Harts Group’s huge 424-cover project at Coal Drops Yard in London’s King’s Cross is firing a rapid increase in the growth of the family-owned business. Neil Gerrard finds out more
If you listen carefully above the clanking hammers, whirring drills and the shouts of electricians toiling to finish off Harts Group’s new restaurants in London’s Coal Drops Yard, you can just about make out the sound of the world’s smallest violin. It plays for James Hart who is at that moment getting dangerously close to hospitality industry heresy by admitting he may have eaten too much of a good thing. “I can’t remember the last time we didn’t have a tasting. It has been at least one a day. Sometimes two or three. It becomes pretty hard work,” he says, seemingly only half in jest.
“By the way, we are not complaining about it, we love our job,” cuts in Crispin Somerville who, together with James’s brother Sam, is instrumental in the launch of their latest venture at the striking new Heatherwick Studio-designed development in London’s King’s Cross, which opens today (26 October).
In truth, you could hardly blame James, even if he really were complaining. Such is the scale of this project – 424 covers shared among five distinct restaurants – that the number of tastings probably would have had even the
hardiest gourmands reaching for the Rennies.
It’s a major undertaking for the Catey-winning group (Independent Restaurateur of the Year in 2016) that has been known so far for running relatively small, acclaimed London restaurants, including a trio of Barrafinas. The new project has required hiring 200 staff to join the 250 that the company already employed.
“Effectively, it will more or less double our turnover as a group and double the number of people we employ,” says Sam.
So why go for such a large site? “We have been looking at King’s Cross for a long time and watching the area develop. We aren’t great fans of new build, we prefer renovated old stuff, so we have been keeping an eye on it,” he explains.
“They [Argent] really considered the idea of the community here,” adds James. “One of the first things they did was get Central St Martins (part of the University of the Arts London) here, which has a huge number of fashion students and adds a great dynamic to the space. There is also a new primary school, so you have people from all age groups. Plus King’s Cross is a connection to Europe and the north of England.”
James quotes Argent figures, forecasting 20 million visitors to the area by 2020. The area’s broad appeal explains why Harts Group has split its offer across its new flagship site, with spend per head ranging from £20 at Plaza Pastor (depending on how much you drink), to £27-£28 at Casa Pastor, £30-£35 at the Drop, and £45-£50 at Barrafina.
The landlord treats the site as a single unit, but Harts Group didn’t see it that way when pitching for it in early 2017, when the company found itself up against some fierce competition from high-profile operators.
“We put a huge amount of time and effort into the pitch, learning about the history of the site. We realised that it didn’t feel like a single restaurant so we came up with a concept that was driven by the site rather than the other way round. We became so passionate about it that we decided it would be better to put all our energy into this one space, than to open up five individual restaurants,” explains James.
Of course, that hasn’t been without its operational challenges. The company has had to do plenty of work to put the infrastructure and people in place to deal with such a sudden increase in size.
“It is turning us effectively from a large mama-and-papa operation into quite a big business, so we have been very busy building an HR department, an ops department, and putting in IT systems which hopefully will enable us to open these things in an efficient way,” says Sam.
James adds that the business has spent “a lot of time and trouble” choosing people who will hold onto the personal touch as the company grows to head up each department.
Their latest project has also brought with it Harts Group’s first foray into the world of crowdfunding. The trio decided to try and raise £750,000 specifically for the £2.5m cost of the Barrafina element of the project (the group won’t reveal how much it spent on the entire scheme). “When we first looked at it, we thought it looked like a nice, easy way of earning money. It turned out to be quite a lot of work, but it is amazing for engaging with your customers and members of the public. We now have 972 shareholders flying the flag for the restaurant,” says Sam.
They hadn’t expected quite so many, but a 48-hour exclusivity window for Barrafina’s own database of customers raised 70% of the total straight away and in the end the business ended up reaching £2.4m.
Does the crowdfunding and the scale of this project demonstrate even bigger things to come in the future?
“We started El Pastor with the idea that it would be more than just a one-site project,” says James. “But we look at spaces and find restaurants that suit the spaces. We don’t sign up to the idea of opening 50 restaurants within a two-year period because there is something really un-organic about it and we don’t believe it works. Look at the big-name casualties in the restaurant industry that have subscribed to this ethos.
“We are much more excited about a medium-sized business that has a number of small brands like El Pastor and Barrafina, where we have enough control and attention to detail that people still really want to come,” he adds.
For three people with just a few weeks to go until the biggest opening of their careers, they seem relatively relaxed, at least on the surface. It’s clear that they enjoy a good working relationship. “Fortunately, I don’t control the purse strings, because it would be a very different story if I did,” jokes Somerville. “But we are all strong characters, we all have opinions and we always end up at a place where we are not drowning in indecision. And we enjoy ourselves in the process.”
Enjoyable as it may be, it sounds like the onslaught of tastings has probably ended just in time.
The members of the Harts Group
Somerville and Sam Hart first met at university and later encountered each other again in South America, before setting up a Mexico City nightclub called El Comillo in the late 1990s together. “We found great contentment doing it and it worked really well,” says Somerville.
While Sam returned to the UK via Barcelona to open Fino, Somerville stayed in Mexico and opened a restaurant and bar as well as a marketing and PR company. He left in 2005 to work in the music industry, including running a record label for Lily Allen under Sony Music, but continued to talk food with Sam, James and Eddie. Eventually, James convinced Somerville to join them in what would become El Pastor. He is now creative director across the group with a focus on El Pastor.
James worked as a derivatives trader in the City for 10 years before embarking on what was supposed to be a six-month stint in the family business in early 2006, while on gardening leave between jobs. He enjoyed it so much he decided on a career change and started working on the development of El Pastor in Stoney Street in London’s Borough Market.
He has been heavily focused on the design of the restaurants at Coal Drops Yard, working with architects Michaelis Boyd and designers Irving & Co.
Of the trio, Sam Hart has been with the business the longest, having launched acclaimed Spanish tapas bar Fino in 2003 with brother Eddie (who is still a shareholder but now running his own restaurant in Mallorca) before opening the first Barrafina in London’s Soho in 2007.
He takes the lead on the financial and operational side of the business, but also works with Angel Zapata Martin to develop the Barrafina menu and wine lists, as well as the Quo Vadis wine lists.
About Coal Drops Yard
The £100m Coal Drops Yard development, designed by Heatherwick Studio, features a spectacular, sweeping steel roof structure that connects two former coal depots which were built in the 1850s but fell into disuse in the 1990s.
Prior to the official launch on 26 October, Tom Dixon opened its flagship furniture store and showroom complete with the Coal Office restaurant.
The development will also feature former Murano head chef Pip Lacey’s first solo venture within the designer clothing store Wolf & Badger (the 80-cover Hicce x Wolf & Badger), and a new restaurant called Vermuteria from Anthony Demetre. And there will be a permanent space for French chef Alain Ducasse’s chocolate brand, Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse, as well as a second site for café brand Morty & Bob’s, known for its grilled cheese sandwiches.
Harts Group’s five restaurants at Coal Drops Yard
Covers 88 inside, 8 standing
Concept A ‘big sister’ to Borough’s El Pastor, Casa Pastor focuses on tacos and other Mexican dishes, with tortillas made in-house from heritage Mexican corn.
Design Reflects contemporary Mexico, juxtaposed with the Victorian building in which the restaurant sits. Two camellia trees reach up to the 4.5m-high ceiling, with tables ranged underneath them, reflecting Mexico City’s extensive network of parks. A large mezcaleria bar, dressed in emerald marble, offers an extended margarita list. Brightly coloured signage has been specially commissioned from renowned Mexican sign artist Melquiades Garcia.
Dishes The new menu will include a section influenced by the food of Baja California, a Mexican state bordering California in the US. The area has a tradition of seafood, ceviches, aguachiles and seafood cocktails. Somerville credits the influence of a Mexico City restaurant called Contramar in the Roma area of Mexico City. There will also be larger sharing taco dishes and a Mexican breakfast menu.
Covers 100 outside
Concept A heated, covered outdoor dining terrace adjacent to Casa Pastor. More drinks-led than its counterpart and with an emphasis on live music, it recalls the plazas of Mexico City.
Design The area will feature sub-tropical plants, a blackened steel bar and open kitchen. Somerville’s background in the music industry means he is working with Universal Music, whose new offices can be seen from Plaza Pastor, to find DJs and up-and-coming acts,
as well as Latin American music.
Dishes and drinks Torta buns will be served with a variety of meat and vegetarian options from a robata grill, including a recipe passed on by highly regarded Mexican food writer Diana Kennedy for a torta containing brawn, escabeche, tomato Chihuahua cheese and crème fraîche. There will also be a rôtisserie serving spit-roasted chickens and a strong emphasis on margaritas and tortillas.
Covers 50 inside, 24 outside
Concept Housed within three brick arches, the Drop wine bar aims to be relaxed, engaging and unpretentious, moving away from the more traditional, sommelier-led approach to wine in favour of a more engaging, interactive experience.
Design In the central arch will be a communal table created from a huge piece of 180-year-old Cheshire oak on industrial cast-iron legs, with marble tables around the outside of the space. The smallish kitchen has an oven, two induction rings and a water bath.
Wine and dishes Aimee Harley, founder of Above Sea Level and Genuwine, the wine and R&B dance party, has been drafted in to create the wine list. Wines from classic regions produced by young winemakers will sit alongside tried and tested favourites, all combined with “loosely British” bistro dishes from chef Karan Ghosh.
Covers 38 (plus 24 in the private dining room)
Concept The largest Barrafina yet, serving authentic Spanish tapas.
Design Similar to its sister restaurants, Barrafina will have bar stools around a marble-topped counter where guests can watch the chefs work. Three lower-level tables will have wheelchair access – a first for Barrafina. A separate private dining room will have views over the canal.
Dishes This will be the first time that Barrafina’s executive head chef Angel Zapata Martin, appointed as Nieves Barragán Mohacho’s successor last year, has designed a completely new menu. It will reflect his childhood in Catalonia and his time working at the three-Michelin-starred Can Fabes. Dishes will include Pyrenean lamb cutlets in the ‘chargrill’ section, and beetroot salmorejo, a take on Andalucian cold soup with sundried tomato and Granny Smith apples. The menu will also have a typically Catalan ‘mar y montaña’ section, with dishes such as arroz negro with Iberian pork ribs and artichokes.
Covers 50 year-round, 42 more on sunny days
Concept Parrillan will have views of the nearby canal and gasworks housing development. It will open in spring 2019, later than the other four elements of the site.
Design Details on the design are scant at this stage, but a garden will help protect diners from the wind and heaters will ensure that it can be used most of the year round. It will have its own bar and cold kitchen.
Dishes Originally Harts Group had planned a full hot kitchen outside for the terrace as part of a Basque grill, but planning restrictions meant they had to rethink the idea. Instead, diners will now have tabletop charcoal grills where they can grill their own Iberian meats. The idea takes its inspiration from an Ibizan restaurant called Ca’n Pilot.