When Stefan King’s first business venture, Kwik Travel, crashed in 1987, he wrote a letter to the press. “You will understand,” he told the Glasgow Herald, “that, at the age of 24, I do not intend to retire just yet.” True to his word, he opened a pair of sandwich shops and soon raised the capital to launch his first night-club on Glasgow’s Royal Exchange Square – a gay venue called Club X.
Ten years on and King’s G1 Group Plc is now one of the most influential club and bar operators in town. This summer sees the unveiling of the group’s 11th unit – a 100-seat venue in the old Cheesemarket that has lain vacant since the 1950s.
King may not be Glasgow’s biggest player – in the year to 31 March 1999 his group made an operating profit of £1.4m – but he’s probably the most focused. While the rival Big Beat Group has diversified as far afield as Sydney, G1 has stuck to what it knows best – the city centre and that part of it known as the Merchant City. Except for Nicos on Sauchiehall Street, all King’s activities are contained within a compact area clustered around the group’s Merchant City headquarters on Virginia Street, with the Cheesemarket just a couple of blocks east.
“The Cheesemarket project is primarily aimed at the cosmopolitan, unmarried, childless, 20-years-old-plus market,” King says. “This particular niche is disillusioned with the current dance-club market but is still looking for late-night entertainment.”
The ground floor will accommodate a 100-cover restaurant and bar, with 60% of the take coming from food, and a targeted £20-a-head average spend in the restaurant. It is hoped customers will enjoy a meal, drinks in the café-bar and then move to the cabaret-music-comedy venue in the basement.
As with all G1 units, the design, described as “Mediterranean” and “traditional Spanish”, is in the hands of Keith Hobbs of London-based United Designers.
The venue backs on to the renowned Café Gandolfi and Bargo, Scotland’s most expensive bar when opened by Bass in 1996, so it seems to have a good location. With its entrance on Walls Street on the eastern fringe of the Merchant City, however, there will be precious little passing trade. On the other hand, the Cheesemarket will bring the district its first entertainment licence and be open until 3am.
The Merchant City is akin to Dublin’s Temple Bar or, at a stretch, to the original Greenwich Village in New York. With its derelict warehouses just begging to be transformed into loft apartments, it is every developer’s dream and, after many years and a number of burnt fingers, the Merchant City is beginning to come together. Says Glasgow property solicitor Mark Gordon: “The idea of living here was considered radical. Yet, if there was ever a feeling of risk, there isn’t now.”
The area is blessed with some stunning Victorian architecture, notably the palatial City Halls. Of these, the undoubted jewel is Lanarkshire House, a massive, colonnaded affair built on Ingram Street in 1852. Legend has it that King glimpsed the building’s faded grandeur through an open fire door and immediately began making enquiries.
The property was lying empty, having been the old court house and before that the Union Bank of Scotland headquarters. A ventilation shaft punched through the wall and a suspended ceiling had left the bank’s old Telling Room, now the bar, a shadow of its former self. Some £5m later and the Corinthian opened in March last year, becoming the most talked-about venue in the west of Scotland.
The 3,500sq ft bar area, with its bistro menu of Caesar salads, bagels and the like, generates spending of £8-£10 a head, 30% of it on food. Next door, the 80-cover restaurant has a £12-£15 “Express menu” at lunchtime and an à la carte from which the average spend is £18, rising to £25 in the evening. Overseeing the 18 chefs and five kitchens is head chef Niall Murray, formerly of Yes on West Nile Street,
There have been one or two critical reviews but, as one said, “restaurants are about ambience” and on that score the Corinthian can hardly fail. At present, there is a one- to two-week waiting list to dine on Friday and Saturday nights. There’s also a piano bar and cocktail bar on either side of the entrance, plus a dance floor in the basement.
Upstairs is a private members’ club with bar and 20-cover restaurant, for which a membership of 400 pay £250-£500 each. Above that are various conference and reception rooms. It has been said that such a club would not work in Glasgow, with even Groucho St Judes – an offshoot of the famous London media club – deciding against private membership. But as David Reid of licensed property specialist Christie & Co says, “there’s a lot of money around town at the moment and corporate entertaining is back”.
It was Reid who leased King his second unit, Delmonicas, on Virginia Street in 1992. King now owns the whole block, which includes G1’s head office and 17 apartments, one of which is earmarked for King himself, who still lives with his mother.
With Delmonicas and now Café Latte and the Polo Lounge next door, King has given Glasgow its first gay village. Meanwhile, Club X has gone straight and changed into the Moroccan-themed Babaza. Completing the group’s portfolio are Yang, Archaos night-club and its “club within a club”, the Skye bar.
As well as spotting niche markets and tapping into the lucrative pink pound, which flows all week and not just at weekends, Reid says that “Stefan has one of the best visions for negotiating property deals”. King himself declares: “We have seen many of our competitors try to roll out a successful concept into a new area and failed because they do not understand the culture of that city.”
If the Cheesemarket succeeds like the Corinthian, it will be further proof of King’s unrivalled ability to understand this corner of Glasgow.