Harts Group: madmen or visionaries?

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Images: Greg Funnell
Images: Greg Funnell

Related tags: Casual dining, Restaurant, Spanish cuisine

Last year Harts Group opened four venues at Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross. Despite lower than expected footfall at the development, the group has doubled down with a fifth, Parrillan. So are the trio behind it madmen or visionaries?

It takes a special kind of person to open a restaurant in the capital. High build costs, soaring rents, rates, bills and wages and often lengthy negotiations with councils over licenses and opening hours before a dish has even been served means it is something only those of a strong disposition – or a relentless optimism – would ever consider.

To open four restaurants on the same day, and in the same untested location, would therefore seem cavalier in the extreme, but that’s exactly what Harts Group did last year at the newly created Coal Drops Yard development in King’s Cross. As well as its fourth Barrafina, the group opened 200-cover Mexican restaurant Casa Pastor, the 100-cover sister Mexican offering Plaza Pastor and an adjacent wine bar The Drop in a building that had initially been intended for use as a bin store.

Moreover, last month it added a fifth restaurant to the mix – Parrillan, a 100-cover restaurant on the terrace outside Barrafina – bringing the total number of covers it has at the development to around 500. In the case of Coal Drops Yard, Harts Group isn’t doing things by halves.

Parrillan-Credit-Greg-Funnell-web

Betting on the Drop

So why Coal Drops Yard? The journey to the £100m development started with a strategy meeting back in 2016, according to Sam and James Hart and Crispin Somerville, the trio behind Harts Group. “We had a decision to make, which was either replicating the winning model that was Barrafina and doing some sort of rapid expansion with it or trying to build in a slightly different way,” says James.

“We are not the kind of people suited to a 50-plus restaurant roll out, the idea seemed to contradict everything Harts Group is built on. We also didn’t feel the business model necessarily worked any more – rents and rates were going up but prices weren’t, margins in restaurants were getting tighter and tighter.

“We had a strong feeling that we were better off finding one or two brilliant super-prime sites than 10 average ones. We wanted to try to find the next super-prime site rather than an existing one as they already command huge rents and premiums.”

Thus the trio were intrigued by Coal Drops Yard, not only because they remembered it from their clubbing days when the area was home to Bagleys nightclub (where the Barrafina now sits) but because of the success of the adjoining Granary Square development. “When we first looked at the site we knew immediately we wanted to go in there,” says James.

Two and a half years on from the initial meeting, Harts Group’s full complement of restaurants is up and running. But it hasn’t exactly been the plain sailing the trio had hoped for. Landlord Argent insisted that all the restaurants opened on 26 October in anticipation of a huge rush of shoppers from November onwards in the run-up to Christmas, but this couldn’t have been further from what unfolded, says Somerville. “The main challenge is that retail is taking a hammering and Coal Drops Yard is perhaps not attracting the kind of shoppers it needs to. Footfall has been lower than the landlord confidently predicted.”

While they say their restaurants have been busy from day one, the group had to undertake its own marketing, essentially giving away £75,000 worth of food by way of promotions, to drum up business. Indeed, they say their four restaurants accounted for 30% of turnover of the entire scheme in December of last year. “This is way too high, we want to be a small proportion of that,” says James. “We have ended up being destination restaurants rather than relying on shopper footfall.”

The weather thus far hasn’t helped either, with Somerville describing January at Coal Drops Yards as “pretty desolate,” and tough. “It is quite a challenging courtyard. It’s a vast expanse, and the public have found that quite challenging in terms of dwelling there. Coupling that with the retail offering, which hasn’t had full connection yet, and the simple fact is that this is a whole new part of London and needs to be an organic discovery. Because of these open spaces, we are realising that Coals Drop Yard is very much at the mercy of the weather. When it’s cold, it’s really cold.”

"I know on paper this sounds
quite out there but it isn’t
really. Is it?”

All power to the parrilla

Enter Parrillan, the latest venue from the group that seems to be at complete odds with this observation. Parrillan is very much a fair-weather operation in that it involves people grilling their own ingredients in a predominantly outside space, albeit some of it under cover – the restaurant has around 60 covered tables and space for another 40 that will only be used when the weather permits. Given the early issues with Coal Drops Yard, is it a concept that would have been better left on the drawing board?

“The thought to retract the idea never crossed our minds,” says Somerville. “We have always believed in it. If in 2006 someone had said they were opening a restaurant where half the fun is queuing up and you can’t reserve a table, they would have been pelted with rotten eggs. I know on paper this sounds quite out there but it isn’t really. Is it?”

There are a number of reasons for Parrillan’s existence. Primarily, there was space outside Barrafina that was crying out for another restaurant operation, but limited by there being no permission for extraction. The trio had initially intended to create an enormous Basque grill, an idea that metamorphosed into individual charcoal barbecues at the table on which diners can cook their own food, modelled on a restaurant in Ibiza called Can Pilot with which they were familiar.

“We were inspired by the terrace, it’s the best site on Coal Drops Yard,” says James. “It’s south facing and overlooks the canal, with the gardens on one side. A few parasols doesn’t do it justice. The outside spaces [at Coal Drops Yard] need to start attracting people. We designed a concept that is different and interesting and on a sunny day will be one of the nicest places to sit and eat and drink anywhere in London.”

Despite it being in front of Barrafina, and serving Spanish food with some crossover of ingredients, Parrillan is actually more in line with the Hart Group’s other Coal Drops Yards venues, they insist. “It has been informed by the conviviality of Mexican dining,” says Somerville. “The diner has to interact in order to get food to the plate. We are interested in this convivial piece, which is sometimes lacking in the often solitary Anglo experience of eating out.”

Parrillan-2-Credit-Greg-Funnell-web

A grill for all seasons

Getting diners to cook their own food is not a revolutionary idea, particularly in Asian countries where Chinese hot pot and Korean BBQ restaurants are commonplace, but it is still relatively niche in the Mediterranean space. And while such a novel and interactive concept may be just what Coal Drops Yards needs, it’s not without its challenges. “To run this place is more difficult to make money than any other of our restaurants, and that’s purely weather related,” says James, adding that the team will be keeping a watchful eye on the weather reports each morning. Even in high summer, if there is a chance of rain during service it is unlikely that Parrillan will make use of its unsheltered space, almost halving the number of covers it can do.

That said, Parrillan is more than a one season restaurant. “It’s come in a lot more expensive than we wanted it to. The idea was to make a space that was more permanent. In terms of return on investment, we would have made much more money out of just tables and chairs but we felt we really needed to animate this space. It was well worth putting the extra money into building a structure so that it could be operational for as many days as possible.”

Weather considerations aside, entrusting the cooking of expensive ingredients to the diner comes with its own potential pitfalls. What’s to stop people scorching their scallops or making a pig’s ear of their presa? They concede there is that possibility and have put in place systems to mitigate this, including giving people optimum cook times, choosing ingredients that don’t require much cooking, and trying to keep things as simple as possible. Instructions for the Carabineros prawns, for example, is to place them on the grill shell side down and cook until their translucency just disappears. “Our job is to make sure they don’t ruin it. Most stuff will cook in 30 seconds to a minute. It will be very interesting, it’s a bit of an unknown in the UK,” says James.

“It’s for people willing to get their hands dirty,” adds Somerville. “You’ve got to have faith in the guest. But inevitably there will be someone charcoaling a nice bit of presa Iberica and that spells trouble.”

Starter dishes include DIY pan con tomate, where diners rub garlic onto toasted sourdough before adding Arbequina olive oil and chopped tomatoes as they see fit; Cantabrian anchovies; and the cold soup salmorejo (warmer soup
will be served in the cooler months), with the restaurant using this time to fire up the grills. For the parrilla itself, choices include 50-day aged rump steak, Middle White pork chops, scallops, lamb’s kidneys and artichokes,
as well as brochetas including Castañeta (Iberian pork sweetbreads).

Parrillan is very much designed to be a social restaurant, with only a few two-tops and mainly fours, sixes and eights, which is a deliberate juxtaposition to the more solo dining-led experience at Barrafina. As well as giving the group additional covers, it joins the outside covered Plaza Pastor in trying to inject more of a buzz into the development. In Plaza Pastor’s case the group is using music to ignite the evenings but upstairs at Parrillan the approach will be different.

“We need to engage people and for Coal Drops Yard to feel busy rather than just give us more covers. One of the problematic things about the yard is that it hasn’t yet felt a sense of community. Parrillan will help a huge amount,” says James, who adds that the landlord has been more accommodating of the group’s usage of the outside space available.

“There will be a party atmosphere up there. On sunny days we hope people will be getting stuck in and having long lunches that go into early dinners. Our idea across the whole estate is to get the place rocking. A lot of this is space creation, we’ve never done it before, so we are brand new in trying to put somewhere on the map. This is our effort to do that.”

Update

This interview first appeared in the June issue of Restaurant magazine and is based on an interview conducted with Harts Group in April. Harts Group has since reported that, as of late June, the situation at Coal Drops Yard has dramatically improved.

“Since the beginning of the year, we have felt an uplift at Coal Drops Yard in terms of footfall and public engagement, with both the retail  and F+B offerings showing steady improvement month on month," says Somerville."Through the continued work of stakeholder tenants and Argent, the space is really coming into its own. We’re excited about summer and the future.”

Since the feature was written the group has also announced that it will launch Pastorcito, an open kitchen at Arcade Food Theatre, on the ground floor of thec Grade II-listed Centre Point building in central London. Pastorcito will reference the market taquerias of Mexico, enjoyed by Sam and James Hart and  Somerville during their combined 15 years of living in Mexico City and many travels around the country.

“Our time in Mexico was largely spent eating tacos in markets, where the best ones were often to be found, and the relaxed, welcoming and sociable feeling in them was always an added bonus," says Somerville. "Arcade offers a comparable context in London, where they’ve curated a diverse mix of open kitchens and bars that we’re really excited to be included.”

Coal-drops-yard-web

The story so far: Harts Group and Coal Drops Yard

Opening four restaurants in Coal Drops Yard at the tail end of last year presented a number of challenges for the Harts Group, not least the fact that all had to open on a set day in order to avoid incurring any fines.

The bidding process itself involved Harts Group up against “a pretty daunting shortlist of some of the best UK restaurant groups,” according to James Hart, with the group taking four months to put together a pitch, research for which involved several visits to the British Library to mug up on the history of King’s Cross. Its actual pitch to the landlord started as a presentation in the PDR at Quo Vadis (also part of the group) and then went via Barrafina before ending up at El Pastor in Borough Market “to take the landlord on a journey to show them what makes us tick”.

It proved a winning formula, but securing the site was only half the battle. Another major hurdle was satisfying all the different parties involved. “The landlord had a project team answering to a board of directors. We only dealt with the project team but the board had the final say in everything, so it was bureaucracy at its best,” says James of the design and build process. “There was also a separate company in charge of the build, a company owned by the landlords but not answerable to them on a daily basis, and certainly not in any successful contact with each other.”

In addition to having to deal with two sets of architects – one for the Barrafina and one for El Pastor and Plaza Pastor – they also had to work with the landlord’s architect as well as Camden Council, Heritage England, the Royal Archaeological Institute and the Committee for the Preservation of UK Canals and “lots of other people whose sole purpose looked to be stopping us building some restaurants,” adds James. “It dawned on us that we had a massive fight to complete on time, especially in the way we wanted to.”

The team had a year-and-a-half lead time before opening its restaurants, time spent changing the fundamentals of the Harts Group, according to Sam Hart. “We didn’t have the infrastructure and head office team to support us. The lead-in gave us time to try to identify how to change from, essentially, a large mom and pop-style operation to the sort of company that can effectively double its workforce in one day, from 190 staff to about 380. We had to recruit and train 180 people for the same day, which meant we had to change the way we went about running our business.”

This involved hiring an HR director as well as an ops director for the first time. The company now has a team of five in HR, including two full-time staff working solely on recruitment. “As a result of our Coal Drops Yard restaurants there is a lot more paperwork, health and safety and due diligence that needs to be done. The challenge remains how we keep standards across the group at its bigger size.”

The group also turned to crowdfunding for the first time, successfully raising over £1.6m to finance the new restaurants. It’s a process it says it will repeat for further projects. “We have around 1,000 small investors and these are brand ambassadors who like eating in our restaurants and hopefully telling other people about us,” says Sam. “We would certainly consider doing it again.”

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