Tracey Matthews

Tracey Matthews

Surfing chick leads Argentina's food invasion

Argentinian-styled restaurant chain Gaucho has expanded by 500% since 2000, and now has 15 venues across the UK. Steve Dyson meets Tracey Matthews, the woman behind its growth.

She grew up on the Devon coast as a self-confessed “surfing chick”, learning her trade as a seasonal waitress and chambermaid. Today, Tracey Matthews heads operations at Gaucho, a posh, Argentinian-styled steakhouse chain with revenues of £40m-plus – and more than 700 staff at 15 restaurants across the UK.

Twelve of these are in London, with others in Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham – the latter opening earlier this year, and more are planned for the future. And yet in 2000, when she joined Gaucho, there were only three UK venues, which makes it a 500% expansion since she arrived.

Matthews, smartly dressed and drinking mineral water in the corner of one of her restaurants, certainly looks every part the efficient, driven boss. She can talk facts and figures without any notes, and is able to name and describe each member of staff who passes our table. But I’m more interested in the story of the woman behind such a fast-growing and complex operation, and slowly move the conversation towards when and where her life began, what made her what she’s become, and what motivates her today.

Eventually, Matthews softens, smiles and allows herself to answer my probing questions. She was born in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire, but grew up in Braunton, a village between Ilfracombe and Croyde on the Devon coast. “My teenage memories are of long days on the beach as a surfing chick,” laughs Matthews, now aged 45. “But my grandparents owned a bed and breakfast and so I also grew up learning how to make beds, and waitressing in seasonal cafés and restaurants.”

After taking A-levels, she began working all summer and travelling in between, gaining experience at various local hotels and at the Jalapeno Peppers restaurant in nearby Barnstaple. She decided she wanted a career in hospitality but realised this wasn’t going to go too far in Devon.

“At 21 I moved to London,” Matthews recalls. “I spent four years at a Mexican restaurant called Chi-Chi’s in Covent Garden, starting as trainee assistant manager and ending up as general manager.”

This was followed by more travelling, then management jobs at TGI Fridays and The Collection Chelsea, a restaurant popular with London’s socialites. By 2000 she began working at Gaucho, starting as general manager at the Gracechurch Street restaurant in London’s financial centre.

Matthews’ career at Gaucho moved fast: she opened the new Canary Wharf venue in late 2000, then ran the Chancery Lane restaurant from 2003, followed by Destino from 2004 – what was then a Latin American concept, but is now Gaucho’s flagship restaurant in Piccadilly. She had her first child in 2005 – daughter Tate, now aged 12 – but was back at work after just nine weeks’ maternity leave.

“I was a single mum with Tate until 2010,” Matthews explains, “so when I came back to work I launched the Gaucho academy, focusing on the training and development of our staff. I set up the ‘school’ which everyone now attends in Leeds, Manchester and our City restaurant.

“This involves classroom training on everything from wines to food, from service to legal matters like alcohol, and even on staff style – like how you walk through the day. This involves a tango lesson to help posture.”

It sounds fun, but the Gaucho academy takes such matters seriously, with an eight-day course to become a proficient restaurant host, ending with a practical test and exam. Staff are then re-tested every six months to make sure they’re still “living and breathing” what they’ve been taught.

Matthews says: “This naturally progressed to me developing a human resources (HR) department, building a team and then becoming HR director from 2008. Personally, this allowed me to balance the needs of being a single mum. And it helped Gaucho’s transition, re-positioning itself with the ‘greatest service ever’ revolution, setting ourselves up as more than just a steak restaurant, creating the service experience.”

It sounds like hard work, and Matthews nods in furious agreement. “It is! The best people are those who get the job under their skin. The best managers are those who know exactly who the team is, what they do and how they’re doing it. Even I still like getting involved with the shifts.

GAUCHO“It’s something I picked up from a very early age – getting stuck into everything. I got this hands-on, strong work ethic from my grandparents and parents. They were a family of hard workers. And if you wanted something, I quickly learned you’ve got to work hard for it.”

Matthews has worked hard on her home life too, meeting and marrying Ben Matthews in 2012, who’s in the same trade as operations director of Jackson & Rye, part of the Côte restaurant chain. The family, who now live in Bushey, Hertfordshire, then expanded with the birth of son Jude, now aged four.

But Matthews’ career continued to develop at Gaucho: she became managing director in 2014 and then chief operating officer from September 2016, and was awarded her own shares in the business to give her a “vested interest”. But it’s not simply money that drives this entrepreneurial boss.

“What keeps me going after 17 years with Gaucho,” she enthuses, “is a desire to always be better than we were. There’s always something else to be done, something else to understand. It’s all about challenging people. Being able to inspire them. Wanting the whole place to be better than yesterday.”

The founder and ultimate boss of Gaucho is Dutch businessman Zeev Godik, and there’s also private equity involvement via a multi-million pound investment from Equistone. But operationally, it’s very much run by Matthews herself.

“Oh yes, it’s my baby,” she chuckles. “I make sure I split my time equally between visiting restaurants, assessing quality, spotting the rights and wrongs, and then one-to-ones with the trading team, the marketing boss, chef director, head of HR, and so on, bringing the business together.

“I spend three nights a week in the business as well. I like to just show up. I take its success very personally, some might say too personally. I like to see people in the senior team, and I like to see them become massively successful. I take a huge delight in making my success their success.

“I like to see people in Gaucho develop, progress and be challenged. Even in this room there’re people who’ve grown up in the business. It’s like watching your children grow up.”

Gaucho itself is well-liked by those who can afford to enjoy dining out regularly and in style. The business community across London are prime customers, but Matthews is also proud that Gaucho attracts some of the big society names. Who does she mean? And for the first time she thinks carefully before naming those she knows won’t mind: she says José Mourinho used to enjoy his “steak on a Friday” when he was at Chelsea; the entire English rugby team celebrated its Six Nations victory at Gaucho; actress Helena Bonham Carter is a regular; as is TV mega star Jonathan Ross.

What’s the biggest challenge Matthews has overcome at Gaucho? “The banking meltdown in 2008,” she swiftly replies. “Everyone’s spending tightened up, and the way we overcame that challenge was to stick to our guns, to just focus on being brilliant.

“We told staff: ‘Focus on yourselves, and we will come out of it better than before.’ I think that helped us and is the reason we’re heading in such a strong direction. We retained our focus on detail, service, standards and quality. We had to fight and become more brilliant, so diners said: ‘We’re going to pick you over the competition’. And it worked.”

But Matthews’ biggest challenge today, she says, is coping with the “new, young generation of workers”, who she says are more self-confident than when she joined the trade. She explains: “They say: ‘I want this weekend off, I don’t want to do that, I want to do this’. They seem to want instant gratification. They’re just not used to having to do their time. They seem to lack that understanding that the best way to learn is with experience.

“So we’re finding ways to engage them and train them and we’re going to have to adapt the way we work to change this perception. It’s no longer a case of working 60 hours a week, we’re changing that. We’re taking mums on part-time, introducing part-time management, accommodating studies, and even sabbaticals for people who want to travel for four months and expect to pick up their jobs when they get back.

Gaucho 02“Sometimes, you might want to smack your head against a wall about it, but if we don’t catch up we’re going to be left behind, as they’re the next generation to take us forward.”

Staff aside, Matthews is also enjoying planning what’s becoming the ongoing invasion of Gaucho’s Argentinian-style food across the UK. “We’d not opened one for seven years in the UK until Birmingham this year, and it’s been nothing short of an awesome experience, when we were welcomed with open arms. People seemed genuinely excited to see us come to the city.”

And will this be followed by more? “Yes, I’m excited to find out whether other cities will feel the same way,” she says. “We’re obsessed by finding the right location at the right time, and I’m busy starting to look at other cities.”

Matthews won’t confirm any future plans, but she does “like the idea of Newcastle”, is “excited to go to see Glasgow” and will be “exploring other elegant cities”.

It must seem like a long time since she was on the beaches as a teenager in Devon. But while she’s no longer surfing, Matthews – having relaxed during the interview – certainly still seems quite chilled.