Knutsford-based Living Ventures owns an estate of 32 restaurants, bars and pubs stretching from Scotland and London and is now bidding to win a Michelin star back for Manchester with Aiden Byrne. Co-founder Tim Bacon tells Neil Gerrard how he made the unlikely transition from Australian soap star to restaurant business tycoon.
You played the character of Chris Bainbridge in the Australian TV soap Sons & Daughters in your youth. After finishing that, you came to London and started to work for TGI Friday's. Why did you decide to make the switch?
I actually came over here in 1987 to pursue my acting career because I had a contract with a rep company. I took a job at TGI Friday's and the rest, as they say, is history. I was part of the opening team for the site at Covent Garden and was made head bartender straight away. It was a big opening as far as London was concerned and there was a lot of attention paid to it.
After winning a cocktail competition you ended up making an appearance on TV chatshow Wogan to show off your bartending skills, which led to you opening your own consultancy, launching 74 sites for other people. Why did you move on from that?
Consultancy is an interesting thing. I imagine it is a bit like prostitution - not that I have ever been a prostitute - because you sell yourself to other people's wishes. People will come up with all sorts of wild and wonderful ideas and as you get more and more experienced you know that no matter what you do, they are not going to work. That was what drove me out of consultancy. I got sick to death of doing things that I just did not believe in.
How does the ownership of the Living Ventures Group work? Some investors are involved in some brands and not others, so it can look complicated to an outsider.
Living Ventures (LV) is primarily me and my business partner Jeremy Roberts - who joined me in 1996 when we did Via Vita - and the team that work with us. And then we have a series of investments - that is the way to look at it. There are about seven of those investments. The LV shareholding in all of those businesses is different and the funding in all of those businesses is different.
So The Restaurant Group owns a 38% stake in the Gusto and Blackhouse project, which is the former Est Est Est estate. Artisan, Australasia and Alchemist are 100%-owned by Living Ventures. The New World Pub Company is a financial relationship with LDC and Paul Campbell - they have a 40% stake in that business. The principle is quite understandable. We own different chunks - some of them 100% and some less than that.
With the opening of Manchester House (due in September), you will have eight sites in Manchester's Spinningfields district, where you have been central to the regeneration of the area. How did you get so involved?
I am a great one for forging relationships. I first spoke to Mike Ingall, chief executive of Allied London (developer of Spinningfields) about three or four years ago. They had a problem in that all the nationals had come in on the wrong side of it. They thought if they were by the water they were guaranteed to succeed. But Manchester is not London. They are quite independent up here and they like what they like. You can't dictate to them, and they are not nearly as romantic as Londoners. As a result, if they don't like it, they just don't give a f***. It is as simple as that. Mike is a bit of a visionary; he knows what he wants and he wants to create something special. He was looking for people and I was one of the telephone calls.
While I was working on Australasia, the Alchemist site came up and that took off in superb fashion. It is a 2,500 sq ft unit with a £2.5m turnover. And then the Oast House happened, which was another game changer. Mike had all these sites and I was loath to let him do them with anybody else and he didn't really want to. I figured if someone else comes in here now, all they are going to do is pitch against one of my existing places and end up diluting trade. But if we put something in that is complementary, then we can reach both of our aims, which is to increase footfall.
How much would you say that you have invested in this area?
The total spend - and it depresses me when I think about this - was £8.5 to £9m. We haven't put all that in, because the landlord has been generous in that process as well, but we have put a lot of it in. Manchester House is costing close to £3m, which is a lot of money.
How carefully do you think about the way in which your businesses interact?
It is not rocket science when you think about it: you have just got to create different models. It is primarily the same people but they are going to want to do different things on different days. You can't assume that everybody will want to go into your unit every single day of the week.
In city centres people do have a tendency to pop in and out of places, or they might come back in on some nights for a longer experience. You want that sort of combination. With something like Spinningfields you really get an opportunity because you are in the heart of the city; everyone is here. So am I going to dilute my existing operations? Not really, I am going for the Manchester market and beyond.
You are set to open Manchester House, a fine-dining restaurant, with Aiden Byrne. Why did you decide to do it and how is it progressing? The view I took on Manchester House is that it is lovely not to do something from a commercial perspective. It sounds like a bizarre thing to say but only a company like ours could actually do something like this. To go out there and say 'you know what, this will probably work but it might not', and then spend £2m on it is a big old thing.
But it is something as a company that we really want to do. We want our Michelin-starred restaurant. It is quite a nice thing to say you have got pubs and a Michelin star and â¨everything in between. Who says it can't be done? The restaurant will be on the second floor, with the lounge on the 12th floor. That is where I am going to make my money to support the fine dining.
How did you get involved with Aiden Byrne?
He called me while I was on holiday. I didn't really know who he was because historically the fine-dining sphere is not really my thing, so I googled him, saw his impressive CV and it turns out he is the nicest guy in the world. Sometimes these chefs have fearsome reputations and you worry you might get stabbed in the back by some mad chef who won't like you poking your nose in the front door, let alone getting involved in the design. As it transpires, Aiden just wants to cook.
Manchester hasn't had a star for around 30 years. Why do you think that is?
I think it is to do with Mancunians wanting what they want. Loads of people tried to open white-tablecloth restaurants and there are loads of them that have failed and there will be loads more. There was one - Kaleido - that closed just the other week. The one that succeeded without getting a star was Michael Caines at Abode. I don't know why it hasn't got a star because he does quite a lot of nice things up there.
It has been interesting to see Simon Rogan going to the Midland hotel, the last place to have a Michelin star back in 1973/4. He seems to be doing very well, with great reviews, which is music to my ears because he has come to do a specific thing in a specific way and has obviously found an audience. Hopefully we will do the same with Manchester House.
Will Manchester House be overtly fine dining with white tablecloths and so on?
There are no white tablecloths. It is more of a global restaurant in its approach, rather than that Conran-esque, fine-dining template that you get quite a lot of in London. That is just not something that I am into as a customer. I like my fine dining casual - don't get me wrong I like good food, and if you go to the Nomas of this world or Alinea in Chicago, these are spaces and environments, they are not bland rooms with bright lights; it is about sensual stuff more than anything else. Manchester House is much more in keeping with that - it is an event as much as anything else. Fingers crossed that people will buy into it.
What are your plans for the future?
We will knock out £60m this year so it is a reasonable-sized business but growth is something we like doing. New World Pub Company is a big target push for us and we have got the funding in place to do four or five a year of those for the next three years. We are looking to release Gusto and we are working on the funding for that, which will be interesting. We would like to move it up to 25 to 30 units and we would like to think that the deal will be done by the end of October.