London Master Sommeliers go super-digital

As they open up their previously trade-only members club to the public, two top London restaurateurs are launching an app to help out members of the hospitality industry impacted by the COVID crisis

Words by Adam Lechmere

Xavier Rousset & Gearoid Devaney
Gearoid Devaney and Xavier Rousset's new app will be open to any member of the hospitality industry

They’re both Master Sommeliers, each with a string of awards to their name and two decades of experience in some of the country’s most acclaimed restaurants. But in the new digital-first era of hospitality, Gearoid Devaney and Xavier Rousset are, in the common parlance, ‘pivoting’ for their next project – an app.

After working at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Rousset founded the restaurants Texture and 28:50, and more recently Blandford Comptoir in Marylebone and Comptoir Café & Wine in Mayfair. Devaney cut his teeth at London’s Capital Hotel before heading up wine for chef Tom Aikens; he is now director of the specialist Burgundy merchant Flint Wines. The pair co-founded Cabotte in the City of London in 2016.

The restaurants have just re-opened. Cabotte, in the heart of London’s financial district, has its loyal customers, Devaney says, but business is quiet. It is running a takeaway service “so that locals can enjoy a bottle of Burgundy and a Tarte Tatin in their office or at home”.

As for the two Blandford restaurants, Mayfair is equally sepulchral, Rousset says, but Marylebone, a smart residential district with a villagey atmosphere, is “buzzing”. “The first couple of weekends were up there with Christmas sales,” says Rousset. “We’ve increased our outdoor seating, so we’ve seen a huge increase in alfresco dining this summer.”

Trade Soho
Trade Soho
Trade Soho will open to the general public in September as the Black Book Wine Bar

In January 2019 the pair had launched the private members club Trade Soho on London’s Frith St, for members of the drinks trade. The onset of the pandemic, however, made them doubt that the club, which occupies a cosy basement of a Soho townhouse, would be able to survive with just a trade clientele. As a result, Trade Soho will open to the general public in September as the Black Book Wine Bar (named after the club’s list of limited-stock wines that had become a talking point for London’s wine trade cognoscenti).

“We had to open up the membership otherwise it wouldn’t have survived, and that was made so much worse by COVID,” says Rousset.

Now they have expanded their digital plans too, with the imminent launch of the Trade Hospitality app. While the initial intention was to create a virtual platform for the 1,600-strong membership, the impact of the pandemic on the hospitality industry quickly refocussed the entrepreneurs’ minds.

“We had the idea to create an app so you didn’t have to physically be in the club to access our facilities, like masterclasses and seminars and so on,” Rousset told Club Oenologique. “It was going to be for members only, but COVID changed everything.”

With an estimated 25 per cent of London restaurants in danger of closing, putting half a million staff out of work in the capital alone, Rousset and Devaney realised they could provide a service for the stricken industry.

“Our target was to look after our membership and look after the business,” Rousset said. “But then we saw the opportunity to help the hospitality world. As an industry, it’s been one of the worst hit. So with the new app, if someone loses their job, for example, they can upload their CV for free. It can be very expensive doing it on the other commercial platforms.”

The Trade Hospitality app will be a comprehensive service covering everything from jobs to flatshares

The app will be open to any member of the hospitality industry, “from butchers to waiters to chefs to PRs,” and will be a comprehensive service covering everything from jobs to flatshares. There will be links to organisations such as the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and regional wine bodies for educational seminars and courses; job ads will be free, and there will be noticeboards for buying and selling restaurant furniture and kitchen equipment.

While the app is free to all, membership will mean access to an array of perks, from entry to London clubs such as Black’s and 67 Pall Mall, discounts at restaurants such as Le Gavroche, the Café Royal and hotels such as Mimi’s, and access to the capital’s trendy gyms.

Very much London-centric on launch, Trade Hospitality is expected to spread to the regions and abroad. “Eventually we’ll cover Paris, New York, Bordeaux, Barcelona,” Rousset predicts.

Their target is 10,000 users; Devaney and Rousset are realistic that in time they will need to monetise the app through advertising and sponsorship, but “we want to see how it works and then we’ll discuss the financial side of it.”

Trade Hospitality will launch on 10 September.