The steakhouse group has since grown to eight restaurants, including regional openings in Manchester and Edinburgh, with a site in New York lined up for later this year. Speaking at the Casual Dining Show in London last month, Beckett reflected on the genesis of the brand, the challenges of opening outside London, and his hopes for the future of the company.
On opening the first Hawksmoor in 2006
My business partner Hugh [Gott] has been my best friend since I was 11. We both had a sense that there was something about London restaurants we didn’t really like. If you went and had a blow-out meal the atmosphere felt wrong, you’d go in a restaurant and it would feel stiff, the waiter was in a suit and the wine tome was intimidating. It wasn’t an experience we enjoyed. If you went to Hawksmoor in 2006 you’d get served by someone who was as passionate as we are but at that time was probably wearing shorts and flip flops. Even now when we open a restaurant I think the informality of Hawksmoor puts some people off, but for a significant number of others that casual [vibe] with high standards turned out to be what they wanted.
How they almost got it wrong opening in Manchester in 2015
I felt Hawksmoor would fit well there, Mancunians like quality but tend to dislike formality or anything that has a sniff of pretention about it. Our worst case scenario was that the industry in Manchester would think we were a bunch of London wankers trying to show them how it was done. We wanted to open a Manchester restaurant, not a London restaurant in Manchester.
There was a moment when we were very close to getting it wrong. On the back of our menu we tell these often quite geeky, laboured stories. We started telling this story about [famous Manchester nightclub] The Hacienda, and we had this meeting with our managers and one of them cautiously put her hand up and said: “please don’t be a bunch of Londoners turning up and talking about The Hacienda. One, we know you were never there. Two, we don’t care. Just open a nice restaurant”. People like her really helped us do that.
On last year’s Edinburgh opening
Some things have gone brilliantly, we’ve opened in an unbelievably beautiful old banking hall of the National Bank of Scotland. Hugh and I walked in to the restaurant after it was built and had to go in to the corner and have a moment to say,’ how did this happen?’ We’ve also had a couple of challenges, there’s a building site opposite our front door, which is frustrating.
We’ve also had that casual versus professional question in our minds. I feel like Edinburgh is a slightly more formal city than Manchester. I don’t feel like we’ve got to the stage yet where we are an Edinburgh restaurant, but we’ll get there.
We went to the Highlands and borders and found some incredible suppliers. We are relatively big, and the farmers we tend to love the most are relatively small, and that creates problems. Our customers mostly want to eat fillet and ribeye, and our butchers and famers have a limited amount of that and quite a lot of the rest of the cow.
On their long-awaited opening in New York
The idea of opening a successful restaurant in New York is the restaurateur equivalent of scoring a goal in the cup final. We have been a year away from opening there for five years. We have an unbelievably beautiful site near Gramercy square that we’re in the process of getting the final price for the build for, but hopefully it will be open this autumn or the beginning of winter. The numbers of a New York restaurant are significantly different to London. The enormous challenge of planning a project that size that far away requires a level of discipline and skill at planning that we have had to learn extremely quickly. One of our senior guys will have been there 18 months by the time we open.
We are trying to open an authentically New York restaurant, not a British restaurant in New York. There are lots of little minefields for us, obvious things like HR legislation and tipping, which are terrifying and extremely different. The steaks are also called different things, a sirloin to an American is a complete different cut. So we need to learn the language. There is obviously a limit to how many [Hawksmoors] we can open. We’re not going to have 20 in London or 50 in the UK. We’re not going to drop below a certain size or spend per head, and would rather not drop below a certain amount busy. So we need to think about that as we enjoy growing the company.
On preparing for Brexit
I woke up one day in July 2016 and suddenly realised I could sleepwalk into quite a major problem at Hawksmoor. Rents, the National Living Wage, and ingredient costs were going up. We called all of our suppliers and told them our concerns about the next couple of years, and that we wanted to work out how to try and make savings. We had 16-17 wine suppliers that we brought down to 10 and gave them more volume in exchange for slightly lower prices. Our fish supplier said they could give us a discount if we paid them every week instead of every month, as they had cash flow problems, it was no skin off our nose but a massive relief to them.
Our staff is 44% British, with 53% from the rest of the EU. Within the London restaurant context that’s pretty high, and we have low staff turnover. I checked in January and we still get an average of 48 applications per advert, even for chef jobs which are our most difficult to fill. That challenge is still there, it doesn’t look like politicians are going to give us a helping hand. Some of that I think is deliberate, the implicit part of the Brexit vote is that businesses like ours should perhaps take more seriously their contract with society to give jobs and meaningful training to people who were born here. We do a big scheme to turn KPs in to commis chefs, we run apprenticeships and go in to schools. We’ve massively upped the amount of training in our business.
The long-term plan for Hawksmoor
Hugh and I think of Hawksmoor as our life’s work. We’re not serial entrepreneurs, we just want to run the kind of restaurants we love in cities we love spending time in. When I’ve retired I want to look back on Hawksmoor and feel proud of it. I don’t want the feeling, which I know other people in this industry have had, that I left and then someone else fucked it up. We’re not trying to build this as big as we can and go and live on a Caribbean island. I love going to work on a Monday. I don’t think any of my friends can say that, and I don’t want to let that go.
Will Beckett was speaking at The Casual Dining Show in London.