Confessions of a hospitality consultant

Caravan King's Cross, London

Nick reflects on the advice he gave on the relative value of shopping and dining, and on the likely future of hospitality.

The opportunity of writing a weekly column on what can best be described as a very personal website gives me the opportunity to be very personal myself.

So I would like to apologise to an awful lot of people.

In roughly date order this apology would begin with one to the executive directors of London’s Southbank Centre; take in the directors of London & Continental Railways, who run St Pancras International; include Michael Bloomberg as well as the directors of Argent LLP, who have developed King's Cross. There would also have to be apologies made to the directors of various arts organisations, ranging from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden to the Ashmolean museum in Oxford.

These are the majority of the clients I have advised over the past 30 years and to whom I have always given the following two pieces of what I thought was ground-breaking yet safe advice.

The first was that retail was dead. The rise of the internet was beginning to have an impact on what were considered ‘safe’ retail spaces long before this pandemic. I used this argument over eight years ago in my only face-to-face meeting with Michael Bloomberg.

He was then Mayor of New York and the meeting took place in his office in New York City Hall. The subject under discussion was what to do with the ground floor of what was to become the Norman Foster design for the Bloomberg headquarters in the City of London. Bloomberg had bought the freehold of the building but certain planning conditions still applied, most pertinently that the ground floor, which had been retail in its former incarnation, had to retain a retail element. Hospitality would also meet this criterion.

Bloomberg himself was open to the notion that the space should be given to hospitality rather than to retail and had been encouraged in this by my friend, the well-known restaurateur Danny Meyer, who was also in the room, together with his right-hand man, Richard Coraine. I suggested that finding eight or ten companies that were new to the neighbourhood – a Bloomberg condition from the outset – would not be too difficult.

The popularity of branches of Vinoteca, Caravan, Kyms, Brigadiers, Ekte, Homeslice and several other food-service operations at this location since the Bloomberg office opened has only served to reinforce this belief.

Even before then I had argued for the growing popularity of hospitality over retail in new developments. I argued vociferously with Mike Luddy, then of Network Rail, in favour of this option as he was planning the opening of St Pancras International station in 2007. One reason why Le Pain Quotidien was awarded the most prominent location in the station, opposite the entrance and exit of Eurostar, was as much to do with the quality of their bread and pâtisserie as with the presentation they made to us. Their first-class croissants, fresh butter and jam and steaming bowls of coffee all presented on a clean, lightweight wooden tray with the outline of a Eurostar train printed onto a disposable paper tablecloth underneath all confirmed their worth.

The secondary reason I was able to voice my support for the hospitality industry so vociferously was not only because I saw bricks and mortar shopping becoming less popular but also because I saw no limit to the expansion of hospitality. People needed somewhere to meet, eat and drink close to their place of work, their transport hub or their chosen theatre or cinema. They enjoyed the camaraderie that such places engendered, and of course they were excited by the new styles of cooking and sorts of drinks that were being pioneered increasingly widely.

Every developer, every museum, and everyone who had an empty (ideally) ground-floor space was looking for the most appropriate hospitality partner. The only constraint seemed to be on the supply side: would there be enough chefs, sommeliers and kitchen porters for every cafe planned? This was an issue highlighted by the Brexit vote.

I can still recall my first meeting with Roger Madelin, then chief executive of Argent, at the still-deserted King’s Cross ten years ago in the site that has gone on to be the extremely popular Caravan King’s Cross pictured above [and where we hold all our tasting events – JR]. I remember being shocked at what he showed me: over 4,000 sq ft, by the building’s main entrance, all on one floor and with natural light at both ends. This was the kind of space that every hospitality provider would die for but is rarely available in London, where the vast majority of spaces such as this are only available across three floors. At the time this space was still a hard sell to possible café and restaurant operators, but that was principally because of what King’s Cross was in those days, still run down, devoid of any striking architectural features and therefore pretty empty of people and activity.

And this is just as King’s Cross is this morning as I write ten years on. There are a few more people, mostly on bikes or walking along the canal. And there are certainly far more security guards and cleaners in high-visibility jackets picking up the rubbish and washing down the stonework. But all the shops in the relatively new Coal Drops Yard are closed and the main piazza is closed off. Even restaurants as popular as Dishoom, Caravan, Notes, The German Gym and Le Pain Quotidien are shuttered, as is everywhere else within the now-fashionable King’s Cross development, as they have been for over three months now.

How, when and under what conditions any of these places will reopen, I have no idea. I believe, however, that any reopening will be extremely gradual simply because the circumstances that made all these places so popular – they were close to offices, places where people live and want to visit, as well as being close to two major train stations – will in this instance prove deterrents for visitors rather than encouragements. For the retailers, I have even more sympathy and less optimism.

And to all those who over the years, hired me, listened to my professional expertise and paid me accordingly, I have nothing to offer but an apology. I believe that I have always been honest in my opinions and that hospitality has outperformed retail not just in the volume of sales it has generated but in terms of excitement and PR, a particularly important factor in a world where presence on social media is considered so vital.

But, I am afraid to say that I, like everybody else on this planet, never saw COVID-19 coming. Nor its dreadful consequences for the hospitality industry.