the time we teamed up. He had worked at the legendary Langan’s Brasserie in its heyday, then created his own operation — Café Flo, a London-based chain of bistros offering French cuisine at affordable prices.

He and Juliette worked hard and the business prospered. Eventually a French acquirer came knocking and he sold out, intending to move to his beloved Israel. Unfortunately, it was not to be. A fraud at the bank where he had deposited a fair chunk of the proceeds meant he needed to return to the fray in London.

So he started Giraffe, a funky new concept with a laid-back vibe and super-friendly staff. In many ways, recruiting, training and retaining the best employees were Russel’s greatest strengths as a manager. Whether they were chefs, bar or waiting staff, he was a brilliant spotter of talent, able to inculcate an esprit de corps that few others have achieved in the casual- dining industry.

Russel was a pioneer in enthusiastically hiring front-of-house staff with unconventional appearances. It was all about personality and energy, rather than slavishly following traditional ideas of how serving staff should present themselves.

Giraffe was one of the first places to take brunch seriously in London, and ultimately it featured on the menu every day. Also, from the early days, we opened for breakfast — something that rivals copied much later.

Family was always at the heart of the Giraffe pitch: children’s menus and crayons were a point of emphasis. So many middle-class parents used to tell me how Giraffe restaurants were the only place, apart from McDonald’s, that their children loved — and adults could enjoy great food and a glass of wine, too.

The restaurants played and sold world music, one of Russel’s passions, and his outlets had an ambience unlike any other eating establishments.

After Giraffe was sold, Russel retained a role, but since he was no longer the owner, he was unable to prevent Tesco from making mistakes and the business was never the same. He was a genius at finding sites, and had an excellent understanding of the design and dynamics of restaurants. He also assembled a tight team of loyal managers who always went the extra mile for customers.

One year, at the annual staff awards party — the Goscars — a manager read a thank-you letter from a mother of a severely disabled boy. She explained that Giraffe was the only place her son liked going to because the staff were always so kind, welcoming him by name and bringing him his favourite dish without being asked. There was not a dry eye in the room.

After Giraffe, Russel became involved in his son Gideon’s fledgling restaurant business — Laurel Canyon Ventures. It includes Monkeynuts, Chez Bob and Bob’s Café; all have a similar atmosphere to Giraffe in its early days.

He also developed innovative brands for The Restaurant Group such as Sonoma and Wondertree. He was never short of fresh ideas, and was an expert in spotting new food and drink trends.

In person he was a shy and thoughtful individual, never a great self-promoter. He comes from a brilliant family: his brother, Adrian, is co-founder of the fashion label Commes des Garçons, while his sister, Rose, created Rose Bakery in Paris. Russel was quietly ambitious, always striving to do better, knowing that in the restaurant world you can never stand still.

I was privileged to work with such a decent, talented man. He was taken far too soon and will be sorely missed by his family and friends, by the many staff who worked for him, and by the untold number of happy diners who have enjoyed his hospitality.