After years as the distructed dive end of town, London's Kings Cross has undergone a radical facelift and is now attracting a raft of big-name operators. Tom Vaughan went to find out what happened - and what the opportunities are
It was a moment exquisitely synchronised. There I was, toasting the newly opened St Pancras station at a track-side bar, when the restaurant manager shared his story.
The last time he'd been on site before this job, he told me, he'd been stripped to the waist, done up in Day-Glo and dancing through to dawn amid the rubble at a time when the station was nothing but a derelict all-night rave venue.
All Londoners have their stories of the King's Cross of old. For me, it was where I did my journalism training - the dive end of town where caipirinhas cost £4 in old-man pubs.
"There was a complete distrust of the area from hospitality operators," says John Nugent, CEO of contract caterer Green & Fortune, which is based in nearby King's lace. "There were the well-documented problems with drugs and prostitutes, and you might not want to be walking the streets during the dead of night."
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, plans were constantly being floated to regenerate the area. But it wasn't until 1999, when developer Argent came on board with landowner King's Cross Central Limited Partnership, that the wheels really started turning for the redevelopment of the 67-acre site.
"Areas get developed when you get a partnership between public and private sectors, and you need good leadership," says Jeremy Robson, owner-operator of the newly opened Great Northern hotel, which sits beside King's Cross station. "The public sector showed great strategic leadership, as did the King's Cross Partnership. Argent manages the project and, for me, they are the best developers in the country."
The appeal of the project made it almost impossible to turn down, says Bridget Evans, Argent's project director at King's Cross: "How often would one developer get the opportunity to work with a 67-acre site in the middle of a vibrant city such as London? Then add to that the heritage, the character of the buildings, the transport connections and the canal…"
By the time the project reaches completion in 2020 it will incorporate 3.4 million square feet of new workspace, 500,000sq ft of retail, cafés, bars and restaurants, up to 2,000 new homes and a new university. All set in and around a whopping 26 acres of public space.
Five years into the build and some principal milestones have been completed, including the opening of Granary Square, a public space with a complex of redeveloped historic buildings, all set on the spot where barges once unloaded their goods. Over the next couple of years the area can also expect to host Camden Council and the UK headquarters of Google.
Juxtapose all this with the redevelopments of St Pancras and King's Cross stations - respectively completed in 2007 for £850m and in 2012 for £500m - and the scale of the area's regeneration comes sharply into focus. Today, the area has not only some of the best transport connections in Europe, with trains to the Continent and large tracts of northern England, but two of the smartest stations as well.
The area has more to thank its transport ties for than just ferrying passengers in and out, says Robson. "There has been a cultural change as to how transport hubs are viewed. One of the owners of St Pancras is London Continental Railways, which also runs part of Eurostar. If you understand Eurostar, you understand that it is run on commercial lines more akin to a high-end airline."
Following the reopening of St Pancras, Green & Fortune was one of the first to capitalise on the potential of the area, and started operating when King's Place opened in 2008. How hard were those first couple of years? "It took guts," says Nugent. "There were times when it was a lonely place to be. Trying to get corporate events into King's Cross five years ago was a challenge, but now it's a fantastic place to do business."
This confidence is reflected in the hospitality openings. Over the past two years restaurants such as Caravan, Plum + Spilt Milk, Shrimpy's, and Bruno Loubet's Grain Store, not to mention the numerous quick-service offers in the stations, plus hotels such as the Great Northern and the St Pancras Renaissance, have all helped the transformation.
"The heritage of the area played a big role â¨for us," says Chris Ammerman, co-owner of â¨Caravan in Granary Square. "Its history as an industrial heartland and its location as a meeting point for railway, river and road have shaped the area, giving it a special atmosphere."
Combining the area's unique character with a host of independent hospitality offers was part of Argent's master plan. "We see the hospitality offer as part of King's Cross's unique DNA," says Evans. "We want it to be a key attraction - something you are not going to find elsewhere."
To ensure this, Argent has worked closely with operators including Kerb, which organises the area's popular street-food offer. Kerb founder Petra Barran says this relationship has been a huge part of the appeal: "Argent love us and we love them and they let it be known that they want us here for the long run."
While being a pioneer on a site can have its benefits - for instance, the pick of the sites and the chance to strike a good deal - it can also have some pitfalls. Michael Benyan, co-owner of the Grain Store, explains: "Not being recognised by Google Maps and taxis, and GPS not knowing where we were was a pitfall. We have done a lot to make sure people knew where we are and can find us easily, and now that Google Maps has verified our location it's become less of a concern."
Forward thinking Getting in early to a development can have its advantages, but it's a proposition that businesses should think hard about. Ammerman says: "There are naturally some financial benefits from getting in early but you need to be careful and consider the longevity of your business. The long-term risks often outweigh immediate financial benefits, so you need to be careful. King's Cross, unlike most London places, is being planned by forward-thinking people."
Evans insists there will be plenty of opportunities for hospitality businesses of all sizes in King's Cross. But where should the savvy operator be looking for the next up-and-coming area? "Transport hubs have traditionally been overlooked in terms of doing good things around them," says Nugent. "King's Cross has broken that mould. So look at what's happening in places like Paddington and Farringdon that are going to be affected by Crossrail."
The potential is certainly there. And in the words of Robson: "Now when I play Monopoly, I always buy the stations first."
"ANY NEW LOCATION IS A RISK" LEON
Commuters will remember how, at the King's Cross of old, the Friday night trains stank with the hum of burgers, pretty much the only hot food option in the station. That all changed with the redevelopment of the terminus. Now travellers are spoilt for choice, with a whole host of quick-service restaurants with high brand value, one of which is Leon. The healthy fast-food chain opened its 13th site, and first franchise, with HMSHost, in the station in summer 2012.
With transport hubs largely regarded as the haunt of burgers and sandwiches, did it represent â¨a risk? "Any new location is a â¨risk," says Leon's finance director â¨Matt Jones. "Twenty years ago high streets were packed with mediocre sandwich offerings, so in some ways transport locations are low-risk locations. Stations have high footfall, so provided you have a strong offer in the dayparts when that footfall occurs, you'll have a very fertile environment for a strong brand to occupy."
Certainly, Leon's decision has been vindicated, with the ground-level site now serving 12,000 customers a week.
"A NATURAL BEAUTY" CARAVAN
After opening their first Caravan restaurant in London's Exmouth Market in 2010, owners Miles Kirby and Chris Ammerman decided to situate their second in the Grade II-listed Granary Complex, which once stored Lincolnshire wheat for London's bakers, in King's Cross.
"The area had deteriorated a lot since Victorian times but it's always retained a natural beauty with its disused buildings, Victorian warehouses, railyards and open spaces," says Ammerman. "The heritage of the site played a big role for us, and the location and proximity to two major railway stations was also a major appeal."
The King's Cross restaurant boasts 80 seats inside and 40 outdoors and operates at an average spend of £20 a head. However, while there were financial benefits in terms of rent to being one of the first restaurants on the redeveloped site, there were also hurdles.
"The main pitfall was the lack of footfall when we opened in an area that is not yet fully developed," says Ammerman. "Although we are very close to two major train stations, we were still a destination restaurant when we opened because there are not a lot of tenants in the area yet."
Of course, their eyes are firmly on the long term. Ammerman says: "With its central London location and trains to Paris and the Continent on the doorstep, I think King's Cross will become one of London's leading villages in many respects in five years' time. And with Google set to move in in 2015, what can go wrong?"
"READY TO ROCK AND ROLL" THE GREAT NORTHERN HOTEL
Jeremy Robson, managing director of asset management company the Ram Group, originally bought the Great Northern hotel - a Grade II-listed building designed by Lewis Cubitt and situated between King's Cross and â¨St Pancras stations - in 2008.
"It was just after Lehman Brothers crashed," he recalls. "The emphasis from the developers was to turn it into â¨a budget hotel with 94 rooms and a food and beverage offer in a lightless basement - something that was deliverable in those market conditions. I didn't want to do that; I wanted to do something boutique and they were easily persuaded."
Leaning on his contacts in the City, he managed to raise £42m for the project, including £5m on design fees to make sure every inch of the beautifully curved building was used. And instead of â¨94 budget rooms, the hotel opened in April this year with 91 boutique rooms, one suite and a glamorous bar and restaurant, the last of which - Plum + Spilt Milk - is headed up by former Gordon Ramsay chef Mark Sargeant.
With a footfall of 135 million passengers passing near by, room rates at the boutique hotel will start at £250.
So what was the appeal of the area for Robson? "That's an easy one: Eurostar had been moved, St Pancras had had its refit and King's Cross was in the process of development. Google was rumoured to be moving in. I trusted Argent's vision and judgement. I just joined the party when it was ready to rock and roll."