Barry Hirst on Open House and improving the pub industry

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Barry Hirst on Open House and improving the pub industry

Related tags: Pub industry

The property developer turned restaurateur sold his four-strong pub business last year to concentrate on ambitious new-build projects in iconic London locations, of which the latest is the newly opened The Lighterman in King’s Cross.

Why did you sell such a successful group of pubs?

We wanted to concentrate on our business Open House because we felt that the opportunities for expansion in the pub world were few and far between.

When we started Cubitt House with the launch of The Thomas Cubitt in Belgravia there were a lot of run-down pubs in great locations and the brewers were coming to the end of their leases. Fast forward 10 years and everyone is piling into the industry.

We’re very specific about our locations – we need a strong mix of residential and offices – so we’ve found it almost impossible to get the right pubs.

So that’s why you’ve gone down the new-build route? 

Yes exactly. Our contacts in the property world make it easier for us to get interesting sites in good locations. As a business, we’ve got a good understanding of property and leases because a lot of the boardroom is in the property business. Even more importantly, we understand buildings and fit outs.

We have our own design and construction team, which allows us to take on ambitious projects. A lot of restaurateurs understand how to run a restaurant but they don’t know much about property or fit outs.

Why did you choose to enter the pub industry with no experience of running pubs?

We wanted to improve the pub industry because we were frustrated with poor service levels in pubs. It was pretty diabolical in some cases when we started out. We’d be in smart parts of town and the bar staff wouldn’t look you in the eye or serve you at the table. Pubs were miserable places back then.

Our raison d’être for entering the industry was to create properly run, family-orientated community locals where people would want to come again and again. We’ve been in the business for 10 years now and I think we’re better than most restaurateurs.

How would you describe Percy & Founders and The Lighterman?

They’re hybrids – somewhere between a pub and a brasserie. We called the group Open House because the spaces are very flexible. Our first site, Percy & Founders, opened last year in Fitzrovia​ and The Lighterman opened last month in King’s Cross.​ We also run a much smaller venue called The Larder​ just across from Percy & Founders.

The Lighterman in King's Cross

What appeals to you about these large, multifaceted businesses. Aren’t they a bit risky?

They’re certainly big venues; The Lighterman is 10,500sq ft. We get great economies of scale and we have the same number of people working in the two big venues as we did in all four of our pubs so, in that respect, it’s easier to manage. The size of our places also allows us to generate a lot of business from private functions. We can do anything from 10 to 120 people.

How is Percy & Founders performing?

We’re very happy with it. The number of residents around it is not quite as high as at our old pub locations but the development is not fully let. There are almost 300 flats and only 50 are currently occupied.

How did the relationship with Diego Cardoso come about?

It was through a friend of a friend. We heard he was looking to move from Murano (where he was head chef) and we needed an experienced executive chef.

Given his experience in top-flight kitchens, he wasn’t the most obvious candidate to oversee the food at an expanding all-day dining business...

He’s very talented but he’s also an easy-going person to work with. His cooking is honest and he’s into sustainability and provenance, which chimes with our approach to business. Diego wouldn’t call himself an Italian chef despite working at Murano for many years. Like most chefs he’s French trained and he’s also Argentine so his approach is quite eclectic.

Is there anything you’re changing menu-wise as a result of your experience in Fitzrovia?

Yes. The Lighterman is a lot more simple and honest than Percy & Founders was when it first opened. By that I mean we’re celebrating the core ingredients. It has a grill and a large wood-burning oven so we can bring Diego’s skill at cooking meats to the fore.

What about the site?

It’s a new build overlooking Granary Square. We worked very closely with Stanton Williams (the architect) on the internal layout. The exterior of the building and the surroundings are striking so we’ve gone for something quite muted but a lot more contemporary than Percy & Founders.

The Lighterman exterior

What attracted you to King’s Cross?

The area wasn’t originally on our hit list but when we saw the site we knew we wanted to trade here. It’s just a great place to be. Dishoom is doing between 900 and 1,000 covers a day. 

There’s a lot of competition at a similar price point. Is that a concern?

It’s becoming a destination food hub, so no. We’ve heard some people are not happy about Jamie Oliver opening here but we’re OK with it because it adds another facet to the area.

What about further expansion?

We’re on the expansion trail but we won’t sell our souls. We’re independent and specific about what we want. It’s strictly iconic locations in central London that give us a mix of residential and business – we’re not interested in faceless glass developments.

Related topics: People, Pubs & Bars, Small Talk, Business

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