Words by: Jane Ryan
Photography by: Dan Malpass
From a small late-night venue off Brick Lane, to a four-strong chain and an expanding empire, the duo behind Hawksmoor have turned the idea of a restaurant bar - the industry's traditional 'waiting room' - on its head, and their bars have become the place in town for aspiring young talent.
Will Beckett and Huw Gott struck gold five years ago, turning a small Turkish restaurant in Spitalfields, east London, into a site that kicked off London's seemingly insatiable appetite for steak and cocktails. For the first few years, they candidly admit to riding the coat-tails of their then-manager Nick Strangeway.
However, with three more venues under their belt, Will and Huw have graduated from protégés to industry icons in their own right. And they have just launched a new concept, Foxlow, in Farringdon, that bears all the hallmarks of their years of experience. And it's there we meet them, in a small upstairs alcove, among the late-lunch diners and early cocktail hour enthusiasts. We're here to discuss how they made restaurant bars, so long the afterthought of the mixological world, good again, and why Foxlow is the new operational blueprint for such a venue.
"At Hawksmoor Spitalfields great drinks were always part of the concept and originally the bar was fifty per cent of the venue. The steaks were so popular that in the end we gave over floor space [to diners]. But having the bar in the middle of the venue is something great and we've gone back to that at Foxlow," says Huw. "It brings a casualness that the original Spitalfields has," agrees Will.
Whilst Foxlow's licence dictates that the bar is only available for diners, the cocktails are by no means a second thought. A 12-strong cocktail list, noticeably smaller than Hawksmoor's, are all original drinks, simple executions with three- or -four-ingredients but unusual pairings that are definitely not your usual suspects. The signature Smokestack Mary combines gin, tomato, chipotle, smoked paprika and peated Scotch. But Will and Huw, both 36, have come to be serious about their classics as well, another thing gleaned from Nick.
"If people want a perfectly made Sidecar they should be able to have that conversation with the bartenders," says Huw. "Nick always said if he went into a bar he would order a Martini and if the bartender couldn't make it then he would forget cocktails and start ordering G&Ts.
Straight from the off it's clear these two have a very compatible, if slightly confused, working relationship. Physically they're complete opposites. They also pretend to have little idea of the other's role in the business.
"Will does all the boring stuff," says Huw with a slight eye roll.
"If you pushed Huw, you would find out he has no idea what I do," retorts Will.
"You do all the lawyer and accountant stuff."
"I haven't done that stuff in years," laughs Will. "Huw is weirdly obsessive about odd things. I'm more about the big picture and growing the business. Huw does the things the customers see. I do the things they don't see."
And although it's very much a business relationship during work hours, the two in fact grew up together and went to the same school. Deciding food and drink was something they'd like to venture into, they started in 2003 with a small bar off Brick Lane called Redchurch. It was a gamble: at this point Will had only "minced around in further education", worked as an English teacher in France and Spain and worked in telesales. Huw had worked in the press office of the stock exchange and simultaneously at Café Kick in Shoreditch.
"Redchurch was late-night, DJs and all before the smoking ban - it was a fun thing to do at the time," says Huw. "Fun for that stage of our lives, that is." But was it a good place to start off with? "Ahhh... we made one million mistakes," he says. "But the rent was cheap and the space was small so we could make mistakes." They would own it for six years, selling up in 2010 to free up cash to fuel the roll-out of Hawksmoor.
From Redchurch, the duo turned a French restaurant in Shoreditch and turned it into the famous Green & Red. With Henry Besant and Dre Masso behind the bar it's little wonder this space has gone down in industry history. And it proves their concept of good food and good drinks predates the steak and cocktails concept. Unfortunately the execution wasn't quite there - the site is now BrewDog's eastern outpost. "I don't think we achieved that very well," says Huw. "It was a difficult site. The basement bit we never managed to make work. Lucky enough the banks were generous in those days. We did get the food and atmosphere right though."
Whilst they claim Green & Red was small enough to wing it, their next concept was certainly not. A pub in Islington called the Marquess Tavern, opened in 2006, they describe as "interesting but certainly not profitable". "I signed the lease and then did some research - possibly the wrong way around - and discovered an Islington Gazette headline which read 'The Pub From Hell'."
Rather than leaping from strength to strength their first years in business seemed to be based on doing their utmost to fail. But with their next adventure on Commercial Road their fortunes turn.
"Nowadays we would never take Green & Red's space, and we would never run Marquess Tavern," admits Will. "We got so much wrong, we could have gone bust many times. It took five years of running a restaurant and running a company to get it right. Nick taught us a load and for two years we really rode his coat-tails. But by 2008 we had learnt how to make good jobs and turn a profit."
It was just in time for Hawksmoor Spitalfields - the site had opened in late 2006. Huw recalls the first cocktail menu put together by Nick Strangeway - one which would set the tone for future lists across their sites. "He pored through old library books when it wasn't a common thing to do. But then again a restaurant bar was not so common either."
While Will and Huw relationship was ultimately successful, on a day-to-day basis things could be rocky. As Nick said in an earlier interview (click here to read) "I was quite a dictator to them. They were fairly naive as operators... I am quite free with my language, I don't have a temper but I do tend to swear, and I would swear at them. I know I overstepped the mark but they would stand there right in the pass. There's an immediacy in reacting during service - when I tell you 'fuck off' it means 'move immediately out my way'."
At this point, Will suddenly leans forward, animated despite the subject being typically Huw's domain. In fact, throughout the interview, whenever the subject has been focused on Huw's side of things, Will slumps back, disinterested, practically glazing over. But now he's got a point to make he sits straight back up. "Arguably a good bar in a restaurant [in London] is still not a thing," he says. "If I asked you to name five great bars in London you'd have no trouble. Equally five great restaurants. But five great restaurant bars? Both of us felt it was something we could do. Nick delivered the details."
A restaurant bar sets the tone for the whole venue, he argues. What he and Huw have always strived for was to create venues that could fulfil all the demands of a night out, not just a place to either eat or drink, but to do both. Most restaurants still use their bars as waiting rooms for hungry diners. In contrast, Huw and Will always saw the bar as having a life of its own. "It's a recognition that people want to take their time, not just waste it in a 'holding pen'," says Huw. "In most of our sites you enter through the bar and before you've even reached the restaurant you've walked past people having a nice time, drink in hand. It's vibrant precisely because of the bar," says Will.
The geographies of their site layouts manifest this exactly. Their Air Street (2012) venue is a prime example, with a warm, wooden interior, low lighting and stained glass windows looking down on to Regent Street, large enough to clearly show that food and drinks are on equal footing. The same is true of Seven Dials (2010) and Guildhall (2011).
Now the group is evolving away from menus formed from hours of library research. "A lot of places do the whole navel-gazing thing and it's stripping the fun out of drinking," says Will. "So we have some disco drinks and we've dabbled in Tiki. Foxlow's drinks menu is entirely created by people who work here and each restaurant does their own."
And so ultimately it comes down to the bartenders. Something that Will and Huw have got right time and time again, from hiring Nick in the beginning to their current crew of big-name bartenders. More than that, their venues have become the place to gravitate to for aspirational bartenders. As such, their role in the industry has drawn comparisons with Rushmore Group, previously Match group, owner of Milk & Honey and formerly owner of Match bars.
Will and Huw aren't convinced of the comparison. "Our bartenders stay for a long time which is unusual in the bar industry," says Huw. "But," argues Will, "a lot of people have already cut their teeth when they get to us. We're a place bartenders work up to, but the training is good. We let bartenders get involved in creating the drinks and, like Match, there are career opportunities. Bartenders can see how the next few years will play out.
"Where it's different is you came out of Match with an insane product knowledge - you knew products inside out, encyclopaedic-like. Hawksmoor is that too but it's also how to develop a career, how to look after and manage people."
The pair may have started off behind the bar at Redchurch working till 4am but their day-to-day existence is very different as owners of multiple sites. The group has an office in Wapping - an old Victorian warehouse - though the reality is that most days are spent in and out of their venues, hands-on. "I spend little time in Wapping," says Huw. "I spend more time between the sites, eating and drinking." "Or put it this way," interjects Will, "I do a day-and-a-half a week in the office: Huw does a day-and-a-half a year in the office."
This doesn't mean you'll find them waiting on customers, though they did initially expect to be customer-facing. But that's not quite how they imagined life would be as owner operators. On an evening out in Quo Vadis in Soho, Will described seeing co-owner Sam Hart working the room. "I was so impressed with him, I said 'I suppose you're too important now to take orders', but he pulled out this notepad from his pocket and jotted down our order. I thought I wanted to do that.
"So I tried that at Hawksmoor and I thought 'wow I'm quite good at this, I've got the patter down and the chat with the customers, I'm able to tell them about the product'. And then the food would arrive and they didn't have any cutlery or they had no glasses for the wine and this was even with the head waiters shadowing me and a runner helping."
Asked what their favourite site is and only Will is prepared to give a tentative answer. And whilst Air Street is beautiful and Seven Dials the quintessential Hawksmoor, the constant reference to that original Spitalfields site peppered throughout our entire conversation shows the pair are still in love with that first success. "My favourite depends on my mood and there are reasons why I like them all," says Will diplomatically. "Spitalfields is special, especially at night and it's the soul of Hawksmoor. When new people start and they don't get the concept we take them there to understand. The team never changes and I like it for not being the restaurant it could be. It could be some big city venue."
The facts and figures behind Hawksmoor are proof that their bars are in the premiership. The four sites sell around 4,219 cocktails every week and over a month they get through 592 bottles of gin and 298 bottles of vodka. Topping the best cold cocktail list is Shaky Pete's Ginger Brew closely followed by Champagne Charlie and the Hawksmoor Collins. The company recently saw private equity firm, Graphite Capital, pump a reported £35m in to the business. But Huw and Will say they're still in charge. "We're still totally involved. The term private equity scares people but we're always had investors, now we have adifferent one," explains Will.
Yet as successful as Hawksmoor is, the arrival of Foxlow suggests they refuse to be pigeon-holed by a single concept. They say they don't want to grow the brand much further and, in any case, enjoy developing new concepts too much. "It's the only way to create opportunities and it's fun, especially for Huw," says Will. "Once things are up and running and the task is just to manage it you get bored."
As our time draws to an end, Will turns the tables around, asking what we think of their bars and restaurants. Could it be that these two, having met with failure in the past, are still uncertain of their own success? Will and Huw might have struck gold, helped shape the capital's eating and drinking culture, and are acting as a gravitational pull on aspiring young talent, but their questioning is a sign of humility, shows they have their feet planted firmly on the ground, and is a salutary lesson for the capital's future hospitality operators.