Chef and restaurateur Gary Usher worked in a number of restaurants around the UK, including Chez Bruce and Angela Hartnett’s York & Albany before opening his first restaurant, Sticky Walnut in Chester, in 2011 on a tiny budget. Following three successful crowdfunding campaigns, Gary now owns and operates four restaurants in the North West – adding Burnt Truffle in Heswall, Hispi in Didsbury and Wreckfish, which opened in Liverpool in October to the portfolio. He talks to Hospitality & Catering News about building his business, who to follow on Twitter and why we should be more positive about life in the kitchen.
Wreckfish opened a few weeks ago, how is it going?
It’s really difficult. This is the fourth restaurant, but it’s very different from the other three. Logistically it’s different – it has a cocktail bar, a pastry bar and private dining room and we’re open for breakfast – and although I knew it was going to be different I don’t think I was prepared for how much. It’s almost like it’s not the same business. Whereas the other three [restaurants] follow the same recipe, this one doesn’t.
Now you have four restaurants, are you happy with that number, or do you want more?
I want to keep on going. I’m having too much fun. I know I say how hard it is, but the stress is what keeps me going. Even the bad stress. That’s why I get up. The only thing that would ever stop it is if we had people who didn’t believe in it – guests and staff. At the minute, the teams are amazing and if they continue to be we can continue to open places. As soon as we can’t get good people then we’ll have to stop, but we are getting great people at the moment. As far as I’m concerned we’ll go as big as we can.
You’ve successfully used crowdfunding to open three restaurants, how have you managed to make such a success of it?
I don’t know how or why I was so successful, but I can tell you what I did and that is set a period of time to run the campaign for and stick to it. For me I’ve always done 30 days and for most of that time I would sit at my phone, so I could focus on it. That’s my biggest tip from personal experience. Cancel your diary for the time the campaign’s on. You have one chance at it and what’s 30, or 40 days in the grand scheme of things? It’s not that much time for the chance to open a business.
Would you recommend crowdfunding to other chefs and restaurateurs as a way to fund their dream site?
I would definitely recommend it, but you’ve got to have some sort of social media following before you do it. I don’t mean you have to 200,000 followers because we didn’t have that. When we did the first one (Burnt Truffle) we had 5,000 followers on one Twitter account but the followers we did have we interacted with and built up relationships with anyone who was interested in the restaurant or followed us on social media. I told them everything about what we were doing – the good stuff and the bad stuff, so when we did the crowdfunding we already had support and that was key. If you don’t interact much with your followers and maybe just write a couple of generic tweets over a month, then launch a crowdfunding campaign, it’s probably not going to work.
How useful is social media to your success as a business?
We are like thousands of restaurants up and down the country and we are not a destination restaurant, so in my opinion, there’s no reason why we’d stand out, but we felt we could on social media. It’s been huge for us. You go back to the first national review we had by Marina O’Loughlin when she was at The Guardian. It wasn’t some sort of contrived trick: We ended up in the same conversation on Twitter and she said she’d heard lots about Sticky and would love to come up. I said to her ‘please don’t come, there are a million better restaurants than us nearer you in London. We’re 200 miles away and we’re not worth it’. I genuinely meant it, but she came up because of that. Bits and pieces like that make the business stand out. I heard Jay Rayner say in a talk once that there are thousands of restaurants out there and you don’t go there just because it serves good food. It needs a story first. The reason he came to review Burnt Truffle was because it had raised £100k on Kickstarter and he liked the story.
As you are on Twitter so much, who are the three most interesting people in the industry you follow on there and why should we start following them too?
I follow Oisin Rogers (@McMoop) manager of Young’s Pub The Guinea Grill in Mayfair. I find him interesting. His tweets aren’t about food, but more generally about the industry. He reads the national restaurant reviews every week too and I like his opinion on them.
Thom Hetherington (@ThomHetheringto) CEO of Northern Restaurant and Bar. In my opinion he’s the best ambassador for restaurant in the North and I love him for that. He loves the North and the North West and he’s a very intelligent guy as well.
Calum Franklin (@chefcalum) executive chef at the Holborn Dining Room. His pastry work is just great and so pleasing on the eye. I find it mad, because we used to work together a long time ago and I don’t know where he’s got this attention to detail from, not because he didn’t have it before, but I’m just in awe of the attention span he’s got to put so much detail into his work. That’s inspiring.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
Probably opening Sticky. I’ve had a few difficult jobs, but the stress of that was beyond anything I’d done before or since. I was on my own doing it and of course, you don’t get into these things without knowing the responsibility, but you’re the person that people rely on to make decisions and you are the last person with everything. I know that’s part of having your own business, but the stress of that was hard. I overcame it by going head first and getting on with it.
Staffing is a major issue for the industry, what are your thoughts on it?
I keep reading stuff about the chef shortage and seeing statistics, but I just don’t buy into it. I think the more that people talk about it the worse it gets. It’s the same with anything. At the start of the recession people would say ‘I’m so worried people aren’t going to spend money’. The more people say that the less likely people are going to spend money and it’s the same with the chef shortage. The more people who say they have problems, the more unstable the kitchens get. If we all say there are no chefs anywhere and that they don’t want to work any more, they will leave.
A bit of positivity and flexibility helps. Life in a kitchen is hard and people leave. It’s frustrating but I need to get on with it and do things to bring about change. When chefs were coming in tired at 8am I changed their start time to 10am and then we adjusted the menu. You have to react to the situation. There are simple changes that make things better and you can make decisions based on what you’ve done before or you can go ‘actually let’s do something different, because what we were doing before wasn’t working’. It’s easy to fall back into the things you used to but you’ve got two choices: Change or lose chefs.
How do you view awards and accolades – good bad or indifferent?
When we’ve won stuff, we’ve just won it, we haven’t asked for it. It’s nice to be involved in and good for the restaurant. Taking the team to an awards event is great. Everyone is proud and has an enjoyable night, so it’s amazing for morale.
We are not a destination restaurant, so we’re not going to win Michelin stars, but to win awards when you have middle-ground restaurants is amazing. I love to be involved, but I’m not pushing for anything other than for us to be proud of what we do. I don’t need someone else to tell us what standard we’re at. If we have a shit service, I’m the one who sees it and says ‘this is shit’ I don’t need anyone else to tell me that. Likewise, if we send out good food and hit the standard we want, we sit down after service and say ‘that’s exactly what we’re trying to do’. You just need to set your own standards and then awards on top are a bonus.
What does the near future hold for you and your business?
I just want to carry on opening places and keep on having businesses that sustain and maintain the standards we have already and keep staff in good careers.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor