Sandwiched between Pizza Hut and Jollibee on Leicester Square, Black & White Hospitality’s first West End restaurant certainly stands out. Until recently home to a Chiquito, the site has been given a dramatic exterior paint job in the company colours and - it seems - heralds the beginning of a new era for CEO Nick Taplin and Marco Pierre White, the one-time l’enfant terrible of the London restaurant scene.
While the pair already have around 40 active Pierre White-branded franchises in the UK, Mr White’s is one of a handful of company-owned sites and is also the group’s largest restaurant, weighing in at a mighty 600 covers. It is - according to Taplin - the largest pizzeria in the world (it’s being billed as a ‘steak, pizza and gin house’).
There may already be a number of Black & White Hospitality restaurants in London, but Taplin clearly regards the acquisition of such a large and prominent site as a coup for the group which - with some exceptions - focuses on locations where there is less competition for custom.
“The pandemic has decimated our industry. It’s been absolutely awful. After the initial set up fees the only money we generate from our franchisees is a percentage of turnover. When the restaurants aren’t trading, we get nothing, which is pretty scary when you have 28 people in your head office. But now comes the opportunity.”
We’re standing on the restaurant’s narrow first floor balcony as various tradespeople make the finishing touches to Mr White’s and another group of contractors construct a Christmas market in the middle of the square. Omicron is just the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet at this point and the mood is bullish - triumphant, even - with Taplin excitable about the prospect of regular film premiers - the balcony overlooks the red carpet - and Leicester Square’s 250,000 daily visitors.
A day or two ahead of the opening, the restaurant’s namesake is not present having opted to spend the day at his own hotel and restaurant The Rudloe Arms near Bath. But he has been closely involved with the project, I’m told, having attended both the soft launch and various menu tastings.
Though he doesn’t explicitly say so, it’s obvious that Taplin believes he’s secured a great (nil-premium deal) for the four-storey, 14,500sq ft property, which has been shuttered since the first Coronavirus lockdown. But with a seven-figure rent and a build cost of around £1.5m, it’s still been a capital-intensive project.
“My children’s inheritance is in this restaurant. I did check with them,” says Taplin, who has also secured investment from some of his business contacts, including a number of Black & White Hospitality franchisees.
Whiter than white
Taplin, who has been in the hospitality industry since he was 14, started working with Pierre White in 2010. “At the time I had two hotels and I just couldn’t get the restaurants to work. I’d watch taxi after taxi take my hotel guests to other people’s restaurants while mine stood empty despite the teams having worked hard to get them up to two AA rosette level.”
Pierre White created two mid-market steakhouse concepts and helped Taplin source key staff to train up his teams. Located at then DoubleTree properties in Bristol and Chester, the success of the first two Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar & Grills did not go unnoticed by Taplin’s peers in the hotel trade, who were also presiding over moribund dining rooms.
“People kept asking me for Marco’s mobile number. I sat down with him and told him there was a bigger play we could make. He turned me down the first time. But he said yes the second time on the proviso that I would run it. Marco has the vision; I provide the scale.”
Since retiring from cooking and handing his three stars back to Michelin in 1999 Pierre White had put his name to a string of branded restaurant and pub projects but never created anything of significant scale. Founded in 2013, Black & White Hospitality soon changed that.
It’s actually two businesses in one: a franchising business for Pierre White’s numerous restaurant brands - the portfolio (see panel, below) includes Marco Pierre White Steak House Bar & Grill, Marco’s New York Italian, Bardolino and Wheeler’s of St James’s - that also has a few of its own sites, and a hotel management company that oversees around a dozen hotels.
“But all the F&B at the hotels is related to Marco. There’s only room for one chef in my life,” says Taplin.
Having the vast majority of its locations in hotels has been a big help post-lockdown due to the staycation boom. Packed hotels make for packed hotel restaurants - in October overall sales across the franchised and company-owned sites were up 27% on October 2019.
While some franchise agreements have ended because of the pandemic these have - by and large - been replaced by new projects, meaning that the company now has roughly the same number of franchises active as it did when the Coronavirus first hit.
Led by legal director Rob Atkinson, the group’s high-profile fight for insurers to pay out for business interruption grinds on. There have been a number of victories along the way but the insurance industry continues to push back. A QC was recently hired to help Black & White Hospitality and the many other businesses that Atkinson is representing maintain the pressure.
“We’re in the right but it’s frustrating. These are huge companies we’re taking on that have huge budgets. But we will get there,” says Taplin.
During the impromptu tour of the venue that follows the interview, we bump into Black & White Hospitality’s brand director and executive chef. Darren Coslett-Blaize and Jason Everett are billed as ‘Marco’s angels’, but they look more like his enforcers.
The latter started working at Wandsworth’s Harvey’s - the first and most iconic of Marco’s restaurant projects - in 1987 at the tender age of 19 and has spent most of his career at his mentor’s side.
“He was a beast back then, but it was an amazing experience. Every single emotion every day. There weren’t many of us that came through that kitchen. Well, not many that lasted,” says Everett, who features in Marco’s famed White Heat cookbook.
“I’m the lad with the back cut out of my jacket,” he continues. “I said I was too hot, so Marco made me some ventilation holes. The restaurant was rock and roll. Nobody has seen anything like it.”
So, what’s Pierre White like to work with now? And what does he actually do?
“He’s different now,” Everett says. “His sense of humour has developed as he’s got older. He’s great fun to work with these days.”
“He writes all the menus with us and sits in on the tastings,” adds Coslett-Blaize. “But he’s not just interested on what is on the plate. He’s focused on margins and utilising the staff and space properly. He’s interested in the logistics behind it all.”
Pierre White does not do email or text messages, communicating with the senior management team only by telephone (an old Nokia).
“He is humble. He would say that we don’t work for him, we work with him. He is an amazing man to spend time with. We’ve got a genius behind us, it’s as simple as that,” says Taplin.
Mr White’s menu is largely comprised of Anglo-Italian dishes, including tried-and-tested favourites like aubergine parmigiana, saffron arancini, lasagne and no less than three takes on Caesar salad alongside a large selection of pizza. There are also steaks served with a choice of béarnaise sauce, peppercorn sauce, and garlic butter, along with fries and - in a vague nod to Italy - Piccolo tomatoes.
Prices are roughly what one would expect given the restaurant’s market positioning and location, although the mark up policy is at times erratic, with pizza marinara priced at punchy £13.50 and butcher’s steak (AKA onglet) with all the trimmings a much more reasonable £21.50. There’s also a pre-theatre menu priced at £25 for three courses (£22 for two) and the restaurant is currently offering a free bottle of wine to tables that order two steaks or more.
Black & White Hospitality’s in-house design team has created an attractive restaurant with a warm, timeless feel that’s less corporate than some of the group’s other sites. Foliage hangs from the space’s striking atrium and the walls are peppered with pictures of its namesake, including framed Sunday supplement covers from the chef’s glory days, including that one of him holding a plate with Gordon Ramsay’s head on it.
While the build did end up going over budget, Taplin has been shrewd with the design, sticking to Chiquito’s original layout in most cases and opting to sand down the battered floors and reupholster the existing banquettes rather than ripping them out and starting again (the fit-out only took 10 weeks).
“We’ve kept the well-worn pewter bar too, it looks great. We hope this will be the group’s busiest site, so it needs to look its best. We want it to be busy and loud. As Marco says, we’re not looking to create chapels of rest. It needs to be fun.”
Black & White Hospitality was well on its way to 50 UK sites before the pandemic and now looks likely to reach that milestone within the next year or so with a site in Blackpool due to launch late next year and four additional sites in the offing.
Meanwhile its international business – there are currently a total of five Black & White Hospitality franchise sites live in Ireland, Abu Dhabi and Singapore – is likely to double in size over the next 12 months.
But Taplin and Pierre White are also planning to change the shape of the company by opening more company-owned sites. Taplin sees the new Leicester Square restaurant as a shop window for Black & White Hospitality and seems to be enjoying the extra attention that comes with such a central site.
He says he’s already in negotiations on a second West End and predicts that ‘a few more’ company-owned sites will open within walking distance of his latest restaurant within the next 12 months.
Omicron will doubtless have taken the shine of Mr White’s launch but whether that will affect the group’s expansion plans remains to be seen. As Taplin - who clearly has the stomach for a bit of risk - rightly points out, the challenges the industry is facing now will translate into more opportunities further down the line.
Black & White Hospitality’s portfolio
Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar & Grill
The first concept Taplin and Pierre White created together has become Black & White Hospitality’s key brand with a total of 24 sites currently trading including a restaurant in Abu Dhabi. The mid-market menu is focused on tried-and-tested classics including prawn cocktail and French onion soup. It is not to be confused with London Steakhouse Co., which Pierre White launched in partnership with James Ogilvie Robertson in 2008.
Marco’s New York Italian
Focused on pizza, pasta, burgers and steaks Marco’s New York Italian is Black & White Hospitality’s second largest brand with nine active franchises. The territory is familiar for Pierre White, who teamed up with jockey Frankie Detorri in the noughties to launch a handful of Italian casual dining restaurants, some of which have now been converted to Marco’s New York Italian.
Mr. White’s English Chophouse
There are currently two Mr. White’s English Chophouses – one within New Road Hotel in London’s Whitechapel and one within the Best Western Plus Dover Marina Hotel & Spa. The menu is similar to that served at Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar & Grill.
Wheeler’s of St James’s
Wheeler’s of St Jame’s was established in 1856 and – eventually – spawned a London-centric chain of mid-market fish restaurants. Pierre White acquired the brand in the early 2000s and has looked to revive it a number of times, most notably in 2012 within the St James's Street that is now home to Chutney Mary. There is currently one Wheeler’s of St James’s trading in The City plus a fish and chips-serving spin-off in Dover.
Named after the area to the east of Lake Garda where his mother was born, Bardolino has a single site in Bristol and serves a menu that’s not dissimilar to that served at Marco New York Italian only with more of a focus on brunch (it’s billed as a pizzeria, bellini and espresso bar).
The most recently created brand in Black & White Hospitality’s portfolio is billed as a steak, pizza and gin house. It’s yet another Anglo-Italian outing for the group but with a much wider range of pizzas, including one that name checks Pierre White’s previous business partner Frankie Dettori. Speaking of name dropping, the menu also highlights that its potatoes are supplied by Pierre Koffmann, who Pierre White teamed up with in 2018 to launch a Black & White Hospitality restaurant in Bath. Koffmann & Mr White's was billed as a roll out brand but never reopened following the pandemic.