If any restaurateur can open three venues in the space of a matter of weeks in London’s new Borough Yards development, then it’s Harts Group. After all, the trio behind the restaurant group, Sam and James Hart and Crispin Somerville, have previous, having done something even more ambitious a few years earlier at Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross.
Unlike the four venues they launched simultaneously at Coal Drops Yard in 2019 - Barrafina, Plaza Pastor, Parrillan and wine bar The Drop - this time round Harts Group is opening just a mere three venues - Barrafina, Parrillan and Bar Daskal - and with staggered opening dates (Parrillan opened in early May, Bar Daskal will open on 15 June and Barrafina will follow on 29 July). So, everything should be relatively plain sailing then?
In a trading environment still recovering from the upheaval of Covid-19, nothing can be described thus, and Borough Yards is no exception. Located in and around a series of restored railway arches right outside Borough Market, Covid has not only caused delays but changed the outlook of the development, according to the trio, with the more traditional choice of clothing stores replaced with more lifestyle options to reflect the post pandemic mood.
Yet such changes also led to Harts Group being able to finally realise their dreams of bringing Barrafina to Borough, which otherwise might not have happened.
“We started talking about [Borough Yards] five years ago,” says James. “Pre Covid we were nervous because none of the spaces quite worked, they were very big and didn’t feel right for a Barrafina. We thought of creating a Viking-style banqueting concept and a Spanish cellar with 300 covers but had to ask ourselves why we were trying to invent a concept to fit a space. It just didn’t work.”
Bringing Barrafina to Borough
That might have been that had Covid not had hit, but the fallout from the pandemic led the landlord to rethink its spaces, offering them the chance to take a building at the front of the development that had originally been intended for a Dishoom before planning permission swung the axe. They were offered the chance to do a multi-site concept like their one at Coal Drops Yard, and this time it made sense.
“The key anchor here was Barrafina coming to Borough,” says Sam. “We’ve been trying to do that for much longer than five years. The idea of a Barrafina Borough has been around for at least 10 years; to us it seems such an obvious location. But everyone trades so well here that so few sites ever come back onto the market. Also, Barrafina is very fussy about the space it needs. It’s not a big space but it requires a clear rectangle that fits a bar that is 14 meters long. It’s unusual to get something clear enough.”
"We thought of creating a Viking-style
banqueting concept and
a Spanish cellar with 300 covers"
Not only is the Borough Yards site more than suitable for a Barrafina the space has enabled them to fully realise their dreams for their grill concept Parrillan.
The first, which opened in King’s Cross, was constrained by the location with the group forced to install table-top parrilla grills on which diners cooked their own food because they were unable to have a big enough kitchen or extraction to run a more traditional restaurant format. At Borough Yards this problem has been overcome with the restaurant having an interior space for the first time as well as an outside terrace enabling the chefs themselves to prepare dishes, all of which are cooked over wood or coal.
“Having the inside with proper extraction means we’ve been able to go back to the beginning and let the chefs do the majority if not all of the cooking,” says James. “It’s good for the Barrafina brand to be doing something new. We love new ideas. This is significantly different [from the original] but its core values are the same.”
Being different is at the core of what the trio are all about. While their recognisable Barrafina brand might be the - very sensible - anchor at both Borough Yards and Coal Drops Yard, each one offers a distinct menu devised by chef director Angel Zapata Martin. Beyond that, they like to play around, whether it be with Parrillan at Borough Yards, Plaza Pastor at Coal Drops Yard, or with Bar Daskal, a drinks-focused venue that pays homage to owners Sam and James’ artist grandfather Vladimir Daskaloff.
“In many ways it’s easier to do a new thing than take something established and give it a new twist,” says Crispin. “We live in a London restaurant scene where there’s something new every week and we’re very focused on keeping Barrafina at the level we want it. The challenge for Parrillan [Borough Yards] was to get it working inside a room and yet for it still to feel like it is linked to the original.”
Three in one
Borough Yards might not be going out on quite the limb Coal Drops Yards was in terms of location, opening three distinct venues in a new development that is yet to bed in is still not for the faint hearted. Given the challenges of Coal Drops Yard in terms of restrictions and also a lack of footfall in the early months, what was the attraction of doing it all over again?
“We’ve got the advantage of having learnt some very key lessons for Coal Drops Yards that can at least inform our decisions,” says Crispin. “Coal Drops was less fluid than here; the landlord has fewer rules and regulations. Because of Argent’s [the developer in charge of Coal Drops Yard] master plan it was very rigid, but they do have this great vision. Here it is more responsive.
“It’s fair to say we threw our all into trusting the landlord’s original footfall estimate at Coal Drops and here we have been able to use a little more of our own experience. They are different sites; people are already using this area whereas it took a long time for people to start using Coal Drops in their daily lives.”
The option to cluster restaurants again was also too good to pass up. With El Pastor located on nearby Stoney Street (the site wouldn’t have worked for a Barrafina, they say) not only do the trio have prior knowledge of the area but it means they now have four venues within a tortilla’s throw of each other.
“We wouldn’t have been able to build three spaces in completely different locations,” says James. “It does help that they are all in the same space. Barrafina is the easier one; there’s a template and we know what it looks like behind the cook line and the bar so the architects can do a large proportion of that. But with Daskal and Parrillan we were starting with a blank piece of paper and working out what the spaces should feel like takes up a huge amount of time. It was incredibly complicated fitting three restaurants in with shared kitchens and duct work - everything shares the same back of house.”
The trio point out that they have been clustering of sorts for much of the business’ life, with Soho and Covent Garden the nexus for its venues. “Operationally, to not be darting all over the place makes sense. With restaurants you want to be near other good restaurants, and if that’s you, then happy days. Each restaurant benefits from the other one being there, it creates a strong draw.”
At Borough Yards the places will feed off each other. Parrillan’s terrace will be used to hold people for pre or post meal drinks and Daskal will also help encourage people to linger longer with a change of tempo.
“The rebirth of Arcade Food Hall points to how it can be successfully done,” says Crispin. “That’s the closest to having a cluster under one operator.”
Another key lesson learnt from their experience at Coal Drops Yard was to not hit the ground quite so fast. It was part of the contract that all four venues had to open on the same day at the King’s Cross development, but with Covid having caused delays across Borough Yards there was no requirement for a repeat performance. At one point they did consider it, but with staffing the way it is this idea was quickly quashed.
“To have opened Coal Drops Yard all in one day was a statement. But it is an inescapable fact that when you open a restaurant there will be teething problems, so to have four restaurants it’s very hard,” says Crispin.
“From an operational side, the business doubled in size when we did Coal Drops, our head office team was in its infancy then,” adds Sam. “This time round we are adding 20% to the size of the business, not 100% as before. We have a bigger, more experienced team with more sophisticated people around us.”
“We’ve got the advantage
of having learnt some very key
lessons for Coal Drops Yards”
Finding staff hasn’t been straightforward but nor has it been a nightmare. In the week before the opening of Parrillan the restaurant had nearly filled its 45-staff quota - the trio admit that trying to find a total of 80 to have enable Barrafina to open at the same time would have been a challenge - which it attributes to it having invested significantly in its HR department since Brexit began.
The enforced shut-down of the sector in 2020 was also put to good use by the company, which they say is now run more efficiently than ever before. “We looked under the bonnet of how we were financed and did some restructuring that put us on a better and more stable footing,” says Sam, noting that Barrafina now also takes reservations for the first time, something which was introduced just after lockdown.
They also point to the change in dynamics between landlord and operator as a fallout from the pandemic as being a positive. Pre pandemic it was felt that landlords held all the cards thanks to a massive over demand for sites, but more recently the pendulum has swung in favour of restaurants, with landlords offering better terms and even contributing to fit out costs.
“That challenge has been replaced by the people one, which is a bit more exciting if you’re working in hospitality,” says James. “Working out how to build your team and ensure they are better remunerated is more exciting but also much more complex.”
One other positive to come out of the pandemic, they believe, has been the shift in perception of a restaurant’s role in society. “Pre pandemic there was a feeling that a restaurant operated within its own bubble,” says Crispin. “Now it feels like there’s more of a consciousness that it’s a contract between council, landlord, restaurant and public and all of those parts of the machine are very important for it to function properly. We have seen councils getting to know their tenants and, similarly, all our landlords were up for having a human discussion on how there will be a restaurant coming out of the end of it.
“It has made us think a bit deeper into what it means to open a restaurant, we have really dug into sustainability and to get an understanding of the wider community we serve and work with. That relationship has got a lot more profound. Rather than expand outwards we’ve expanded inwards.”
A tricky new landscape
The pandemic might be finally on the way out but the issues it brought have been replaced by fresh ones, most pressing of which is the rise in inflation that is putting a further squeeze on margins and hindering consumer spending. It doesn’t feel like the ideal time to be opening three more restaurants, although the trio seem sanguine about the situation.
“It’s a crazy old time for restaurants but a lot of London’s best restaurants opened in recessionary times,” says Sam. “We do have to try a bit harder and be better than anyone else and we are happy to be at the premium end of things. We have never competed on price; it is not why people come to us. Hopefully we are still providing a product people think is worth paying for.
“We are here for the long term; we’re not going away. If the first year or so is difficult then that’s fine. This destination is going to be good for the next 15 years so we will have to weather the early storm.”
Indeed, Harts Group is not a company to shy away from a challenge, signing two deals in lockdown - the other being for El Pastor on Soho’s Brewer Street. “We are cautiously expansive, it is considered risk,” says James. “It will stand us in good stead going forwards. There is something incredibly risky about opening restaurants, it’s not a business to go into if you’re risk averse. It’s finding ways to understand the risk better.”
“We aren’t risk averse, but we are quite site averse,” adds Crispin. “It takes us quite a lot to be excited about a location. All our sites are places we are excited to be in. There is only a finite number of places like that in London.”
“We aren’t risk averse, but we are quite site averse.
It takes us quite a lot to be excited about a location"
A London-based future
As to what’s next, there might not be any more Barrafinas on the horizon - although there could be. “We want Barrafina to remain a really special place,” says Sam. “This will be the fifth. It feels like five is a good number to stop on. But never say never.”
“It probably might be the last Barrafina,” adds James. “It almost sounds like an Oasis album,” quips Crispin
More definitively (maybe) is their assertion that new launches will remain on home soil. This might sound like an uncontroversial statement, but the trio admit that pre pandemic they had directed their gaze overseas. Had the pandemic not struck, and had this publication’s budget been big enough, we could have been having this conversation in Las Vegas.
“We were struggling to expand in London and had started to look at international opportunities in the States and Spain,” says James. “When the pandemic hit the number of opportunities in London grew and that energised us.”
The company was even in the very early stages of talking to the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas about putting in a restaurant, something that in hindsight seems a gamble too far. “I’m incredibly happy about not having to sit on a plane to Vegas on a regular basis,” admits Sam. “London is our spiritual home. It feels like we are a long way away from doing something not in London.”
What that next London project will be is unknown, but it’s likely to surprise. “When the dust settles, I know we will have a million new ideas,” says James. “That’s why we say this is possibly the last Barrafina because we have so many other ideas waiting for us to try. And we love new ideas.”