Coming to America: Hawksmoor on taking on New York

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Images: Heidi's Bridge
Images: Heidi's Bridge

Related tags: Hawksmoor, Steak, New york, Restaurant, British

After five years and one aborted attempt, Hawksmoor is about to open the doors of its first international restaurant, in New York. What possessed the owners of a meat-focused restaurant to make a play in the home of the steakhouse?

Opening a restaurant in New York is like scoring a goal in the Champions League final or, to put it another way, the adult equivalent of a boyhood dream. So Will Beckett tells me when I politely ask him what drove him and business partner Huw Gott to try their luck with the opening of a Hawksmoor restaurant in the Big Apple.

Launching a restaurant 3,500 miles away is hard enough, but doing it in what must be one of the most fiercely competitive and expensive restaurant markets in the world adds a whole new layer of chutzpah. And then there’s the small issue of the restaurant they are opening: Beckett and Gott are crossing the pond to open a steakhouse in the home of the steakhouse. Talk about taking coals to Newcastle.

It’s not the only answer to this question, however; there are actually two others. “There’s also a version of the story that is strategic, that we really want to grow and that there’s a limit to what we could do in the UK. It felt like a logical progression,” Beckett continues. “That story is real, and it exists in the boardroom and on strategic documents, while the Champions League version is much more personal to me and Huw. Opening a restaurant in New York is the dream. It’s a city we really like and the thought of having a restaurant there is amazing. OK, the thought of having a successful restaurant there is amazing, I’m not particularly interested in having a failed restaurant there.”

And the third answer? “It’s the one everyone understands, which is if you’re the heavyweight boxing champion of Britain, what do you do next? You go over to America and fight the
best American boxer. There’s something about that in it.”

This is fighting talk indeed, and for anyone who knows Beckett – and many in the industry do – this might sound uncharacteristically hubristic. Yet it’s also a valid position. With eight hugely successful and highly-regarded restaurants in London, Manchester and Edinburgh, Beckett is entitled to some belief in the brand he and long-term friend Gott founded in Spitalfields back in 2006. And let’s face it, if you want to take on the Big Apple, a city famous for weeding out the weak, you’ve got to back yourself.

“We never talk about whether we are the best in the UK,” Beckett adds, seemingly reading my mind on the matter. “But we are successful. I sort of want to know how good we are at this, and a way of finding out is going to open
in the home of the steak restaurant. That is what makes it daft. But it’s also what makes  it exciting.”

I want to find out how good we are. A way
of finding out is to open a steakhouse in
the home of the steakhouse

Risk takers

This is typical Beckett and Gott, a duo who aren’t afraid to put their necks on the line to try new things. Their track history as restaurateurs is well documented and is peppered with closures, from which they have disarmingly never shied away.

There’s not just been pre-Hawksmoor missteps. At the launch of their book Hawksmoor Restaurants & Recipes back in 2017 Beckett regaled diners with the story of his and Gott’s disastrous – and sometimes hilarious – attempt to take Hawksmoor to Hong Kong that was hindered by a sartorial accident (Gott forgot his suit and had to buy an electric blue one two sizes too small) and red tape, among other things.

More recently, their attempt at a more accessible lower-priced restaurant group under the Foxlow brand ended in ignominy, with the final site closing last year (more on this later). Yet from each setback they have gained valuable wisdom and renewed vigour, with the pair seemingly adhering to Winston Churchill’s view that “success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”. This is why they have built one of the UK’s most respected restaurant groups and why if anyone can crack America it’s these two. Look beyond Hawkmoor’s brilliant food and cocktails, quirky style and beautiful design and you’ll find a company that takes people and environmental welfare exceptionally seriously, that has been listed in the top 50 Sunday Times Best Companies rankings for nine consecutive years, and has raised over £700,000 for Action Against Hunger.

“I remember asking Huw, ‘if we do this and it fails, will that bother you?’,” says Beckett, dressed in his standard ‘business attire’ of grey sweatshirt, jeans and scuffed white trainers. “His answer was that he’d be annoyed if it failed but he would never wish we hadn’t tried. And we’ve been thinking about it for a while now. After all, we’ve been trying to open this restaurant for five years.”

will-beckett-and-huw-gott

Five years in the making

Five years is some gestation period in the restaurant world and, true to form with the pair’s other international endeavour, the opening of Hawksmoor New York has not been a smooth ride.

In the beginning it was going to be located at Three World Trade Center, the skyscraper that forms part of the rebuilding of the twin towers, in what was to be its flagship restaurant. The developer was looking for a brand able to do big numbers with a popular style of food and, crucially, something that didn’t already exist in New York. Hawksmoor ticked all the boxes.

It was 2014 and Beckett received a call out of the blue to come and look at the site, and his first instinct was “that’s not going to happen in a million years”. Later, he arranged a trip to New York to meet up with legendary restaurateur Danny Meyer, and while out there he couldn’t resist a visit.

“I clearly remember standing in the shell of what would eventually be the flagship restaurant looking out over the inverse fountains of the twin tower foundations and had two thoughts. Thought one was, ‘oh my god, I’m flattered by all of this, I’ve been offered the flagship restaurant of the most famous building in the most famous city in the world’. The second was to get this thought out of my head because that’s the worst way to make a decision. It was massively taking coals to Newcastle.”

The lure of the World Trade Center eventually proved too strong, yet when Hawksmoor New York opens this spring it will not be there. Delays with the build meant that, two and a half years into the project, the pair activated their get-out clause and walked away.

It's not about being British; we are British
because we happen to be in Britain and
that resonates with how we think about things

Restaurant Take two

With the benefit of hindsight, this false start is likely to be the best thing that could have happened to Gott and Beckett. Persevering with New York – “we had made a lot of contacts and had done a lot of the work, we knew we could do it” – the site in which they will now open Hawksmoor, in the United Charities Building in Manhattan's Flatiron District, is much more in keeping with their tactic of inhabiting historic and often grand buildings and breathing new life into their hallowed walls.

The restaurant occupies the former assembly halls of the imposing building, which was built in 1893 by wealthy banker John Stewart Kennedy for the Charity Organization Society. It had been closed off to New Yorkers for the past few decades but just happened to come on to the market as Beckett and Gott were looking for their new location. They saw it, fell in love and instantly signed.

But then serendipity has played a key part in Hawksmoor’s life with the stuff that fell through that may have not worked (Hong Kong) and the sites they’ve been gazumped on. Take their smash hit Seven Dials restaurant, which was neither luck nor judgement, according to Beckett.

“It had sat empty for two years and loads of people must have looked at it. The rent was fuck all but all people could see was a 6,500sq ft basement full of weird columns on a shitty bit of Covent Garden back when there were no basement restaurants apart from Hakkasan and when Covent Garden was a shit hole for restaurants. We looked at it and could afford it, and we couldn’t afford the West End, and that was it. The situation matched the space.”

Hawksmoor-US

The United Charities Building looks tailor-made for Hawksmoor, and channels a similar feel to its restaurants in Edinburgh, located in the former National Bank of Scotland Banking Hall, and Manchester, a late Victorian courthouse. The 170-cover dining room has a beautiful mosaic tiled floor, 10m high ceilings and ornate features – the opposite of the glass box that would have been the World Trade Center. One can’t help feeling that if Hawksmoor is to succeed in New York, it would only ever be in this location.

Beckett is reflective on this point. “The design team spent a lot of time thinking about how to do the World Trade Center. The Hawksmoor design brief is to make it feel like it’s always been there, and that’s pretty difficult to do with a building that famously didn’t even exist at the time.”

In hindsight, could it have worked? “If the scheme had delivered what it promised it would deliver it could have succeeded,” he muses. “But even if it had we made some assumptions on how much it would cost and it’s definitely possible that if we’d persevered we might have run out of money. It still felt like a great opportunity, but also a bit of a poisoned chalice. It does now feel like we dodged a bullet.”

When someone opens in London without humility,
we've seen people want them to fail. That's why we've
tried really hard to integrate ourselves

Opening a steakhouse in America

So, to the restaurant itself. Since the early days of talking about their plans Stateside, Beckett and Gott have made it clear that they are not bringing a British steakhouse to America. Instead, they are simply putting what they do in the UK – local sourcing, sustainable thinking, decent drinks and a touch of whimsy – through an American lens.

“What is the defining characteristic of Hawksmoor? It’s about a certain way of thinking in terms of sourcing, integrity, staff and culture. It’s not about being British; we are British because we happen to be in Britain and that resonates with how we think about things.”

This isn’t to say the pair will deny their heritage, and New York will feature some of their trademark quirky touches and self-deprecating humour. Yorkshire puddings will be on the menu but there will be no Sunday roast; brunch will instead be the big focus.

Another aspect they intend to replicate in New York is their ability to take things from their childhood and improve upon them, as they have done with their versions of the McMuffin (HK muffin), the Big Mac (The Big Matt) and Rolos, but with dishes that will resonate with American diners. These won’t be on the menu from day one but will come with time. “If we launched in London with a Big Matt people would say ‘for fuck’s sake grow up’. You have to establish your restaurant as proper before you start fucking around with stuff.”

And what of the early days of New York? Will the duo be located in America for the foreseeable future? Gott and Hawksmoor MD Tim Gould will be out there for around the first four months, along with 15 of the company’s best people, either on a permanent basis or to support the launch. Beckett will alternate between the US and London but insists he doesn’t need to be there.

“There are no two restaurateurs in the whole of London who know less about restaurants than me and Huw,” he says without a hint of irony. “We’re not restaurant people; Huw’s a food person and we both love restaurants, but we don’t stand in a space and think we can improve performance. We’ve got to a size where we need a reporting structure and I’m used to delegating the really important stuff to people who have worked with us for a long time.
“I won’t go into service and tell people how to improve it and that’s a lot of what it’s about in the beginning. I lend close to nothing to how a restaurant works.”

I’m not sure I completely believe him, but it then begs the question ‘what does he do?’ “I’m probably one of the only people who thinks about Hawksmoor in any time frame. In my head New York is over, so what’s next and to what end? What are we trying to do over the next two to five years? Almost no one else in the company spends time in that head space.”

Despite this self-proclaimed ignorance, Beckett is regarded as a voice of reason by many in the industry. By his own admission he is the independent sector’s go-to man for advice on
two broad subjects. “It’s either anything boring, like how does amortisation work or how does your tronc system run?, or on not opening a restaurant in New York. People come to me and say, ‘I want to open in New York, what are your thoughts?’ and I tell them I don’t know because I don’t have one yet.”

Having spent five years trying to open in New York though he must have some advice to impart? “My first thought is that you have to get your head around the numbers quickly," he says after a pause. "Instinctively, if you’re from London you don’t believe the numbers you hear.”

This is both in terms of what it costs to open but also what you can expect a successful restaurant to look like. Beckett says that cost per square foot in the most desirable parts of Manhattan can be around three times that of London, making opening a restaurant eye-wateringly expensive – he puts the figure to open Hawksmoor in its new Park Avenue location at around the $7m mark. But get it right and that outlay will pay dividends.

“It’s easy to name restaurants that do $20m a year in New York, there are loads of them. You’ve really got to believe in a bigger number than anything you can do in the UK. You’ve got to walk into a building and think you can do $15m a year.”

These kinds of figures must have pricked up the ears of Hawskmoor’s backer Graphite Capital. One wonders what it felt about Hawksmoor’s plan to take a bite out of the Big Apple, did it share Gott and Beckett’s enthusiasm?
“They are analytical. It is my job to get excited and excite other people. They have a healthy dose of scepticism. All boards are finely tuned to thinking ‘am I being swept along by the founder’s confidence?’ Almost by definition people who run companies are really invested in ideas and are really good at convincing people they are good. A good board has to try and downgrade this based on a sensitivity to whether they are being swept along by founder’s persuasiveness. They asked us many tough questions and told us to go away and answer them.”

Should it all go south, the New York restaurant is ring-fenced. “If it goes down in flames, we don’t go with it,” says Beckett.

I spend time thinking about what we could have done better.
Without my first set of failures there is no way
Hawksmoor could have come into existence

Learning from the failures

So we are back to talking about failure, potential or past. This brings us to Foxlow, the restaurant the pair launched in Clerkenwell in 2015 and which at its height had four sites. The idea was to create an accessible neighbourhood restaurant, but the pair struggled to make the numbers stack up. “If you want to charge £65 a head [as Hawksmoor does], it tells you how much you want to spend on ingredients. If you charge £20 a head, it says the same thing. We didn’t want to spend below a certain number [at Foxlow] and use lesser quality ingredients. We asked ourselves whether we should just bite the bullet and do so to make it work but we were proud of Foxlow. We didn’t want a version we were less proud of but that worked. It made me want to double down on the integrity thing.”

But it’s tough out there at the moment. Does he wonder whether Foxlow was partly a victim of circumstance? “You see a restaurant that has closed blaming trading conditions, Brexit, rising National Living Wage, staffing and so on, and there is some truth in this. But if you look around, everyone who has a restaurant that’s working is operating in the same conditions. You can kid yourself all you want, but it’s something you did or failed to do. And I’m OK with that.

“I spend time thinking about what we could have done better. There’s that cliche that there’s a million ways to succeed but a predictably small set of ways to fail. Without my first set of failures there is no way Hawksmoor would have come into existence. In three years’ time I’ll be really glad we did Foxlow and had that learning, although it was a very expensive way to learn.”

These are words from experience, but what if Beckett and Gott execute their plans with precision but, fundamentally, Americans just don’t get Hawksmoor and its singular way of doing things? There is a certain schadenfreude some UK restaurateurs revel in when a big American chain comes over here full of bluster and fails spectacularly; could a similar sentiment exist in New York?

“When someone opens in London without humility, we’ve seen people want them to fail. That's why we've tried really hard to integrate ourselves with the [New York] restaurant industry over these five years . We’ve met a lot of people with no agenda but just to say ‘we’re excited to be in your city and want to learn from you’. We’ve put a lot of effort into trying to be nice to people.”

Keeping the critics on side will also be crucial. Whereas Beckett says UK critics no longer have the power to make or break a restaurant, he believes that in the US, where the role of restaurant critic is taken more seriously, often with numerous visits made before judgment is passed, this power still exists.

There is one voice in particular he fears (respects?) more than any other, that of Pete Wells in The New York Times​. It won’t be the opening day of Hawksmoor New York that will get Beckett’s pulse racing, he reveals, but the day the almost inevitable The New York Times​ review of the restaurant lands.

“It’s such a Rubicon moment. If it’s a good review my sense is, as night follows day, you will be busy, and if you do well during that period you will continue to be busy. If it’s bad, then that is a massive amount of work to try and rescue it.”

Could serendipity play one last hand in the story of Hawksmoor New York? Wells’ last steakhouse review was of Brooklyn’s legendary Peter Luger, of which he gave a withering verdict under the heading ‘Peter Luger used to sizzle, now it splutters’, based partly on what he described as ‘weary, detached, impersonal service’ in groaning traditional surrounds. The door is open for a steakhouse renowned for its brilliant staff and which will offer New Yorkers something fresh – albeit from two English guys. The next steakhouse Wells is likely to review with his Luger experience still fresh in his mind is Hawksmoor: the narrative is set.

Either glowing or damning, when the review drops, Beckett says he’ll be jumping on a plane to celebrate or commiserate with the team. Does he dare to dream about a good review? “Every now and again I let myself think about that moment," he admits. “And yes, if it’s good I can wander around New York and think ‘we fucking did it’. That’s the goal in the Champions League final.”

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