It was the restaurant that made steakhouses cool again, said Time Out of the first Hawksmoor. But how did owners Will Beckett and Huw Gott turn a dream for a quality neighbourhood steak restaurant into one of London's top restaurant groups? Tom Vaughan asks the questions
While many of the duo's customers visit their four-strong restaurant group, Hawksmoor, to satisfy their inner Henry VIII, gorging on "the best steak you'll find anywhere" (in the words of The Times restaurant critic Giles Coren), this isn't gluttony playing out but perfectionism. "There's a trend with restaurants that everything gets worse with the more sites you open - standards, food, even interiors," says Gott. "Compromises get made. We spend the majority of our time now trying to avoid that."
The sentiments are particularly timely. We are talking on the afternoon that the pair's fourth Hawksmoor (on Air Street, off London's Regent Street) is set to open for full service. To give you an impression of what this means to the group's fans, there are 280 booked in for dinner and, two weeks prior, the soft launch booked out in four minutes. In the six years since the launch of the first site, in Spitalfields, the name Hawksmoor has become an Albion for meat-eaters. Demand for their grass-fed steaks, gutsy British dishes and character-packed cocktail bars has fuelled expansion to a further three sites in ever more impressive locations and at present, the group does around 7,000 covers per week. All this over the course of one of the worst financial crises in modern history.
You'd be forgiven for not recognising them as top-tier restaurateurs. When one considers their contemporaries - Richard Caring or Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, say - these mid-thirty-somethings strike a different pose. Beckett in his lucky gold trainers and Gott switching between the conveyor belt of plates and endless giggles, the pair are galaxies away from the corporate world, their banter especially: "You're such a dick!" explodes Beckett in laughter after disappearing to take a call. "I can't believe I leave the table for two minutes and you paint me as the spreadsheet man and you as the cool design dude." (More on which later.)
The rise from neighbourhood restaurateurs to major-league players even took the pair by surprise. "Looking back at the reviews for the first one, they were good but not amazing," reflects Beckett. "Then we opened our second site in Seven Dials and something went ballistic. Suddenly you had to book seven weeks in advance. Something changed and it became a real destination restaurant." Both subsequent sites - Guildhall and Air Street - opened with similar fanfare and, in the space of a few years, a pair who previously had run three "well-reviewed but unprofitable" bars, found themselves sitting on one of the hottest restaurant groups in town. What happened?
To understand the chemistry that makes the group tick is to understand the chemistry between these two long-standing friends. The pair have been mates since they were aged 11, a friendship that was to be forged over Gott's father's exquisite steak suppers.
By the time the pair were in their twenties, Beckett was studying for a masters in modern history at University College London, while Gott had convinced a friend to part with £100,000 to set up a bar in Shoreditch, called the Redchurch. Needing help, Gott picked up the phone to his old mate and, in Beckett's words, "It sounded more fun that my degree". The duo went on to set up the Underdog Group, under which banner they opened two more London sites - Green & Red in Bethnal Green and the Marquess Tavern in Islington - before Hawksmoor. "At that point I don't think we had any plan other than 'This is fun, let's keep doing it'," recalls Beckett.
These early ventures were definitely learning curves. "The great thing about Redchurch was that we got to make a load of mistakes on a business that could handle it," says Gott. The four early sites combined just turned a profit - although it is easy to forget how popular they were, with Green & Red picking up the London Evening Standard Best Bar award and the Marquess winning Time Out's gastropub of the year in 2007. All three bars have since been sold so the pair can concentrate solely on Hawksmoor.
Situated above a dodgy nightclub, with a chef that disappeared before the launch night, it took a while for word-of-mouth about the first Hawksmoor to spread. But the pair had two strokes of genius in that nascent period: bringing on board cocktail guru Nick Strangeway and executive chef Richard Turner. Between the four of them, they slowly carved out the restaurant's distinguished offering of carnivorous British dishes and old-fashioned cocktails - with charcoal grilled steak as the magnificent centre piece. It was the memory of those exquisite steak dinners that drove the pair to try every reputedly excellent piece of beef - from kobe to USDA - before settling on meat from North Yorkshire's Ginger Pig.
This attention to detail didn't just extend to the provenance of the meat, but coursed through the restaurant. From the old-fashioned drinks - marmalade cocktail or London stout float, say - to the restaurant's beefsteak clubs (a 18th-century fad relaunched in the new millennium), historical roots ran through the entire enterprise. And clearly this was what recession-addled Londoners wanted. "After a while, it started to be that every week was busier than the last. It was brilliant," says Beckett.
From Goodman's to Wolfgang Puck's Cut (both London), steak restaurants are clearly back in vogue (see panel). Yet something has pushed Hawksmoor to the head of this pack. A big help in this ascension is that, by the time they opened the Seven Dials site, the pair had learnt a lot about running a restaurant, says Beckett. "At first we were totally disorganised back of house, didn't really understand how to keep staff and had a high staff turnover. We did the classic hospitality thing of promoting staff but not training them. But by the time we opened the second Hawksmoor we had learnt a lot about training. We only had to recruit one senior position from outside the company at Air Street."
These days, the pair are particularly proud that Hawksmoor was named 36th in the Sunday Times Best Small Companies to Work For 2012 list.
Another factor in their success is the pair have their roles in the company down to a tee. Gott's portrayal of Beckett as the numbers man isn't a million miles from the truth (he learnt how to handle spreadsheets from a free Learn Direct course when unemployed many moons ago) and he very much oversees the people side of the operations. Meanwhile Gott applies his fastidious mind to the design and feel of the restaurants.
Four sites down the line, and Hawksmoor's trademark interiors - all reclaimed parquet flooring, dark wood and green leather - have become part of the group's brand, although this term remains a controversial point: "When we started I didn't want to be branded," says Gott. "There is a perception in the food world that brands are bad." Yet slowly, from these interiors through the restaurant's motto "Beef and Liberty" (lifted from the Beefsteak club), the four-strong group is increasingly building a distinguished brand awareness. "Yes the sites have got the same name and people can think of it in that way if they want," continues Gott. "But brands don't have to be bad. Everyone has got a brand they feel positive towards."
The duo are still, it seems, coming to grips with their huge popularity, so much so that they are reluctant to share turnover figures. "I don't want it to be all, we've got four restaurants and we earn this much! Pow!" says Beckett, "although I always say that but realise we are a limited company so that information is readily available online."
He's right: Underdog's turnover for 2011 was £10.6m, up from £3.7m in 2010.
With the restaurants doing so well, can we expect another in the near future? "We don't know is the honest answer," says Beckett. "I think we'll see if London has the appetite for another and we'll be able to tell that easily from the bookings." How about venturing into new territory? "Yeah, I've been thinking maybe we should do something different," replies Gott. And ideas, it seems, aren't in short supply - at least from one of the duo. "Huw has this little notebook he carries around in his pocket where he writes down thoughts," says Beckett. "We'll brainstorm and he'll present a really intricate idea with drawings and loads of detail, whereas mine will read 'We could do an Italian?'. But we'll see what happens."
Facts & figures
Ownership structure Hawksmoor is owned by the Underdog Group. Majority shareholders are Beckett and Gott. The rest is shared between Paul Campbell of Private Equity firm Hill Capital and a few friends, family and private investors.
Weekly covers 7,000
Average spend £65
Underdog Group timeline
- August 2003 Gott and Beckett form the Underdog Group and open the Redchurch in London's Shoreditch
- November 2005 Bar and Mexican cantina Green & Red opens, also in Shoreditch
- August 2006 Gastropub the Marquess Tavern opens in Islington
- September 2006 Hawksmoor Spitalfields opens with 60 covers
- June 2008 The Marquess and Redchurch both sold
- October 2010 Hawksmoor Seven Dials opens with 145 covers
- November 2010 Green & Red sold
- September 2011 Hawksmoor Seven Dials wins Time Out's best new restaurant at annual awards
- November 2011 Hawskmoor Guildhall opens with 182 covers
- March 2012 Basement at Spitalfields converted to a bar and covers extended to 110
- November 2012 Hawksmoor Air Street opens with 235 covers
The rise of the steakhouse
Roll the years back a decade, and Londoners after a decent steak were hardly spoilt for choice - few places really concentrated on cooking up a perfect slab of beef. Fast forward to 2012, and hardly a week goes buy without a new steakhouse opening. What happened?
Clearly, diners have developed a real appetite for steak. A survey in late 2011 conducted on behalf of Knorr Bouillon found that consumers would happily pay up to £5 more for a steak than for other menu items when dining out. What's more, nearly all of those questioned (96%) said they were likely to return to a restaurant where they had been served a great steak.
The reasons for this are a bit more elusive. Richard Harden, co-publisher of Harden's Restaurant Guides, says that the recession is one factor: "In dreary economic times, people turn back to comfort food and there is nothing more comforting than steak and chips."
Chris Barber, managing director of consultancy Chris Barber Food Solutions, says that the media has had a big role to play: "Once upon a time restaurants all did cuts like best end of lamb as a luxury meat, then TV chefs taught us how to cook it at home. Restaurants switched to cheaper cuts, but then these started cropping up at every dinner party. Now the cycle has moved on to steak. The million-pound question is: what will be next?"
THE NEW MENU AT HAWKSMOOR AIR STREET
While steak remains very much the centrepiece at the fourth Hawksmoor, in a bid to, in Gott's words, "avoid that branded restaurant thing" the menu at the new Air Street restaurant features a substantial seafood offering as well. This, though, was easier said than done.
- "It has taken us years to get our head around beef and seafood is a whole new thing," admits Gott. "Just the logistics alone are hard enough - how do you get the freshest seafood possible into the capital?" The answer is to hire in that expertise - which the duo have done in the shape of seafood chef, restaurateur and family friend Mitch Tonks (pictured, right, with Hawksmoor executive chef Richard Turner), owner of the Seahorse Restaurant in Dartmouth, Devon. Tonks has plenty of experience cooking fish over open fires in his own restaurant, and with 17 years' experience in the seafood business, the new focus on fish couldn't have been achieved without him, says Gott. Tonks's role has been to train the team and source suppliers, with the brief to replicate the arrangement the restaurant has with the Ginger Pig for its meat.
"The aim is to go straight to source, as the restaurant does with steak," Tonks says. "Fish is coming in daily from Brixham and the restaurant has its own unit down there. Without doubt, Hawksmoor is getting the best fish in London."