The Caterer Interview – Matt Hermer
Matt Hermer is chief executive officer of the Ignite group of bars, nightclubs and restaurants. He tells Kerstin Kühn why he swapped the city for hospitality and reveals the group's ambitious growth plans for the future
You left a successful career in the City when you launched the Eclipse bar back in 1998. What made you want to go into hospitality? Certain aspects of being in the City were rather like being in hospitality. When I was there it was still all about the long lunches - that was how business was done. So I used to go out for lunch and dinner all the time and then my local bar was suddenly put on the market. I was in there with some clients when the bartender announced it had been put up for sale so I said: "I'll buy it!" It just seemed like the right thing to do. So my partner Paul Deeming and I bought it and relaunched it as Eclipse.
What was your concept? I'd spent time working in the USA and it made sense to bring the whole cocktail bar idea to London. England was all about pubs, mushy peas and pints then, and there was a real niche for something different.
I initially did both jobs for a year, working in the City and running the bar, which eventually got too much and I decided to go full time into hospitality.
What were the biggest lessons you had to learn? I was in my 20s so I went into the whole thing thinking I knew everything and it was a huge life lesson to realise that I didn't. Secondly, a theoretical business understanding doesn't translate to a practical one and although I knew what to look out for I didn't really know anything about the financial numbers involved in running a business.
The third thing I realised was that this industry is all about hiring good people and communicating clearly to them what you expect of them. Maybe I was a bit too trusting at the beginning, not fully understanding that the nature of this industry is a bit different from the one I worked in previously.
You opened Boujis next in 2002 and it very quickly became a major celebrity haunt. Is it tricky to manage a club with such high profile customers? I think operationally nightclubs are more difficult to run anyway because of the long hours. The difficulty with Boujis is that it's a relatively small club, with fewer than 165 covers, so if someone comes in with a huge amount of security staff then one area will be full.
What's funny is that it tends to be the Z-list celebrities that come with the most staff, and after a while we just have to say no to that.
Next came Cocoon in 2004. Why did you decide to go from bars and nightclubs into restaurants? It was very ambitious for us to do a big restaurant site in the West End and at that time we probably thought we were fairly invincible. We thought if we could do bars and nightclubs then the next step was food and drink. We thought it would be a pretty seamless transition but it absolutely wasn't. It was a very steep learning curve.
What was so hard about it? Drink is easy. You offer someone a G&T and they don't really care that much about what they're drinking, and the more they drink the happier they become. There's far less fuss in a bar than there is in a restaurant, where everybody is a chef or a food critic.
Food requires a very different skills set, from sourcing to serving to all the different ingredients on the plate. But we hired a very talented team and gave it our best shot, and eventually we managed to succeed.
We were pioneers with Bumpkin, which launched in 2006, by offering sustainable, unpretentious British home cooking. I was hugely excited about it because I really felt that there was a need for a restaurant that wasn't about the fuss but more about what you actually put in your mouth from a sustainability point of view, which hitherto was irrelevant in restaurant dining.
You've just launched your third Bumpkin site at Westfield Stratford City. Back in 2007 you said you wanted five London Bumpkins and more outside the capital. Is that still an ambition? Yes and more than that. For a variety of reasons we had to pull back on the Bumpkin roll-out, as with the international expansion of Eclipse we ended up spreading ourselves quite thinly.
Last year we strengthened our management team and we are now in a much better position to expand. We have a fairly aggressive growth strategy for all of our brands now. We want to open 20 new sites in the next five years. We will open two more Bumpkin sites in the next 12 months and have identified a new site in the City.
We want to open another Eclipse and will open a Boujis in Hong Kong and then there's also Senkai, which is our newest brand.
Tell us about Senkai I wanted to evolve our restaurant business, and Cocoon needed to be updated as a product, so it just made sense to change the concept and bring it in line with what we're doing with Bumpkin in terms of sustainability [Cocoon is now Senkai].
Senkai is the first modern Japanese restaurant in the UK that uses sustainable British produce: 75% of the fish is sourced from British day boats and organic farms and the rest comes from sustainable sources from around the world.
All our meat is British except Wagyu, which you can't get over here. I'm pretty excited by that because most Japanese fine-dining restaurants are not particularly well known for being sustainable.
Bumpkin Notting Hill recently came under attack from rioters. How did your team deal with that? Yes, the rioters came into the restaurant, and the manager and a few other members of staff got pushed over and the place got smashed. Luckily nobody was hurt but there was a fair amount of damage. The team did a very good job of dealing with the rioters and managed to propel them away. Unfortunately the rioters then had a go at the Ledbury, which got it much worse than we did.
You went international with the launch of Eclipse at the W Hotel Barcelona in 2009 and you also run the Wyld club at the W London. Are there more joint ventures with Starwood in the pipeline? The relationship with Starwood was something we worked hard on. Starwood gave us access to properties internationally that we couldn't get hold of ourselves. It's a good partnership and both sites have worked out very well. We'd definitely like to develop the relationship further and we are in talks with them about further sites.
1998 Eclipse, Chelsea
2002 Eclipse, Kensington
2006 Volstead (sold in 2009)
2006 Bumpkin, Notting Hill
2009 Eclipse at the W Hotel Barcelona, Spain
2009 Bumpkin, South Kensington
2011 Wyld Club at the W Hotel Leicester Square
2011 Bumpkin Westfield Stratford City
2012 Boujis Hong Kong
ignite: need to know
Number of sites 10
Number of staff 400
Directors Matthew Hermer, chief executive officer; Paul Deeming, chief operating officer and chief financial officer; Jason Myers, managing director, Bumpkin; Samir Kerchiched, operations and development director