Providing a means of transport for customers to reach the Hut restaurant's remote site overlooking Colwell Bay on the north-west coast of the Isle of Wight has sent the number of covers sky-high. Fiona Sims reports
The Hut was acquired in 2011 by Matt Adams, 37, and his brother George, 32, and has since seen year-on-year growth of 75%, with an approximate annual turnover of £2m. By the beginning of June they had more than 30,000 bookings for the summer ahead, half as much again on the June 2018 figure, and they are expecting 75,000 people through their doors during the course of this summer. That's not bad going for a business open only for seven months of the year. So what's the secret? "The boats are key," grins George.
The Hut has three rigid-inflatable boats, which are used as a tender service to meet guests off their yachts and motorboats and transport them to the restaurant - much to the amusement of locals, who sit watching from deckchairs positioned outside their beach huts flanking the restaurant as the Hut customers tipsily board their yachts after dining.
What started almost as an afterthought has grown to become the bulk of their business. Big-spending, boat-owning Hampshire residents (among them a fair few celebrities) flock to the Hut in this unassuming coastal community on a pretty stretch of West Wight, often up to three times a week.
"I'd love to tell you that it was all part of the business plan, and that we had spotted a gap in the market, but really it was a bit of fluke," confesses George. "But there we were, with millions of boats that had nowhere to go and the perfect place to watch the sunset. The tender service was a real game-changer."
When the brothers opened the Hut's doors in 2013, they were still running their London restaurant, called 86. "We didn't expect the Hut to go quite as well as it did that first year, so when we got an opportunity to sell our Fulham restaurant the following year, we took it, thinking, let's just focus on the Hut." So they uprooted from London to the island with their wives and George's young son to start a new life and focus on growing the business (they now have five children between them).
A group has just arrived by the Hut Truck, the brothers' latest acquisition, now a regular sight on the island's roads. It's a complimentary transfer that ferries customers backwards and forwards from Yarmouth Harbour and ferry terminal. In its smart new blue livery, emblazoned with the Hut's logo, it's a far cry from its former incarnation as a Gurkha Brigade army truck (it's a 1975 Land Rover 101 for the petrolheads among you) found by the brothers on eBay.
e Hut Truck also picks up guests who arrive by helicopter at a nearby landing spot, thanks to permission from an obliging landowner. "It's a private arrangement - we pay the landowner in wine. Guests have to book this ahead as we can't have more than one helicopter landing per day to keep things safe. We had 80 landings last year, but we are expecting more this year as we've had 60 bookings already," explains Adams, in mid-July.
And yes, they are drawing an increasing number of celebrities. On a recent weekend, Jude Law and Kate Winslet enjoyed lunch there at separate tables. Chris Evans is also a regular: last year he took over the Hut for a charity function, broadcasting the event on his former BBC Radio 2 breakfast show, and continues to big up the Hut at every opportunity.
"We're not trying to position ourselves as a celeb hangout at all. I think we've got a wide reach across the Hampshire community and it's as simple as that," say the brothers, who until now have never done any advertising or PR, relying on word of mouth. In fact, around 50% of the Hut's customers come from Hampshire, and 30% from London, among them a fair few from the City celebrating deals. It has become a thing, they report, for City folk to train it down to the island for lunch at the Hut, ditching their suits and pulling on shorts and flip-flops, the Hut's preferred dress code.
The well-spoken brothers (both dressed in shorts and flip-flops) have always worked in hospitality. George cut his teeth in bars and nightclubs, both managing and co-owning them, including one in London's Piccadilly and another in Verbier, Switzerland. Matt, meanwhile, graduated from prestigious Swiss hospitality management school, École Hôtelière de Lausanne, and completed a year-long cookery course at Leith's. "Matt has always looked after the kitchen side of things at the Hut, while I've always focused on the bar and front of house," explains George.
The Hut is not just about the location, though - customers come for the food, too. Matt has now taken a step back from the kitchen, which has tripled in size, and employs head chef Ben Chamberlain to oversee the 18-strong (on busy days) brigade. They will cook lunch for 350 people on a sunny Saturday, with most diners booking months ahead. Lunch at the weekend is now fully booked until the end of September for the popular seaside restaurant, which is open seven days a week from lunch through to dinner, with weekdays requiring at least two weeks' notice.
"We try and hire the best chefs we can. It's hard to recruit a team here on the island - you have to build one. Other than Ben and our two senior sous chefs, the rest of the team are locals who we train up and have taken under our wing. What we get out of these guys shocks us - they are fantastic. You've got to believe in them. If you do that, they will take ownership of the place and be proud of where they work. We have to keep drumming into them how big a part of this they are," enthuses George.
Fish is the focus, as its seaside location demands, with a dedicated van from Cornish fish company, Flying Fish Seafoods, driving up regularly to supply their needs, with lobsters and crabs supplied locally on the island.
Best-selling dishes include starters such as the fish tacos (monkfish, coriander, mango and pickles, £10) and gambas pil pil (shell-off prawns, tomato fondue, chilli and chorizo, £9.50) and mains such as whole sea bream stuffed with basil and lemon, served with fries and rocket at £21, and the Surf 'n' Turf for two (côte de boeuf, lobster, crevettes, rocket, salad and fries, £60 per person), with meat supplied from Northern Ireland by top chefs' favourite butcher Peter Hannan.
For the first time, the brothers now have an office, in a converted industrial unit in the nearby village of Freshwater. "We've never worked in an office before, but I quite like it, actually," laughs George. "We had to. We are buying by the pallet now because we are getting through so much stuff, and we have extra refrigeration there, too. There are also plans for a training academy."
Since it opened in 2013, the Hut has doubled in size, adding another level, including that private dining room, taking the total number of seats up to 180. They also put in swanky electronic roofs and windows that close at the touch of a button when the weather doesn't play ball.
The business now employs more than 75 local staff. "Our academy will have a fully functioning bar and training rooms. It's something we've always wanted to do," explains Matt. "We've just got to find the right person to run it, which will be easier once we have more than one site." For the first time, they are now able to employ key staff year round.
The brothers are planning to open more Huts. They have set their sights on opening a new restaurant every year from 2020, until they have a total of five sites in the south of England, including one in London - starting with East Wight, followed by Poole Harbour.
"We've got ants in our pants," they grin. Not that they've found the right spot yet. Their checklist is long and includes finding space for 150 alfresco seats, shelter from the prevailing winds and a view of the sunset. "Until then we will keep on investing, keep on improving, and hopefully people will keep on coming," says George, as he observes a tableful of guests, donning the Hut sunhats, ordering yet another large-format bottle of rosé.
Other seaside success stories
Urban Reef, Boscombe Beach, Bournemouth
Mark Cribb, owner: "Our basic business model is: make money when it's sunny, break even when it's cloudy, and lose when it rains. It can be bonkers-hard running a restaurant on the British seaside when you're not a Harvester.
"There are daily fluctuations all year round. We can take £20,000 on a busy summer's day or just £500 on a wet winter's day. It's the short daylight hours in the winter that are the biggest problem. We lose that trade between 3pm and 7.30pm from October to February, so we have to get creative, from special offers to a loyalty club (we now have 3,500 members), to quiz nights. And we offer live music every Wednesday night; we regularly get 40 in on a weekday night in February for that. Plus we've just opened Urban Garden in Bournemouth town centre to help smooth out those peaks and troughs.
"When we opened Urban Reef by Boscombe Pier 11 years ago, this was a deprived area; now it's got the highest spend per head on this part of the Bournemouth seafront. Local councils need to be better at recognising this seasonality by charging less rent in the quieter months if they want to see more decent quality operations."
Drift Café,Cresswell, Morpeth, Northumberland
can Lawrence, owner: "My wife Katie and I sold our home in Morpeth and put every penny into buying and renovating this derelict property in the sand dunes about 500 metres outside the village of Cresswell, opening in March 2014.
"To get here you need transport. It really is in the middle of nowhere, yet we now get several hundred customers a day, even in the winter. We are open all year round; seven days a week, from 8.30am to 4.30pm, closing for just five nights from 21 December and we now employ 25 staff. The only marketing we do is on Facebook - Katie is a dab hand at it. She'll tell people what type of scones we have that day, stuff like that.
"What's our secret? First, we offer genuine customer service - nothing is too much trouble. Our staff are always happy and smiling. The place has a really nice ambience - people make friends here.
"Second, we make everything ourselves using top-quality ingredients, and we don't charge high prices. We had never worked in the trade before this. I was a production manager and Katie was on the production line, but Katie is a good baker and I've always enjoyed cooking. We never had any doubt that it would work, though not quite to the extent it has. The location is incredible, so that has certainly helped. Now we have plans to expand the business further by offering holiday lets and possibly a restaurant."
Coast, Saundersfoot, Pembrokeshire, and Beach House, Oxwich, the Gower Peninsula
l Kedward, founder and managing director of the Seren Collection, which owns both seaside restaurants: "It can be challenging in this corner of south-west Wales, especially during the winter and when the weather turns, but we have built our businesses to be destination restaurants around head chefs Hywel Griffith of Beach House, and Tom Hine of Coast. We have found that our guests are interested in both their chef profiles and in them personally and that is a real draw for people to make the trip to see us.
"We also run a series of events through the autumn and winter, which include masterclasses, wine dinners and guest chef nights, giving our local guests the opportunity to try some of the best Michelin-starred chefs' food from around the country.
"Both restaurants have the most magnificent backdrops, which, in rain or shine, are quite dramatic. They provide a wonderful setting for dining, and offering our guests alternative experiences with those specified events is just another reason for them to come and visit."
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