As well as being one-quarter of British folk rock band Mumford & Sons, Ben Lovett is chief executive of the Venue Group. He tells Katherine Price about putting together a crack team of hospitality professionals and establishing a New York style of service
How did you end up getting involved in hospitality?
I was brought up with quite a high respect for food. My mum was all about knowing where your food's coming from, very anti-fast food and supermarkets. She'd rather drive twice as far to go to the local farm shop.
I've also got very severe allergies and that meant I was restricted as to where I could eat from a young age. At 12-13, I started getting into cooking and I just loved it. And I like to host. I was throwing dinner parties when I was 16. A weird thing to do!
I ended up falling more into the music side – I loved writing songs and playing piano – and things took off at quite an early age. We started Mumford & Sons when I was 18.
Isn't your brother in hospitality?
My brother Greg became the finance director for Maxwell's. Then he joined Soho House as part of the finance team, and then he became the financial director for North America for a few years in 2012, which meant that he moved to New York.
I'd already relocated out there because I found it easier to tour from New York – you're halfway between LA and London. And New York has a certain standard when it comes to bars and restaurants. I actually got together with a bunch of music friends and we opened a bar in New York in 2012 – that was called Givers & Takers. That was quite successful and it is still going.
And then in 2015 we came upon the site for Flat Iron Square in London Bridge. My brother and I had been talking for some time about launching something that represented both of our interests, a venue with food and drinks. I was still touring; he moved back to London and launched the Ned in the City with Gareth Banner for two and a half years. Then earlier this year, he became our full-time chief financial officer – the brains behind the commercial and finance side. I'm more the creative behind the vision. I'm more impressed by what he does. We've made my dad the chairman of the company.
I was throwing dinner parties when I was 16. A weird thing to do!
The other person who's key within the business is Phil Renna. He and I used to tour together – he stopped touring in his mid-20s and got deep into the hospitality side of things and became a manager of Gaucho, then went and trained in the City in finance, but he always loved operations. He's chief operating officer, running the operational side, and he's really been at the coalface of bringing in the different food tenants that we've got at Goods Way, which we've just opened at King's Cross.
How different is it from Flat Iron Square?
The similarities are that we want people to be pleasantly surprised by the little things. New York has an amazing service standard. I hate to generalise the US, but I'd say broadly that American standards of hospitality service –and Italian – are all about care and attention. I hope that's something that we're going to carry through to all the projects. People do notice it.
My grandfather told my dad when he was younger – and we've used this as a bit of a family mantra – that "if something's worth doing at all, it's worth doing well". We've really dialled in on that. So, there's that approach.
It's really just an opportunity to have another crack. It's quite cool to be building from the ground up in collaboration with different food partners.
Has staffing been a big focus for you?
We've hired a new ops director, a guy called Tristan Hoffman, who's had a really interesting career, including a stint with the Highline Ballroom and BB King in New York, but then he came back to London to open Swingers.
You can't train people to care. That enthusiasm has to come from inside. It just means we have to be quite selective about who we bring on to work at the company.
We've appointed Geoff Todd to be our general manager at Goods Way – he's had a brilliant career spanning Ronnie Scott's [in Soho] to the Hippodrome Casino [in the West End].
We want to make sure that service quality is understood at our senior management level, and then from there we want them to nurture that in the junior managers and the casual staff.
Why did you decide to open at King's Cross?
Over the past 20 years, the options for owner-operated independent food venues has dwindled significantly. I would like to try and curb that a little bit and push back. The opportunity here was to bring some independents in.
Argent has been a very thoughtful curator of this development; it's got some high street stuff here, but also props for what it did with Caravan and Dishoom, bringing them in early on. Coal Drops Yard has got a bunch of young owner-operated food offerings, and they chose to work with us over some much larger multinational companies, which I thought was a good sign of their intent.
It's so connected. This is the hub of the UK: it's got the most Tube connections out of anywhere in London, it's got the most train connections anywhere in the UK and it's got the Eurostar.
How do your two venues compare in size?
The live music venue at Goods Way is bigger, but the Courtyard, where the food is, has roughly the same amount of covers.
Tell us about the operators at the site
We've brought in someone we've had a lot of feedback on – a truly vegan offering, Temple of Seitan. I like the idea that vegan doesn't mean having to do the healthy option, especially when you're combining it with late nights and live music.
One I was really excited about came through a collaboration with a company called Lokate. Lokate is a consulting firm that sources and places different food partnerships with mixed-use developments like this. They suggested that we go a bit further afield and start up a conversation with Sushi on Jones. We lined up what is the first Sushi on Jones outside of New York, and I think that's a really big deal for London.
Japanese is my favourite cuisine. I frankly don't think there's a solid mid-range option in London, which is mad, because we've got so much choice, so much great stuff. But you've either got really high-end that very few people can afford – your Nobus and Sushisambas, where you might eat at once or twice a year – and then you've got Itsu, Yo! or Wasabi, which are all OK, but there's nothing that says ‘this is an independent taking pride in the art and craft of sushi', but not at that Michelin-starred level.
How did you decide who to bring in?
We approached it with categories in mind originally, so we wanted a balance of options for the people coming to Goods Way for lunch or grabbing some food before seeing a show. We were thinking about the naughty vegan option and then, similarly, Breddos is a good accompaniment to a beer, as delicious and elevated as they are. The idea with Duck Truck was that it filled a category of something a bit left field. Pomelo is British small plates.
Then it was a case of asking if they are the people we're going to want to work with. In our mind they're partnerships – they aren't [just] leases, we're running this thing together.
I'm not really one to follow blogs and trends anyway. You hear about stuff on the grapevine, but the problem with that is our lease here is 20 years. It would be so disruptive to have to switch to something else in six months' time. We really believe in the concepts we're working with.
Do you feel there isn't enough support for new restaurant brands, like with grassroots-level music, with operators struggling to make that first step into a permanent site due to increasing costs?
Some people can take the popularity of a [street food] truck and invest in that, and that then becomes a restaurant, but not everyone can start that way.
I hope that what we're building is a bit of a bridge for people who want a slightly hedged risk on bricks and mortar. Take Sushi on Jones – they've been looking at doing something in London for a while, but it's very high-risk for an out-of-town operator to come and try something here, take a lease, and try and market something to people.
We can help ourselves as London foodies by eating food at places where people are taking those sorts of risks and encourage that.
What are your plans – do you want to open more venues like this?
We're definitely keen to work on more venues, and food feels like a natural sibling to the project. I'm quite interested in getting into restaurants. I'm a little intimidated by the notion of opening our own concept one day, but it would be really fun.
We've got some big projects happening in the US right now: we've just announced something in Alabama, which is going to be an 8,000-seater outdoor amphitheatre, and there will be bars and restaurants attached to that. It's right next to MidCity, where there's another project we're working on.
I've never been driven by money. If I had been, I wouldn't have become a musician, especially not a musician in a band with a banjo in it, and not a venue owner. You could look up ‘how to lose money' and it would come up with all the things I've chosen to do. I do what I love, we'll just see where it goes.
I feel and I hope that I've got another 30-odd years of actively being in this space. It feels like there's a lot of opportunity to do some really cool shit.
I've never been driven by money. If I had been, I wouldn't have become a musician or a venue owner
Would you open your own restaurant in London?
Maybe. There's nothing in the pipeline. There's something really beautiful about the single offering of a restaurant. Maybe a few years down the line.
Do you have a favourite restaurant?
My favourite restaurant in London right now is Luca in Farringdon, Johnny [Smith] and those guys have done a fantastic job. I've had some conversations with him about the New York effect on London, and he said that's one of their guiding principles, to have a New York approach to service standards. And you really notice the difference. It's so subtle. It's about the intention behind the question ‘can I get you anything?'
The Venue Group
Flat Iron Square, London Bridge
General manager Jack Clulow
Covers Garden capacity, seated: 108; the Apres venue capacity, seated: 80
Operators Baz & Fred, Bittenclub, Breddos Tacos, Edu, the Gentlemen Baristas, Ekachai, Katsutopia, Laffa, La Nonna, Mother Clucker
Goods Way, King's Cross
Opened March 2020
General manager Geoff Todd
Covers The Courtyard capacity, seated: 50
Operators Breddos Tacos, the Duck Truck, Pomelo, Sushi on Jones, Temple of Seitan
Flat Iron Square and Goods Way have temporarily closed since this interview due to the coronavirus outbreak. Both venues are hoping to reopen on 15 June.
The team behind Venue Group
Ben Lovett, chief executive
As well as being a member of British band Mumford & Sons, Lovett opened Givers & Takers bar in New York in 2012 and has operated live music venue Omeara and street food market Flat Iron Square, both near London Bridge, since 2016.
Greg Lovett, chief financial operator
Greg Lovett has worked on the finance side of hospitality businesses including Compass Group, Maxwell's Restaurants and Soho House. Before joining the Venue Group he was finance director at the Ned hotel in the City.
Philip Renna, chief operating officer
Renna joined the Venue Group in 2016 as finance manager, becoming commercial director and then chief operating officer in 2018.
Tristan Hoffman, operations director
Hoffman's experience spans overseeing operations at venues including BB King Blues Club & Grill and Highline Ballroom in New York, before he returned to the UK in 2015 as operations director for mini-golf concept Swingers.
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