Gary Usher, Chef and Patron of acclaimed restaurants Sticky Walnut in Hoole and Burnt Truffle in Heswall, had just given a talk at the north’s biggest hospitality exhibition about crowdfunding for his latest project.
Afterwards, one of his audience at the Northern Restaurant and Bar show, Raju W. Haider, introduced himself to Gary. Raju is the owner of the growing hospitality design, supply and project management company CKB Ltd, and the brief meeting turned out to be significant moment.
Unbeknown to Gary, as he was speaking, an email had arrived saying that the Chorlton site he’d chosen for his third restaurant, Hispi, had fallen through. Staff had been recruited, websites prepared, furniture bought.
Worse still, much of the capital for the new restaurant, as it had been for the Burnt Truffle, had been raised through Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website. Gary had effectively sold his backers £50,000 worth of meals in advance. Now, there was no restaurant.
A devastated, heartbroken Gary took to Twitter and asked his 17,000 followers to bear with him whilst another site was found. He also promised to personally reimburse anyone who felt they no longer wanted to be involved with the project.
Raju, whose Manchester-based company had quickly progressed from fabricating bespoke stainless steel and catering equipment for restaurant kitchens into design, project management and consultancy for all aspects of the hospitality industry, read of Gary’s plight and got in touch via @StickyWalnut.
Raju knew of a couple of sites Gary might be interested in. One of them was the former home of the popular independent restaurant Café jem&i on School Lane, not in Chorlton, but Didsbury.
Gary says: “Raj told me that he had supported Burnt Truffle and Hispi with crowdfunding pledges. I thought it was too good to be true, so I had his membership checked out. It was true! How great was that?”
However, there was a snag, remembers Raj: “Gary wasn’t very keen on the site. He didn’t like the look of it, particularly from the outside.”
Raju’s solution? He had the exterior painted British racing green.
“It looked awful, I hated it,” says Gary, “then I loved it. It was making a statement.”
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Raju’s design brief – insomuch as there was a brief at all – was to ‘keep it simple and let the food do the talking’.
When they were planning the design of Hispi, Raju took Gary around the restaurants and bars of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, but the latter dismissed the scene as “way too cool”. He wanted humility. Together, they decided on good materials – oak, natural stone, real timber flooring, and key pieces such as the large reclaimed statement mirror from India and an oak dresser.
Raju, whose business is described by Gary as “a one-stop shop for restaurants”, has been in the industry ten years and founded CKB Ltd in 2010.
“It grew into what it is today through people asking me where to source not only equipment of all kinds but also key ingredients,” explains Raj. “I’m not an interior designer as such, but I do like to think I know how to put a restaurant together.”
Raj’s early clients were Chinese and Indian restaurants, including eastZeast, Zouk, Mughli and Yang Sing. Then came a game-changer, the opportunity to collaborate with Living Ventures. He worked on parts of Aiden Byrne’s iconic Manchester House Restaurant, in which he is a partner, including the bar and some back-of-the-house areas. This, says Raj, raised the business to another level.
Hispi, with its 85 covers, finally launched in October 2016 and was met with instant critical acclaim. Within six months of opening, it had been named among Restaurant Magazine‘s Top 100 restaurants for 2017. The restaurant has also been nominated for Best UK Standalone Restaurant at Restaurant & Bar Design Awards 2017.
“I don’t usually gloat, but I’m ridiculously proud of that,” says Gary.
Their next project – the most ambitious yet – is already under way. The latest Kickstarter campaign, launched at the beginning of May, is seeking £200,000 to crowdfund a 120-cover restaurant called Wreckfish in a landmark but derelict Victorian building in the Ropewalks area of central Liverpool.
Given Gary’s track record, you’d back him to succeed. Originally from St Albans, he once worked with Angela Hartnett as a sous chef at the York & Albany in Camden. He investigated crowdfunding when the banks refused to lend him money.
Sticky Walnut had been named AA Restaurant of the Year in 2014 and he wanted to open a second: “I wanted to promote people – sous chef to head chef, restaurant deputy manager to manager, and so on, but I couldn’t. The banks wouldn’t help.”
He turned to Kickstarter after his brother had used the site to launch a book, but he wasn’t sure if crowdfunding could finance a whole restaurant. Despite believing it had never been done in the UK before, 891 people backed Burnt Truffle by pledging over £103,000 on the strength of Gary’s growing reputation as a chef and restaurateur.
“We had a following because we’d been getting great reviews,” recalls Gary, “but among the first to get behind us were the chefs. When people like Michelin-starred Nathan Outlaw put money in, people take notice.”
They’ve been taking notice ever since. Last year, Gary Usher was named by Olive magazine as one of the 13 most influential chefs in Britain.