Hawksmoor has arguably done more than any other restaurant group in the last 10 years to change the face of the London dining scene with its premium steak restaurant chain. It is soon to put the Hawksmoor concept under its most fiercest test by opening up a restaurant in New York. We talk to co-founder, Will Beckett, about what he thinks has helped Hawksmoor succeed where many others have failed.
By their own admission Hawksmoor founders, Will Beckett and Hugh Gott, are not natural or trained restaurateurs, but they know the core values that work when running a business, treating their staff and offering the best customer service.
It is hard to remember quite how hard it was to get a decent steak on a night out 10 years ago. Never mind go to a restaurant that actually specialised in making them and getting them right when they did. Outside of the Gaucho Grill and a few other specialist Argentinian restaurants, steaks were still very much confined to standards set by the Aberdeen Steak House or good old Berni Inn.
So when Hawksmoor arrived on the scene in 2006, with its rough at the edges, stripped back appeal at its first site in Spitalfields, east London, where the focus was 100% on meat and steaks cooked every way imaginable it is not surprising it caused such a stir.
Fast forward 11 years and you can find premium steak houses not just all over London, but in most of our major cities. Whilst good local gastro pubs are now judged by the quality and value of the steaks on offer.
Hawksmoor wasn’t the first, but you can certainly look back on the UK dining scene as pre and post the arrival of Hawskmoor.
Considering the enormous impact and influence it has had, it is only right that Hawksmoor has enjoyed its own fair share of success since it started with its first restaurant in Spitafileds.
There are soon going to be six Hawskmoor restaurants in London, the most recent one set to open later this month in Borough Market, and one in Manchester, as well as its four more casual dining Foxlow sites.
Then in 2018 Hawksmoor founders, Will Beckett and Hugh Gott, hope to do what James Corden has done and conquer the US, well at least a little bit of it, with the opening of a flagship restaurant in New York in the new Richard Rogers-designed Three World Trade Centre. But more of that later.
Down to earth appeal
But arguably one of the key reasons why Hawksmoor continues to set the standard, despite all its new competition, is that for all its growth it has still kept its different, independent and authentic appeal. Which is some achievement when you consider it now has serious private equity investment behind it – reportedly to the tune of some £35 million.
Much of that lies in the values of childhood friends, Beckett and Gott, who have not lost sight of why they wanted to open a restaurant in the first place.
Talking to Beckett certainly makes a refreshing change compared to the corporate, management speak you would normally get from someone responsible for running a business turning over £30m plus a year and employing close to 650 people.
He immediately starts our conversation by addressing and assessing what the important values should be that lie at the heart of a business of its kind. Values that are clearly still the number one factor that motivate and excite himself and Gott and what they have been able to achieve at Hawksmoor.
He explains: “It’s more a case of re-assessing ourselves and how we are presenting ourselves. Not in a Smashie and Nicey sort of way, but we talk a lot internally about having integrity with scale, but we don’t always communicate that very well to the outside world. We could do a better job at telling our story.”
This after all is a business that is one of The Sunday Times’ Top 20 Best Companies to work for, raised nearly £350,000 for good causes last year and has donated £600,000 to Action Against Hunger since 2007.
Beckett adds: “Since the Brexit vote I have been doing a lot of thinking about how we are running our business and gone through a slight change in our mindset. There is, after all, now so much competition and potentially over supply in London at a time when we have almost a perfect storm of rising costs from rents, which are unbelievably high, to the National Living Wage.”
The challenges, he adds, on the premium on-trade sector are harder than ever before. “Since we effectively voted to implode our own currency we now have to be doing things even better than before. We need to focus even more on our customers and how we look after them with our quality of service. We need to re-assess ourselves and look at what we can do better.”
Part of its frank assessment of its own offer has been the fact it had probably become a little more expensive that it needed to be, both with its food and wine offer.
“We know our customers are increasingly looking for an experience, but at a good price. We have looked at what we are doing and introduced some changes like having a rump steak and chips available for £15 and hours where cocktails are £5 to £6. It’s a balance between offering people an experience, at a price they can afford. So they might come to us five times a year rather than three.”
Frank and honest
Beckett is also refreshingly honest. Here’s his own take on how good he thinks they are as restaurateurs. “If we had started our business in the last two years we wouldn’t have had had the success we’ve had. When we first started out we were quite average and have had to learn a great deal. We were also lucky with our timing. London was not seen as the best restaurant city in the world as it is now. When we took on the Seven Dials site in 2010 that had been empty for two years. Now it would be seen as a prime location site.”
Not the sort of pitch you would expect to hear from a private equity backed restaurant group about to venture in to New York. But as Beckett admits: “We have gone from being young upstarts to being part of the establishment and are fortunate in that landlords are keen to have us part of what they are doing.”
So what is the DNA of the Hawksmoor business? If you have been to more than one you will appreciate the fact that whilst there are elements that are similar – the art deco touches, the heavy use of dark wood, the green leather seats, the casual dress of the waiting staff – each also has their own unique look, feel and what Beckett calls “personality”.
He explains: “We like each one to have their own creativity. The menus and drinks lists are also a little different as well. It’s why we let our staff wear what they want, so they can express their own personality.”
Which is where we get to real crux of what Beckett, Gott and Hawksmoor are all about. Treating people the right way. Be it their customers, their staff and their suppliers. Each are equally important to the Hawksmoor story, stresses Beckett.
“We care a lot about our staff. We really respect them. A lot of businesses say they are treat their staff well, but here it is real. It is at the heart of our business to treat themas individuals. It is one of the reasons why someone will want to work for you if you give them their independence.”
Yes, it does formal staff training, but there are there are no set rules about how a waiter should talk about the menu, or wine. “We want them to have their own personality about how they serve people,” says Beckett. “Every person will have their own style. It is also why each of our restaurants are different because the people in them are different.”
When it comes to wine, it also gives its sommeliers the freedom to do talk about wine in the way that suits them. But most of all they encourage them to be serious about wine, but to talk about it in a cool and relaxed way.
All of which has helped Hawksmoor be recognised as one of the top 20 in the Sunday Times Best Companies to work for list.
Growing with suppliers
It is striking how many of the suppliers that Hawksmoor use, both on the food and drinks side, that have been with the group since it started out. Ginger Pig is famously its number one meat suppliers, and has largely grown to the size, scale and reputation on the back of its association with Hawksmoor. Equally its wine and drinks suppliers have been as longstanding
“On the wine side we currently have around 10 suppliers and six or seven have been with us for the full 10 years. We like the fact that they have been able to grow as well with us. It is the same with our meat and fish suppliers and also our PR agency.”
One thing they are assured about working with Hawksmoor. Getting paid on time. Beckett says he recently took his main suppliers out for dinner to celebrate 10 years of trading night and asked them what was the most important factor about working with Hawskmooor was and the fact they paid their bills on time was up there at number one. “But it’s all about doing things the right way,” stresses Beckett.
Drinks have always been an essential and important part of the Hawksmoor. After all it was founded with now legendary drinks consultant, Nick Strangeway, heading up the drinks side of the business. He is no longer part of the business but his influence is still very much part of the group’s thinking about how it approaches its drinks lists.
The restaurants work from a core wine and drinks list, but each one is able to bring in wines, for example, they like and have some autonomy in what they want to sell. “I think we have a nice balance that way,” says Beckett. “They can put their own stamp on it.”
It is now offering many more wines by the glass thanks to the Coravin system and has toned, admits, Beckett, its main list down a little as it was getting a little too expensive.
“We do get people who will spend an awful lot on wine, but our most successful price point it £25.”
Its BYO £5 corkage night on Mondays has also become very popular.
The American dream
All of Hawksmoor’s core values are being put to the test as it embarks on its most ambitious and daring project to date. Launching its own 14,000 sq ft steak restaurant in New York. A city where locals will walk tens of blocks to get to their favourite restaurant. Where the bar of what is deemed to be a good steak is set a lot higher than it even in London today.
Still over a year before it opens Beckett sums up his emotions about what is ahead: “Simultaneously you feel like it’s the most exciting and hardest thing you have ever done.”
You can see why as the new restaurant will have 330 covers and a 100 in the bar compared to the biggest sized Hawksmoor at Air Street which has 235 covers and 50 in the bar.
“We know we are moving in on turf where people have an emotional attachment to their favourite steak house. It’s very much a New York thing. So it’s strange,” he adds.
He admits it has also been a bit of a humbling experience and a chance to appreciate how far they have come in a relatively short period of time. “I recently spent two days with Danny Meyer (legendary US restaurateur) in New York and he was talking to us like his peers. That felt like we had achieved something.”
It also reminds him of the challenge they faced, albeit on a smaller scale when they opened their first, and currently, only restaurant outside London in Manchester in 2015. Whilst large scale steak restaurants had become quite the norm in London, it was still largely a novelty for Manchester, even with a Gaucho in the city. It reminded Beckett of the buzz and excitement that came with it first site in Spitafields.
A restaurant where the focus is 100% on the meat, the cocktails, the wine, the service, the experience. “We had no reputation at all so seeing it blossom has been really rewarding.”
But he remembers being interviewed by the Manchester Evening News and getting the impression that they were a bit disappointed they were not more like the image of “slick London restaurateurs”. “But after a while they liked the fact we were just normal.”
Which is just the way Beckett wants it.