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Jazz Shapers

Shaper: Sam Hart

Show aired on 15th December 2018

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shapers podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers, where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. I am Elliot Moss, thank you so much for joining. Our guest today is Sam Hart, Co-Founder and Chairman of Harts Group, the restaurant group behind the critically acclaimed Barrafina, Quo Vadis and El Pastór. Despite starting out in finance, Sam felt the call of hospitality following in his parents’ footsteps and set up the Harts Group with his brother, Eddie back in 2003. Younger brother James has since joined as well. The Barrafina restaurant is where they serve quality Spanish tapas – my favourite frankly in London – at a bar where chefs and waiters are working directly opposite you, famously introduced the no booking policy to central London’s restaurants and the risk continues to produce excited queues. Quo Vadis is a unique eccentric members club and a public restaurant in the heart of Soho in London. I actually knew Sam back in the late 90’s when he and I were both in Mexico at the same time. It’s really nice to see you after so many years, hello.

Sam Hart
Very nice to see you, Elliot.

Elliot Moss
He hasn’t changed by the way, Sam is not old but he does look the exact same so maybe you were an old 20 something or maybe you are just a young 40 something, who knows.

Sam Hart
Yeah maybe, I think it’s my healthy lifestyle that’s…

Elliot Moss
It’s your hair, you’ve got hair you see.

Sam Hart
That helps.

Elliot Moss
Men of a certain age they just cherish the hair thing. Now tell me a little bit about firstly, let’s talk about the restaurants, how many have you got now?

Sam Hart
Ten’ish.

Elliot Moss
It sounds a lot doesn’t it?

Sam Hart
It is quite a few I know.

Elliot Moss
It’s quite a few. It started 2003 with Fino’s I think, is that right?

Sam Hart
Exactly yeah on Charlotte Street in 2003 and then Barrafina early 2007, Quo Vadis 2008, a couple more Barrafina’s ’14 and ’15, El Pastór ’17 I think and then we’ve just opened the Coal Drops Yard, at the new Thomas Heatherwick development in Kings Cross.

Elliot Moss
Four restaurants.

Sam Hart
Well yeah, Barrafina, two Pastór’s.

Elliot Moss
Why only open one, I mean you know let’s do four at once and how many extra people suddenly are in your businesses as a result.

Sam Hart
A hundred and eighty.

Elliot Moss
That’s a lot in one go. So here we are, suddenly the man who I knew ran a little nightclub called Ell Colmillo in Mexico and you were, you had gone to Mexico with a serious job.

Sam Hart
With a proper job exactly, I was working for some money brokers, Holly Butler they were called then and they were opening offices all round Latin America and so they just… I was working for them in London and they said ‘look we’ll send you to the…’, I wanted to work in Latin America, and they said ‘we’ll send you to the first office we open’ which just happened to be Mexico and I hated money broking, loved Mexico City and stayed on yeah.

Elliot Moss
And how did you manage because then you were in this proper job, you leave the proper job, you start running the club?

Sam Hart
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Did you manage to survive on that? I mean was that a proper you know, I remember it was a very cool place…

Sam Hart
Yeah the club bizarrely or rather miraculously I suppose actually was a reasonable success. I mean it took us a little while to get there but you know, back in the good old days I lived in a you know, for a 22 year old which was how I was when we started the club you know, it funded a pretty happy lifestyle so…

Elliot Moss
You didn’t need that much and you were working then with your friend, Crispin Somerville?

Sam Hart
Somerville, exactly.

Elliot Moss
And Crispin is still… it’s come full circle, because now he is one of your key business partners?

Sam Hart
Exactly. So, so we did the club together in Mexico which actually the club went on for a decade, I was there for four and a half years but it kept on going in my absence and we had been talking for years about doing a Mexican restaurant in London so sort of fifteen years later it came full circle and we started the Mexican thing.

Elliot Moss
Was the Colmillo business your first business…

Sam Hart
Yes.

Elliot Moss
…your first sort of foray into being an entrepreneur?

Sam Hart
Exactly.

Elliot Moss
And was it just because ‘well I fancy it’ or was it a bit more strategic than that at the time?

Sam Hart
No there was no strategy at all, so I didn’t like the money broking job, Crispin had arrived in Mexico City, he was meant to be going to Columbia to write a film script and I was in Mexico. He then sort of changed his mind, fell in love with Mexico and go well maybe we should do… well actually we thought we were going to do a bar is what it was. So we wanted to do, it was sort of around 1996/7 so Cool Britannia sort of time and we thought we’d do cocktails and music and then actually it sort of morphed into more of a nightclub you know and more into electronic music than we originally intended but yeah.

Elliot Moss
Not knowing what you were going to do when, well you knew what you were going to do when you got there and it turned out to be not the thing you wanted. It strikes me Sam that at 22 it is the perfect age to try stuff. Sitting here now, 22 years later, do you think if it hadn’t have gone wrong in the serious job you actually would have ended up in some sort of corporate parallel life or do you think you were always destined to just branch out and do your own thing?

Sam Hart
Yeah it’s a really good question, and actually it’s difficult to answer. I think probably I was always relatively entrepreneurial so yeah I think so but its, its… you know my father, you know, works for himself as an entrepreneur hotelier and restauranteur as well actually so…

Elliot Moss
Well that must have rubbed off on you a bit though because obviously it is Hamilton Hall isn’t it? That’s the…

Sam Hart
Yeah. I mean I always said that I was going to have nothing to do with the restaurant business because I saw how hard he worked and how difficult it was so and then when we did the night club it was like well that’s not a restaurant it’s much easier, it’s just drinks, its music, it’s nothing to do with hospitality.

Elliot Moss
I am nothing like my father.

Sam Hart
Yeah exactly I am definitely not going to be doing that and then after four years in the club business, you know working nights and late and all of that sort of stuff, I mean I’ve always loved food so I’ve been a passionate foody all my life, the sort of food thing took over from the music and night club sort of thing.

Elliot Moss
And was the food thing because I know you as a family used to go to, I think it was Majorca quite a bit?

Sam Hart
Yeah my mother grew up in Majorca so we’ve got a family house so actually go on our holidays there.

Elliot Moss
And that food thing is it because, I mean did it start at home and because your mum was a great cook?

Sam Hart
Yes my mother’s a brilliant cook, my father’s a good cook but also you know, he’s had a Michelin Star restaurant for thirty five years so and so you know, we’d eat in there, we’d eat in good restaurants, eat very well at home, eat well when we travelled so you know, I have sort of, quite a spoilt restaurant upbringing I would say.

Elliot Moss
And in terms of the transition then from okay I am up all night, I kind of have been doing this for a number of years, at what point did you decide you were going to leave Mexico and was it because you wanted to get quote/unquote serious about things or was it again just happenstance?

Sam Hart
I think like after four years in… doing the night club we were beginning to get – this is my now wife and I – slight burn out from that sort of lifestyle. Well actually what we thought we’ll just come back to Europe so we came up with the idea of trying to open a night club in Barcelona. So I went to Barcelona with Robin and we started about trying to find a suitable venue but it became clear quite early that the Catalans had it all quite sown up there, they weren’t going to let two young English people come and start doing proper night clubs in Barcelona, the licensing was all difficult and that sort of stuff but in the meantime, because there wasn’t really very much to do apart from occasionally go and look at a venue, I spent lots and lots of time shopping in the Boqueria and the other markets of Barcelona and eating out in Spanish restaurants and really developing my love of Spanish food and Spanish ingredients and Spanish restaurants.

Elliot Moss
And then what, you came back to the UK in what year?

Sam Hart
In 2001/2.

Elliot Moss
And at that point between then and when you actually set up the business and you opened Fino your first Spanish restaurant, great restaurant as well. What were you up to? Were you just plotting and planning to make…

Sam Hart
Yeah so what happened was I was messing around not really getting very far in Barcelona and my brother, Eddie who had always worked in hospitality rang me up and said ‘look why don’t you come back, you are clearly not doing anything there, let’s open a restaurant together’. So then the plot was hatched to do tapas in London.

Elliot Moss
And in terms of raising money and finding the right place and all that, more serious than the El Colmillo place, a more grown up thing, a lease on Charlotte Street, Central London wouldn’t have been cheap even if it was cheap then versus…

Sam Hart
Yes. Yeah it was very difficult to get your hands on a Central London lease because obviously the landlords want a proper covenant and two young boys, you know, first restaurant, is not a very good covenant so we spent about a year, something about a year trying to find the right site. We kept ringing up the agents and they would just sort of say ‘yeah we’ve got a lovely restaurant property in Wimbledon or something’ and it’s like ‘but we want to be in Soho, we want to be in Central London’, ‘no, no, no’ and then it was, I think it must have been just after the World Trade Centre attacks I think, the property market just came off the boil a little bit, people were a bit nervous in the restaurant thing and just a couple of opportunities came our way. But if you remember Fino is in a basement so you know, which obviously we didn’t, I mean we wouldn’t have chosen to be in a basement for a restaurant but that was the best we could do in the centre of London.

Elliot Moss
The opportunist is in front of me, Sam Hart, it’s good to think about that as you think about your own business because it doesn’t always come on a plate for you at all. Stay with me for more from Sam in a couple of minutes but first let’s hear from one of our partners at Mishcon de Reya with some words of advice for your business.

We’ve got Sam Hart in with me, he is Co-Founder and Chairman of Harts Group, the family restauranteurs and if you were listening earlier and I hope you were, you would have heard that it is important to be opportunistic, 2003 two young brothers wanted to set up a restaurant in London and there is two hopes of that happening, Bob and no hope and somehow or other they pulled it off. So it starts. You obviously have to build a team Sam. You haven’t run a kitchen before but you’ve obviously seen it in action. You’ve now got money to run, you’ve got front of house, you’ve got marketing, you’ve got tsunami of things that come with running a business. In those early days were you embracing that? Was it stressful? Was it just stressful because there is money at stake? I mean what was going on emotionally?

Sam Hart
Yeah, opening a restaurant is always stressful, it’s still stressful even all these years later but in those days, yeah getting it open is difficult because you know, you raise the money and then it always costs more than you think it’s going to and takes longer and you run out of money and then it all, it always goes right down to the wire with you know, having spent the cash and trying to open the doors and get the cash in through the till so you’ve got that. And then like you say, we didn’t have a team at all so we were working with all new people who didn’t really know what they were doing and clearly us of course. I mean, we were lucky because we had a very good head chef which was a complete fluke. Somehow we found this guy who was a really excellent cook and so the food was always good. Eddie, my brother did have experience front of house but not running his own restaurant and not a hundred cover restaurant, a you know, a busy restaurant so you know for the first six months it was all… every service was really edge of the seat stuff you know, would it collapse into disaster and chaos or you know, would you get through it and I think because you know, the food was good and I suppose we probably got through it more times than we didn’t but you know, you didn’t know every service.

Elliot Moss
But I think I read somewhere you talk about you know, if you’ve learnt one thing it’s that you need a really brilliant team because there is only so much that Sam and Eddie and now you remain here and Eddie is obviously doing his own related thing over in, is he in Palma?

Sam Hart
In Palma

Elliot Moss
In Palma yeah. That team thing then, you strike me and I remember you being, you are a relaxed guy even if there is stress going on you kind of hide it well. Have you learnt about how to manage people better or are you just I am myself and this works?

Sam Hart
No, no no, so definitely I have got better at managing people. I think I was always reasonably good with people but you know, as you get older and more experience you learn I think how to get better at the things you are not naturally good at to start with.

Elliot Moss
What are you not naturally good at?

Sam Hart
Things like conflict you know, like you say, I am relaxed and easy going so I find you know, difficult conversations hard to have you know, being tough on people I find difficult sometimes but I’ve got better at that.

Elliot Moss
And… but the other stuff like running the business, like curating the menu, having a sense of what is going to work in the markets that you are in, it feels like you’ve got a good instinct on that front. I mean most restaurants fail, you are fifteen years in and touch wood, and all the rest of the stuff its flying?

Sam Hart
Yeah well I think I am being really greedy helps because I am obsessed by food.

Elliot Moss
Right.

Sam Hart
So you know and I think I’ve got a reasonably good idea of what tastes good and what people like so yeah but it comes from enjoying it myself you know, wanting to eat and wanting to eat it myself and wanting to consume what we provide.

Elliot Moss
It’s a miracle you kept in shape. Stay with me for more from my Business Shaper, Sam Hart, he is the Co-Founder and Chairman at Harts Group; they’ve got a bunch of really, really tasty restaurants. I am slightly bias because I really love Spanish and Mexican food having lived in both of those countries and those cultures, lucky me. Time for some music, it’s Jamie Cullum with Frontin.

That was Jamie Cullum, slightly more thoughtful and Frontin here on Jazz Shapers and Sam Hart is my Business Shaper, he is the restaurant man who is doing rather well, he focussed. I mean that’s the thing I want to talk about. Many, many restaurants as I said earlier do not make the cut, especially independents and we, although now on the high street we see the demise (a) of the high street in general it’s going through seismic change but (b) the big multiples are not looking so hot. Where do you see the point of difference for you? I mean how big is big? Is it about the quality and the type of food you are focussing on? Have you got aspirations of fifty restaurants? What’s deriving you now?

Sam Hart
I suppose we are mostly about quality because you know, which we are obsessed by and we are in the lucky position that you know, we’ve got a couple of shareholders, external shareholders who are not actually you know, part of the business but they’ve been with us since the beginning. They are long-term investors so we don’t have any venture capital, we don’t have outside people you know, banging on the door saying you need to do twenty restaurants next year because you know… and so it means we can go at our own speed and we can do the projects we want to and I think, you know, whilst we can maintain the quality, you know, we would be excited about doing new things. The moment it got to the stage where we thought we couldn’t keep it the standards as they are, we would maybe think again but for the moment we seem to be holding the quality where we want it to be.

Elliot Moss
And it strikes me you must like the freedom because to be able to set up four different named restaurants in the new project in the Kings Cross, Coal Drops Yard which was the original place where indeed coal was dropped. If anyone’s not seen it you should go, it’s an incred… I mean the new place is incredible but just the site is extraordinary in Kings Cross and what Argent have developed and done and Camden have done is brilliant but in that space, is the fun of it that it’s just new? Is the fun of it just you know, ‘I created that’? I mean where does the buzz come?

Sam Hart
Yeah there is a huge satisfaction from you know, creating. So you start off with you know, a brick shell with nothing in it and in Coal Drops Yard it was a sort of two year project the whole thing so it was sort of a long time getting put together and the satisfaction of seeing it, you know, come to life, be busy, for the quality to be where we want it to be, people enjoying themselves is a great pleasure.

Elliot Moss
And is the biggest buzz the fact the food tastes fabulous? Is the biggest buzz that you have a new concept when you launched El Pastór? What is it, as you think about it honestly, when are you at your….?

Sam Hart
Well the very best buzz for the restauranteur is walking into the room and looking round and seeing lots of happy people having a nice time in your restaurant and that is the food of course but it is also the service, the ambience and you know, how it makes you feel because a restaurant experience is about a lot more than just food. I mean we are obsessed about food, it is very, very important to us but it’s not just food, it’s about hospitality, it’s about atmosphere, it’s about service, welcome all that sort of stuff.

Elliot Moss
And how do you get people, your team to deliver that because you are absolutely right and of course it is also about how comfortable the chair is. It’s about how the table looks, it’s about little things I imagine like the glassware. I mean all those things make a difference. Are you all over that personally?

Sam Hart
Yes, yes, you know my brother James, now works with us, is also… we all are actually and you are right it’s those miniscule details that you as the customer probably don’t quite even really notice but actually you subliminally are picking all of that up so, so yeah, every tiny thing makes a difference.

Elliot Moss
And just on the people thing, what is the one most brilliant way of ensuring that that human being which is representing your restaurant as someone walks in, what do they need to hear from you to ensure they behave the way you want?

Sam Hart
Well I think it’s a cultural, it is a cultural thing. So once you’ve got a restaurant culture established you know, the way to lead when a new one comes in and there is just a way things are done in the restaurant so they look at their peers and people are smiling and they are being friendly and they are you know, there’s a sort of feeling of hospitality and they go ‘okay that’s what I am meant to do’ and… but establishing the culture is difficult and it does take time and I suppose we are lucky in that because we have been doing it now for sixteen years or whatever it is, you know we’ve got quite a lot of people through, down through the business who you know, who are our culture which makes it easier to, when you are opening something new for that culture to be taken forward.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for my final chat with Sam, plus we will be playing a track from Sonny Rollins, that’s up in just a moment.

That was Sonny Rollins with the upbeat Don’t Stop The Carnival. Sam Hart is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes, he has been having a fun old time for quite a long time since his mid-20’s and long may it continue. Talk to me a little bit about the money bit. We haven’t talked about that at all. Obviously you have a business now which is growing. It doesn’t strike me that you are motivated by the money because you’ve talked about quality, you’ve talked about being a massive foodie, you’ve talked about obviously the whole passion for serving and that happiness as you walk through the restaurant and all that. What role does the money play for you?

Sam Hart
Yeah I mean obviously we are actually, we are quite serious business people.

Elliot Moss
You are a business.

Sam Hart
We are a business, it needs to make money and you know, every year we try to make a bit more money than the last so, we are about capital growth, we are trying you know, rather than make short-term profits, add long-term value to the business. Our idea is to sort of keep going slowly, only open in really amazing prime locations, not over stretch it, not compromise on the quality and go about it in a slightly different way.

Elliot Moss
Now you talked earlier about the private equity guys and they are not there, it’s your money. You’ve also done a crowd funding?

Sam Hart
Yes so we did crowd funding for Kings Cross.

Elliot Moss
And why did you do that? What was it… did you need working capital to make that happen or was it something else?

Sam Hart
You know we needed to raise money to build Kings Cross, or build the Barrafino part of Kings Cross and there is obviously various different ways you can go about trying to find it and a friend of ours had done a crowd fund which had been successful so we thought okay well maybe we’ll just think about this and actually the more we thought about it , the better idea it was because it is a really amazing way of engaging with your core audience so I think we had about a thousand subscribers or something like that, twelve hundred. So we’ve now got a thousand brand ambassadors who bought into a restaurant they like…

Elliot Moss
What do they get?

Sam Hart
…one assumes. Their shares.

Elliot Moss
Oh they do?

Sam Hart
Yeah, yeah they get shares and they also get perks as well so they get free drinks every time they come in and at a higher level you know, they get free private dining or membership to Quo Vadis members club and it’s that so you know, you get quite a lot of perks which hopefully suit them but also suit us too. So you know if someone gets a free drink every time they come and dine obviously it’s nice for them because they get the drinks, it’s nice for us that they are coming to eat so it is sort of a symbiotic relationship that hopefully works well.

Elliot Moss
And you raised, you raised over two million?

Sam Hart
Yeah two and a bit million.

Elliot Moss
But you wanted seven hundred and fifty grand which again says a lot about how excited people got about it?

Sam Hart
Yeah I mean, yeah it was one of my great days in business actually. I’d gone cycling round Richmond Park and my bike computer is on my text messages thing so we were getting updates. We launched at 8.00am or something like that and by the time I had finished going round Richmond Park at 10.00 we’d got to the seven fifty in two hours before I’d made it into the office. I was like ‘yahoo’. Amazing.

Elliot Moss
That’s brilliant.

Sam Hart
Yeah, yeah.

Elliot Moss
So what happens next Sam because we are going to have to wrap up pretty shortly. For you though is it going to be steady as she goes?

Sam Hart
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Opportunistic? Take those prime sites and stick to the quality?

Sam Hart
That’s it. So you know, steady as she goes, obviously we’ve opened four restaurants four weeks ago so there is plenty of settling down and tweaking and making sure they are, they get to the level we want them to be.

Elliot Moss
But you still, you still love it and you are young, I mean you are now you are veteran of the industry and you are not, you know, you are in your mid-forties.

Sam Hart
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
He’s thinking how much longer do I have to do it for. I mean that’s a serious point though, the restaurant business as you said is hard, it looks like you still enjoy it even though it’s hard.

Sam Hart
Yeah. I mean we are lucky because our restaurants are busy and that means we can, you know, the stress is less you know, we’ve got plenty of customers coming in through the door, you know those financial pressures but it’s got harder and harder, everything is against restaurants at the moment. You know, we’ve got rents and wages and too much competition and collapsing pound and I mean it just goes on and on and on but the storm that restaurants are facing at the moment and we are in the lucky position that we are still really busy and so can do okay but it’s tough.

Elliot Moss
Keep going, it’s really nice to see you again after all these years, thanks very much for being a guest. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Sam Hart
Yeah so we’ve got Bonito Y Sabroso by Benny Moré which reminds me, takes me back to Mexico and our times together in Mexico and I thought it would be a nice tune to play.

Elliot Moss
That was Benny Moré with Bonito Y Sabroso, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Sam Hart, reminding me of our time together in Mexico, brief as it was many years ago. He has gone on to brilliant things since then based on his love of food, based on his understanding you need to be opportunistic, a really important message. Important also to establish the culture in a restaurant business, make sure the people understand what the drill is and as he has expanded he is keeping it steady, steady as she goes as he said and finally making sure he focuses on the prime sites, the importance of property in his business could not be underestimated. All really good stuff. That’s it from Jazz Shapers, have a great weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds more guests available for you to listen to in our archive. To find out more, just search Jazz Shapers and iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Sam Hart is the co-founder and chairman of Harts Group, the restaurant group behind the critically acclaimed Barrafina, Quo Vadis and El Pastor. He set up the group with his brother Eddie in 2003, and they have been since recognised by GQ Food and Drink Awards, The Cateys and Harden’s for their outstanding achievements as restaurateurs. Sam now operates the group with youngest brother James and business partner Crispin Somerville, whilst Eddie has opened his own restaurant in Palma, Mallorca. The trio recently opened four new restaurants at the new Thomas Heatherwick designed Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross; Barrafina Coal Drops Yard, two new Mexican restaurants – Casa and Plaza Pastor, and new wine bar, The Drop.

There are three other Barrafinas, Harts Group’s authentic Spanish tapas bars, with executive chef Angel Zapata Martin leading the kitchens. The original in Soho has held a Michelin star since 2014, and there two more in Covent Garden’s Adelaide Street and Drury Lane. Barrafina Adelaide Street was awarded 5 out of 5 stars by Fay Maschler in the Evening Standard in 2015 and awarded Observer Food Monthly’s Best Restaurant in 2016.

Harts Group has owned the Dean Street restaurant and members club, Quo Vadis, since 2008, when Sam and Eddie lovingly restored one of London’s most iconic and beautiful buildings to its former glory. Jeremy Lee, an icon of British cooking, is Chef Patron and known for his simple, seasonal dishes and elaborate puddings.

El Pastor taqueria on Borough’s Stoney St was opened in Dec 2016, inspired by Sam Hart and Crispin’s years living in Mexico City running cult nightclub, El Colmillo during the ‘90s and ‘00s, and their simultaneous quest to find the most enjoyable al pastor taco around. As of April 2018, there is Tortilleria El Pastor taqueria and shop on Stanworth Street, which sells El Pastor’s house made heritage corn tortillas and other Mexican ingredients to take away. Casa and Plaza Pastor opened at Coal Drops Yard last week, with the latter boasting a Mexican chicken rotisserie on its outdoor heated and covered terrace.

Follow Sam on Twitter @samhartsgroup.

Interview Highlights

I think I was always relatively entrepreneurial.

As you get older and more experienced you learn how to get better at the things you are not naturally good at to start with.

It comes from enjoying it myself, wanting to eat and wanting to consume what we provide.

There is a huge satisfaction that comes from creating.

A restaurant experience is about a lot more than just food.

We are obsessed about food, it is very, very important to us.

Every tiny thing makes a difference.

Establishing the culture is difficult and does take time.

We are trying to add long-term value to the business rather than make short-term profits.

Our idea is to keep going slowly, only open in really amazing prime locations, not over stretch it, not compromise on the quality.

Crowdfunding is a really amazing way of engaging with your core audience.

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