Hugh Fowler rolled out his first restaurant chain Café Pasta more than 20 years ago. Now, as managing director of CG Restaurants, he’s learning some new tricks as he masterminds the expansion of Fire & Stone.
On Fire & Stone's exotic pizza menu and expansion plans:
“You go to all these gastropubs out in the country and they have everything on their menus, lots of Thai food, plenty of foreign dishes, and I think pizza with all sorts of different flavours is not such a hard thing to sell outside London. I don’t think it’s too challenging.”
“We’re hoping to do at least six [new Fire & Stone restaurants] in the next 18 months. If Portsmouth works well, then we’ll have the confidence to go further into the provinces."
"I think it’s always been hard to find good sites. Every area is crowded with the key brands. You’ve got to be ready to move quickly when you find the right sites.”
On Cafe Pasta, the small chain of Italian restaurants Fowler launched in 1987 and sold to Pizza Express in 1998
"It was a very simple concept. Great quality, fresh ingredients, everything made on site, informal service, no pretensions, and a simple menu that we could deliver to a high quality, and great value too. We had 38 seats and did 200 covers a night.”
Fowler also placed a great emphasis on creating an environment in which diners wouldn’t feel intimidated. When customers ordered a bottle of wine, it was simply placed on the table – there was no tasting it while the waiter hovered next to the table.
“I just thought it wasn’t necessary. If there’s something wrong, we’ll change it but I don’t see why we need to go through the whole rigmarole and make people feel uncomfortable. That sense of informal hospitality and getting people to relax is very important to us. From the moment the customer walks in the door they shouldn’t have any worries. They shouldn’t be anxious about how much it’s going to cost, who’s going to be serving them, how long they’re going to have to wait for their bill. You’ve got to give them a magic carpet ride through your restaurant.”
On his experience in the hospitality industry:
"What I've learnt from this industry is the real fundamentals of getting a happy team together, making sure they know what the business is doing and the profits it’s making and making sure they share in the success of it. People are always the first priority, after that comes the quality of food and service, but without the right people in place none of the other things follow.”
Having been self employed for more than 20 years, Fowler is enjoying working for a larger organisation, particularly one with a marketing department.
“I’ve had to learn new disciplines and that’s great. I’ve learned what a difference effective marketing can make to your restaurant. We use tactical marketing here at Fire & Stone. If they’re having a quiet afternoon, they’ll stick a lunchtime specials board out, or in the evening a 2-for-£10 board and they’ll uplift that day’s business. Those sorts of things were new to me. I was more ‘give them great service and they will come.’”
“When I opened Café Pasta, the world was a different place. The rent was £27,000 a year. There was also far less red tape. Now you need an enormous amount of plant and machinery to comply with air handling regulations, and that’s what puts the costs up."
“When we opened [Cafe Pasta's first site on] Shaftesbury Avenue, we had no money to spare. We didn’t have the money for extraction so we put the hood in and pretended. We opened in July, it was very hot; there was no deep-fat frying because we were only boiling pasta but people were fainting because it was so hot.”
Hugh Fowler's timeline
- 1975 - 1979: Works for Pizzaland in the UK and South Africa
- 1979 - 1981: Works for Wendy's on its first (unsuccessful) attempt to break into the UK
- 1981-1985: Works for Pierhouse Inns & Taverns, helping to create the Sullivans brand
- 1985: Opens the Great Yarmouth Steamship Company, a cafe and ice cream parlour on a ship in St Katharine's Dock
- 1986: Sets up a baked potato business outside the Tower of London
- 1987: Opens the first Cafe Pasta in Covent Garden
- 1998: Sells Cafe Pasta chain to Pizza Express
- 1999: Develops reality TV show Diners for the BBC
- 2003: Opens the first Hamburger Union
- 2007: Sells the Hamburger Union chain to Noble and joins CG Restaurants (formerly Covent Garden Restaurants) as managing director
- November 2008: Opens Fire & Stone in Westfield
- December 2009: Opens Fire & Stone in Oxford