Manchester on verge of greatness, says Hawksmoor founder

According to Will Beckett, co-founder of steakhouse Hawksmoor, "people say that 'Manchester is on the verge of something great'. London felt like that five years ago, and in central London at least that feeling has gone."

Beckett was speaking to Thom Hetherington, founder of the annual Northern Restaurant & Bar conference at Manchester Central, as part of a line-up of speakers within the NRB Debate on Tuesday 17 March.

"'On the verge' is an exciting time to be working in Manchester", said Beckett. "There is a misconception that places outside of London can't handle really good restaurants. When we were planning the Manchester Hawksmoor and were talking to people up here, everybody said not to change a thing, but in London people told us we should make it cheaper and easier for the Northern market."

First launched in 2006 by Beckett and business partner Huw Gott, Hawksmoor operates across six London locations and opened its first Manchester branch earlier this month, a 7,800 sq ft split-level restaurant in the Courthouse, Deansgate. With a menu that includes steaks, roasts, fish, Yorkshire puddings and an extensive cocktail list, the Manchester offer has received glowing reviews.

"We liked the idea of doing a restaurant that belongs in the city. We didn't want to say 'here's a London restaurant, check it out'", said Beckett.

"We chose our Deansgate site because it was so right for us. Hawksmoor is too big and too expensive for the Northern Quarter, and while Spinningfields is vibrant we like heritage buildings."

Despite the success of Hawksmoor, Beckett pointed out that it had been a rocky start, with three previous failed attempts to launch establishments in London. Although a Mexican restaurant, a gastropub and bar all received professional accolades, the businesses failed.

"We were good at the customer side but really bad with the money, and were not brilliant employers", admitted Beckett. "When Huw and I set up Hawksmoor in 2006, Huw's parents had to remortgage their house to finance it because we couldn't get bank loans anymore.

"We were understandably asked, when we'd failed at something three times in a row, why would we try something a fourth time? Well, you do stupid things when you're young."

Although there are now seven Hawksmoor restaurants, Beckett was wary about committing to a national roll-out. "Chains are the dangerous term when it comes to restaurants. Chains sacrifice quality for consistency, and simplify in order to achieve scale.

"We're not interested in over-expanding, we could kill Hawksmoor by over-expanding."

While another Hawksmoor in the North West looks unlikely, Beckett and Gott are actively looking for a site for Foxlow, the Hawksmoor sister restaurant which is less expensive and aimed at a more casual dining market.

According to Beckett, sites in the Northern Quarter are currently at the top of the list, although he said that the challenge would be to deliver a 100-cover restaurant which could deal with both the quieter lunchtimes and the busier evenings.

A big emphasis for the company is looking after its staff, with various benefits meaning that it was named the best hospitality company to work for in the Sunday Times Best Places to Work list in 2014. With Hawksmoor sold to private equity company Graphite Capital in 2013, the restaurant has to strike a balance between meeting financial expectations and still delivering on quality, according to Beckett.

"You try to be clear on the things that will never change and on the stuff that can," he said. "You need to love what you so, and believe what you do is worth doing."

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