Going solo: Mark Hix's on how to launch a restaurant
If you're opening a new restaurant you've got to be bold and think of something different, which is tricky these days as most things have been done.
Saturday 26 April 2008
After running places in a group that includes some of London's finest restaurants – Scott's, J Sheekey, Le Caprice and The Ivy – the expectation was that I'd do the same thing in my own restaurant, but that's not going to happen.
The first place to start when opening a restaurant is the location. I'm opening on the site of Rudland and Stubbs, a fantastic old seafood restaurant round the corner from Smithfield Market near the City. It had a marble and dark wooden bar and green coloured tiles. It was perfect. I've kept the bar and a lot of the fittings to preserve a sense of history, but I'm doing a lot to make it my own. We've put in new tiles and I've collected a lot of antique silverware for the tables. We'll serve tap water in old whiskey jugs like you used to find on bars, and I've ordered striped tea cloths for napkins, embroidered with Hix Oyster and Chophouse along a red stripe. There'll be reclaimed 1930s lamps and we'll hang little boards behind the bar showing the different oysters we're offering each day.
As I said in my intro to the recipes, meat is going to be a big part of the new place – we're going to have things like Porterhouse steak, lamb chops, mutton cutlets, bacon chops (see recipes), while oysters will be a big part of the starters. It's a combination that hasn't really been done and I'm very excited about it.
It's a far cry from the hotels in which I started my career when I came to London as an 18-year-old. My first job was heating up frozen veg in the staff canteen at the Hilton. It wasn't really me and I only came into my own when I went to work at Caprice. It was there that I learnt how to cook for the customer. I had room to be creative, thanks to the stewardship of Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, and I just used very simple ingredients. It has influenced my career ever since, and in many ways the Chophouse is the culmination of all of that experience.
One of the most common reasons why restaurants fail is a lack of business nous. I'm lucky because I've got the perfect partner in Ratnesh Bagdai. He'll look after everything behind the scenes and leave me free to do the creative stuff. It's all very well having a wealthy partner, but if he doesn't understand the business, it will go horribly wrong. If you haven't got someone with a business brain, you're doomed.
Another common mistake is spending too much. You can blow a million pounds on a new restaurant and watch it flop. We're spending a fraction of that, but every time I write a cheque, it's still important. I'm constantly sticking my hand in my pocket, without anyone coming through the door yet.
You've got your location, your partners, your interior and all the experience to make it work, but when it comes down to it, food and service are key – it has to be delicious and that's easier than it used to be. As a flag-flyer for British produce, I'm always looking for something new and these days I'm spoilt for choice.
I'm actually not that nervous about opening. The concept is simple enough that it should work unless someone really messes up. I'm even going to America a week before we open, which isn't the normal thing to do, but I'd drive the staff mad if I stuck around. I'm going to let them invite friends and family for some practice runs. It might take two days to get things right, it might take a week. After that we'll have a soft launch, when everything will be half price for a week. But even then, if you mess up someone's table, you need to be able to say, "Actually, forget the bill – we're still warming up."
I'm not going to have a big launch night. I've done them before and they're a complete waste of time – half the people are never going to come back. I'd rather just open and have people I think will become regulars. Whether you're serving a critic or a customer, you've got to get it right. Sure, you don't want a critic saying you're rubbish in the papers, but equally you don't want a customer walking away and telling their mates that either.
Running a restaurant isn't all about getting money in the till – if things go wrong early on, it's about getting it right and the customer walking away saying, "We went to the Chophouse last night and they screwed up but in the end it was fantastic and we got apple brandies on the house."
This is the first place I've had with my name on the door. It helps to have a profile and it means a lot of people are waiting for this restaurant to open. Originally I didn't want my name on the door but my staff persuaded me.
And yes, if people start saying "let's go to Hixy's tonight" that's going to be nice.
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