Xavier Rousset interview with Will Beckett

27 March 2015 by
Xavier Rousset interview with Will Beckett

In the second part of our series of interviews by restaurateur Xavier Rousset, he speaks to Hawksmoor co-founder Will Beckett and finds out that he and partner Huw Gott would be a disaster on the restaurant floor. Tom Vaughan listens in

Xavier Rousset (XR)

Will Beckett (WB) That's a pretty big question to lead with. London is a funny restaurant market. You can open something really leftfield that does one thing amazingly well and somehow you are full on a Monday night.

Maybe the answer in London is different from other places. In London, if you know what you do well and you can excel at that and be good enough at the other stuff, then I think that's fine. As long as you know what it is you are good at and do that well, then you will find people who will like that kind of restaurant.

XR So you don't target a customer, you target what you are good at?

WB We've never looked for a gap in the market - we've looked at doing what we love and we know what we do well. We opened Hawksmoor
in 2006, and then it wasn't too difficult to make an impact. Now there are something like five restaurants opening each week and it's much harder to make a name for yourself.

When we opened this we did it on the cheap and we could wait for people to trickle along. Now you have to spend much more money and it's much more difficult to get going.

XR So the more you spend on a restaurant, the more people will spend in it?

WB No. Our first one is a great example. The whole thing was done on eBay. People would come and spend £100 just on a steak and we had a wine list that went up to £1,500 and the average spend on wine was probably around £100 - really, really big money, but in a place where you thought "this doesn't make any sense at all".

Whereas Brasserie Zedel is totally at the other end of that spectrum - incredible fit-out but you can go in, spend £15 and leave. If you are really good at what you do, you can make it work. There is something with location: we are near the City, but if we had been further out, it might not have worked.

XR To run a successful restaurant do you need a strong lunch trade? I remember Chris Galvin saying dinner pays the bills, lunch is the profit.

WB There's something in that. Anyone can be busy Thursday, Friday, Saturday night, but what's it like on a Monday night, on a Wednesday lunchtime? If you want to do well, then filling out those times is important. One of the best feelings is to walk in on a Monday night at 7pm and every seat is full.

XR Does social media help to fill those gaps?

WB There was a time when that was true. There were a few lucky moments with Hawksmoor - opening when we did and getting into Twitter early when it was taking off. Now it feels more like something you've just got to do. You're supposed to be on Twitter.

I think the people who do best on it are the ones that make it most personal. There's a company in Manchester called Almost Famous who are more than half-crazy and that comes across on their Twitter feed. They are now incredibly popular for what started off as a small burger joint with about 50,000 followers.

XR Why did you call them all Hawksmoor, rather than, say, Chez Will?

WB Chez Will! If Huw was here he'd be in hysterics about the idea of me doing a restaurant on my own. There'd be a load of nice people standing around, but the food would be terrible.

Whereas if Huw was doing one, there'd be really nice food that would never make it to the table because it would be so disorganised.

When we had four different restaurants - cocktail bar Redchurch, a Mexican bar and restaurant, a gastropub and Hawksmoor - it was so hard. If there was a problem, you had to find four different solutions.

We always liked the idea that you could do something that wasn't a chain - I think people use that term quite pejoratively - but more like a brand. With a brand in, say, the fashion world, you know what you are going to get and are excited about it.

XR How do you change the angle for each site?

WB One of the things I think we do well is that we are not assuming. We don't open somewhere and say, 'You are going to like this, trust me - it's worked in other places'. We work out how we can take the core of what we do and adapt it to a local area.

We've just opened our first restaurant outside London, in Manchester, and we decided to take longer over opening it because we wanted to get to know the city and work out how Hawksmoor could adapt so it feels like part of the area.

XR For a non chef-led restaurant serving good food, do you think the future is in good food or good service?

WB For Hawksmoor, both those things are very important. Ask Huw and he will say the number one thing that will bring Hawksmoor down is a dip in the food quality. We've been going to New York on and off since 2009.

Back then it was streets ahead - the service was incredible, the design was incredible, the food was incredible. When I went back a few weeks
ago, I thought that in a few of those areas we had at the very least caught up.

The food is amazing in London at the moment - the design in some restaurants is very good - but I think the service has a lot of catching up to do. In some it blows you away, but in others they don't seem like they are there to help you have a good time; they know the menu, but don't have passion for it.

XR Why do you think that is the case? My theory is that it's because front of house is not taken seriously as a job yet in the UK.

WB I think we are on that path. If I compare it to when we started, so many more people, especially in their mid-20s, see this as a career. And restaurants like ours take their development seriously. We're getting there. I was talking to one of our managers about how his parents saw his job, and he said it wasn't until he started at Hawksmoor and they came in that they realised that this is a company that can offer you a future and they were happy. That's missing in a lot of companies.

XR My view is that if the food is good the people will come back, but if the service is bad they won't.

WB I've heard someone say that good food won't rescue bad service, but good service can rescue bad food - I think there is something in that.

Outside of London especially, you have to get the service right. My restaurant hero is Danny Meyer. His service teams have an amazing culture - they are all reallyinterested. I love the fact that he has built a big company without selling out any of the things that made him a successful small company.

XR What are your and Huw's specific skills?

WB I can't think of any other restaurateurs apart from Huw and me who genuinely don't know how to run service in a restaurant. If you put either of us anywhere near service in our restaurants, it would be a disaster. We've got a good understanding of what makes a good restaurant and how to run one, but we can't cook, can't make cocktails, aren't good waiters and have never been managers in a restaurant. We are good at surrounding
ourselves with skilled people - that is our skill.

XR How do you view skill levels in the industry?

WB The pool of really good staff is growing as more people come into it and more people stay. But it is not growing at the same rate as the pool of good restaurants. When things calm down a bit, I think those two things will catch up with each other. Something we have worked on for years is working out how we can give people really good careers, train them and pay them a good amount of money.

And going back to your first question about what makes a good restaurant - if you get good people through the door, that matters. You could have the best menu in the world, but if no good chefs want to cook it, then you're nowhere. Or you could have a place built around great service, but if you can't attract and keep good people, then it's not going to work. The restaurant industry stands and falls on who works for you.

Will Beckett

Will Beckett's first foray in the hospitality industry was a big one - opening cocktail bar Redchurch with his best friend Huw Gott in London's Shoreditch in 2003.

Two more sites followed - a Mexican bar and restaurant and a gastropub - before they opened Hawksmoor, the restaurant group with which they are now synonymous.

There are now five Hawksmoors across London and another opening in Manchester. In 2013 the group was snapped up by private equity firm Graphite Capital for a cool £35m, although the duo remain fully in charge.

Xavier Rousset

Xavier Rousset became the youngest Master Sommelier in the world when he passed the exam aged 23.

After working at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons as head sommelier, he met Icelandic chef Agnar Sverrisson and the duo went on to open Texture restaurant in 2007, in London's West End, which picked up a Michelin star in 2010. They also opened wine workshop and kitchen
concept 28°-50° in Fetter Lane in the City of London in 2010.

Described as "a comfortable and relaxing place to enjoy good food and wine", the restaurant is named after the latitudes in which most wine regions are located.

A sister restaurant was launched in Marylebone in 2012, and Maddox Street opened in 2013.

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