Following the success of their chicken and steak concept Tramshed in London's Shoreditch, Mark Hix and Ratnesh Bagdai, co-founders of Restaurants Etc, have opened Hixter in the City of London. They tell Neil Gerrard why they work so well together and what's next for the Hixter brand.
How long have the two of you been working together?
Ratnesh Bagdai (RB): I have known Mark for 18-odd years. I started my restaurant career at Caprice Holdings, where I was finance director and Mark was chef director. In 2008 we got together to open Hix Oyster & Chop House.
Mark Hix (MH): He had badgered me to do something together for years, and one day this place called Rudland & Stubbs landed in my inbox. I knew of the restaurant because our fishmonger was opposite it, years ago. We went to look at it in Smithfield Market on a Saturday night, and the whole road was blocked with a queue for Fabric nightclub. We barged through the queue, went into the restaurant, and we were the only ones in there apart from the owner. He knew we were interested, so we took it at quite a low premium.
For our first restaurant it was good timing. We didn't know if it was going to work. Now, the whole area has changed. Before, there was only us and Fergus [Henderson of St John restaurant] and some other random restaurants.
What is it about your relationship that works?
MH: It was an obvious dynamic really. A lot of people who open restaurants don't have anyone who is accounts- or finance-based. That's one of the reasons why a lot of restaurants fail. We are a lucky, happy couple.
RB: Forget what anyone says about the discipline of being a creative chef or being a rigid financial person. It is not about him being â¨creative and me being a straightjacketed accountant - we work the business together, we talk about it and we make joint decisions. Sometimes I am the good cop and he is the bad cop. And the next day, or even the next hour, we switch. And it might not be financial, it might not be cheffing. We mix the two.
You have named your new site in Devonshire Square [which opened in December 2013] Hixter. How did the name come about?
MH: I was at a party, probably about three years ago, with a friend of mine. We were chatting about restaurants and a journalist was earwigging our conversation. She said: "Are you going to open a restaurant?" And, off the top of my head, I said: "Yeah, we are going to call it Hixter." She published it because she didn't realise we were joking, and the name stuck.
How did the site come up and what appealed to you about it?
RB: We looked at the site about three months ago, and at that stage the previous occupants were struggling a little bit and the price tag was a bit too high. Over the next two or three months people looked at it and didn't go for it, and the price was lowered. We entered what was called a contract race. We turned our offer around within a week, with our legal team, and we got the site. For me, financially, it stacked up very well. The premium was quite straightforward; the deal was very straightforward.
Were you looking specifically for somewhere where you could do another Mark's Bar?
MH: It always helps if there is a bar element, because I would rather sell Martinis all day than chickens. Some restaurateurs - not naming any names - have copied Mark's Bar in Soho. So we have just sort of copied Mark's Bar as well. But we are allowed to.
Tramshed in Shoreditch, which opened in spring 2012, has been very successful, but how did it measure up against your expectations?
RB: It is a very big site and it is above our expectations, which is great news for us. I am still surprised at the number of covers we do on a Saturday and Sunday. It gives us more confidence about that styling.
How much do people spend per head on the chicken and steak?
MH: The original idea was that the chicken would be the very accessible option, so three people could share a chicken for £25 including chips. The more expensive option would be the different cuts of steak, but saying that, the spend per head is more than we thought.
Is there a limit to the number of Hix-branded restaurants you would do?
MH: Well, the reason we have gone down the Hixter route is because the other restaurants have all got their own identity. I don't want to keep opening a restaurant that is a bit like Soho, or a bit like the Chop House. This one is very specific on what the menu is going to be. That is why we have chosen the name - these are restaurants you will maybe see dotted around London or student cities.
RB: In the industry, people will know it is Mark Hix. But there is also an opportunity. The name Hixter allows us a much wider presence in the City and outside London so customers don't necessarily need to associate it with Mark Hix. It is a brand and concept and style of operation in itself. We feel the concept of chicken and steak the way Mark wants it is what we want to do for the next three to five sites.
How are you funding the expansion of Restaurants Etc?
RB: At the moment - and long may it last - it's self-funding by way of cash flow, self-generated profits and support from our bank. We are with Lloyds Bank and have had a great relationship with them over the past five years.
MH: I think a lot of restaurateurs or chefs get backers from day one, which normally only means you are an employee. At least we are our own bosses and we have respect for what we spend money on - it is much better if you do it that way and live within your means.
Artwork features heavily in your restaurants. How do you decide what to include?
MH: Lots of the artists are friends of ours who have done work in the restaurant in the past. Rather than just going out and shopping for art, which is what a lot of restaurants do, there is always a connection and a story behind it. Often it will be a commission and they will make something for the restaurant, like the mirror sculpture by Gary Webb on the stairs at Hixter. We are also lucky enough to have the Cock 'n' Bull gallery [32 Rivington St, Shoreditch], so we have taken a few pieces of work from previous shows to use in Hixter, especially for the private dining room. We use it as a bit of an extension of the gallery.
The staff must get asked about the art regularly. Do you educate them about it?
MH: All the staff know the artwork in the same way they know the menus. It is an additional ingredient on the menu, and they will know it if it is hanging from the ceiling or on the walls. They know who the artist is. The artists will come in and eat at the restaurants, so they are customers, too.
Mark, you do a lot of work with various colleges - Bournemouth and Poole, Weymouth, Preston, Hammersmith and West London, Exeter and Yeovil - what motivates you to do that and how do you work with them?
MH: I have always kept in touch with the college I used to go to [Weymouth]. When I was there, no-one from the outside world would come in and do anything, so I have kind of made a point of going to various colleges around the country to work with the students and lecturers and give a bit back. Some of my other head chefs go back and do things at the colleges they used to go to, too.
Do you find that these colleges have become a pool of talent for you? Do you recruit from them?
MH: A little bit, yes. Although a lot of kids aren't going to college any more - they go straight into the industry.
Is that a worry?
MH: Yes, a little bit. Personally I don't think the standards at some colleges are what they were years and years ago. But then a lot of colleges don't have the funds they used to. The colleges generally need a bit of a drive. I don't think the number of colleges fall in line with the number of restaurants that are opening. If you imagine how many restaurants will open in London in a month, I don't think the colleges are upping their game enough to supply them.
What keeps you awake at night in terms of running a restaurant?
MH: I think you always have to stay on top of it, really. A restaurant is not the sort of thing you can just open and let it run itself - it doesn't work that way. You have to constantly make improvements, tweak things and keep it lively and interesting - whether that is a cocktail or a menu. You can't be complacent.
RB: My fear is that there is no real working day any more. You have to work every hour and every minute, whether that is keeping up with social media or taking a look at a place that has just opened to see what they are doing.
If we are not in the press or in the social environment, if we have not got a story, then I think we are falling behind. So if I have got a fear, it is how I can fit it all into a day.
The other bit is making sure we have the right staff and the right management team, because there will come a time where, we won't let go, but we will delegate more. As long as our successors in our team below us can respond in the way we have responded and fill their day up like we do.
How has the British restaurant scene changed over the past 10 or 20 years?
MH: There are a lot more restaurants and different styles of cuisine in London. You can eat anything at almost any time of the day in London. It attracts a lot of good chefs and restaurateurs; the business is there.
I remember, when I was working at Le Caprice, Quaglino's opened, and we all wondered where everyone was going to come from for a big restaurant like that. But now there are so many restaurants and they all seem to be busy. There are obviously more people eating out because there is more choice - I don't know where they used to go in the old days.
RB: I don't think the restaurant scene is formulaic any more. If it is different, or quirky, it works. Fifteen or 20 years ago, restaurants were quite formulaic. Generally, when I go out to eat, I don't need a menu. I think to myself: "What do I want to eat in the next 30 minutes or an hour? Where can I get a table?" It might be Indian at Trishna or Gymkhana. It might be Polpo because I want a quick bite, or it might be a Hix steak. There is a lot of impulse booking and a lot of impulse walk-ins.
Restaurants Etc facts and figures
•Hix Oyster & Chop House, 36-37 Greenhill Rents, Cowcross St, London
•Hix Oyster & Fish House, Cobb Road, Lyme Regis, Dorset
•Hix Soho/Mark's Bar, 66-70 Brewer Street, London
•HIX at Selfridge's, 400 Oxford St, London
•Hixter, 9a Devonshire Square, London
•Tramshed/Cock 'n' Bull Gallery, 32 Rivington St, London
•HIX Mayfair, Brown's Hotel, Albemarle Street/Dover Street, London
Forecast annual turnover: £14m net of VAT and service (Group, 2013)
Forecast pre-tax profit: £1.84m (Group, 2013)
Best-performing site: Tramshed £82,000 per week net
Mark Hix pays close attention to the artwork that appears in his restaurants and has called upon his friends and contacts in the art world to help decorate Hixter. Artworks at Hixter include:
•A mirror sculpture by Gary Webb
•Neons by Tim Noble and Sue Webster
•Wallpaper by Jake and Dinos Chapman
•A circular ceiling-mounted photo by Peter Newman