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Raising the steaks

Helen Mayson

Steak restaurant Hawksmoor has gone from one cult dining establishment to four mega-meat emporiums. Helen Mayson meets founder Will Beckett to talk about developing staff in the thriving London food scene

It’s rare that a hospitality business gets recognised for its exceptional treatment of staff – in fact, you’re more likely to hear horror stories of underpaid waiters, disgruntled bar staff and swearword-happy chefs than be told that the restaurant industry is ‘a great place to work’. London steak restaurant chain Hawksmoor, however, prides itself on bucking that trend.  

The company runs four London restaurants, hailed by critics and customers as ‘the best steak in town’, and was one of only two hospitality organisations to feature in last year’s Sunday Times best small companies to work for list (at number 36, with hotel The Cavendish the only other hospitality operator at number 43). This year, they’ve gone one better, placing at number five on the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies list, with TGI Fridays the only other hospitality company to place above them (at number three).

“We always try to buck the perceived wisdom on what it’s like working in this industry,” says Will Beckett, one half of the founding team behind Hawksmoor and the man responsible for company culture and people development (old friend and co-founder Huw Gott is more focused on the food and service aspects of the business). 

Beckett and Gott first met at school at the age of 11 and went into business together in 2003, when they opened The Redchurch, a late night bar in Shoreditch. By 2007 the pair owned three other venues – Green & Red, a Mexican restaurant and tequila bar (awarded Evening Standard Bar of the Year); the Marquess Tavern, a gastropub focusing on well sourced British produce (awarded Time Out Gastropub of the Year); and the original Spitalfields Hawksmoor, which opened in 2006. 

 

This is a place where you will hopefully stay and grow with the company


Affinity for food

As the son of food and wine author and restaurant critic Fiona Beckett, Beckett has always been interested in food. While other kids were out stealing hubcaps or honing their skills in pool halls, Beckett accompanied his mother to Michelin-starred restaurants. 

Despite his love of the business, he’s well aware that the food and drink industry doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to how they treat staff. “I read something by Suzanne Moore in The Guardian today about teen aspirations and how out of line they were with reality,” he says. “She was saying to look at the misery that’s available to them, and one of the examples she gave was hospitality jobs. I thought that was pretty harsh.”

He took the experience of running his previous restaurants and bars and aimed to make Hawksmoor an even better, brighter place to work. “We set out right from the beginning to be a really good employer. We launched our first restaurant in 2006 and we didn’t open our second until 2010. In the year before that second restaurant, we spent a lot of time trying to define what was special about Hawksmoor.”

One of the things that undoubtedly separates them from other similar organisations is their pay structure. Waiters can expect a salary on a par with professionals like nurses or teachers, while general managers can earn at a similar level to GPs or headmasters. “I think that makes a difference, because in this industry there are still a lot of jobs in London where waiters earn around £18,000 and general managers might earn £30,000,” he says. “We’re not the absolute top of the tree when it comes to paying, but we’re pretty close.”

Of course, it’s not all about money. Hawksmoor offers a range of benefits, including travelcard loans, critical illness cover, death in service cover and a pension scheme. It’s something you might expect from a large corporate, but not necessarily a London-based restaurant chain.
However, you can no longer call them small – Hawksmoor now has 460 members of staff, up from 40 just four years ago. As they’ve grown, they’ve set goals for improving as an employer, says Beckett, offering a more comprehensive package. The introduction of an HR department a year and a half ago has been the driving force behind new benefits like enhanced maternity and paternity pay. “It feels like a meaningful way of sharing some of that company success with employees,” he says.
While staff might say they would prefer an extra £50 in their pocket every week, says Beckett, he hopes that offering things like nursery vouchers and a cycle to work scheme will instill a sense of belonging and career in staff. “I think it’s much more in line with this being a place where you will hopefully stay and grow with the company.”


Management matters

Internal promotion is a big thing at Hawksmoor, with a higher staff retention and promotion rate than average. The balance is “about 80/20” when recruiting, with 80% of appointments made by promoting staff from inside the organisation. But, says Beckett, there are times when external skills are needed, or when a fresh pair of eyes are a benefit. “We wouldn’t employ a general manager from outside, we only promote them, because it’s such a crucial role in getting that culture right amongst a big team,” he says. “But I think it’s nice from time to time to just get some external people in, you know, as everybody becomes so ‘Hawksmoor-ised’. [With new people] you get a six-month gap where they’re still pretty objective about the business, and that gives you a nice moment to get a bit more feedback than you would normally from someone.”  
Every member of staff at Hawksmoor with management responsibility undertakes a two-day external management course, plus a two-year long internal course developed specifically for them by an external trainer. 
“I think it’s massively important in the hospitality industry,” says Beckett.“The general manager of this restaurant [Hawksmoor Air Street] is 30 and he’s got 120 staff working for him. It’s an £8 million a year business – it’s quite a lot to work on at 30. My father has his own business – he’s 64 and he has eight members of staff.”
In terms of the Hawkmoor management motto, it’s certainly a case of ‘accentuate the positive’. “People learn primarily through positive feedback on things they do right, rather than negative feedback on things they do wrong,” he says.


Culture club

 Company culture is one of the things that defines Hawksmoor and what it’s like to work there, says Beckett. While they didn’t start out with a firm idea of what that culture would be, it “just kind of developed”. What is important is that these values are communicated and applied in a more personal way rather than corporate, top-down fashion, he says.

“It’s not easy, because it’s so natural to just think, ‘OK, I can write down a list of five things and a brief description, I’ll stick that up on some walls and that’s how it works’. But just to give you an example of one of them, which we summarise as the idea of personality, is that if you work here you should feel comfortable being yourself,” he says. “A lot of my friends are unhappy at work, where they have to change into a kind of professional version of themselves for eight hours before turning back into the personal version of themselves, and that schizophrenia is quite uncomfortable.”
 Staff wear their own clothes when serving in the restaurant and bar (there are no uniforms) and are encouraged to be natural in the workplace. A great example of leadership encouraging that value of personality is the Beckett and Gott-initiated Twitter ‘tattoo challenge’, which they issued to fellow restaurateur Russell Norman in 2011. Staff at Hawksmoor and Norman’s Spuntino undertook a social media ‘tattoo-off’, asking customers to vote on the best tattoos each day over the course of a week from staff members at both venues.
“We talk to people here about the idea that they can be just themselves. If you come here, have a drink in the bar and spend an hour talking to the bartender and you’re with Chris, that will be a completely different experience than if you were with Rachel. The standards should be the same, the quality is the same, but it ought to feel very different.”
While embedding company culture, particularly in terms of personality, might sound easy, it can be tough for new starters. 
“I think you’re brought up with an idea of professionalism being different to being as you are when you’re yourself,” says Beckett.  “When you take people who’ve been successful in previous jobs, they’ve often done it by adopting a ‘professional’ persona. So how easy  is it for them to drop that?”
There are no shortage of new starters either, thanks in part to the increased awareness and recognition things like the Sunday Times awards bring to the business. One of the things that the Sunday Times award does for them is to expand on an already strong reputation and word of mouth across the industry, says Beckett. “I think there is a difference between word of mouth and an objective benchmark like that, which is meaningful,” he says. “Although, there are moments when word of mouth is more powerful. If on the back of this interview you think, ‘that does sound a great place to work and one of my friends is a restaurant manager, I’m going to put them in touch with Will’, they will be more interested in your opinion than whether the Sunday Times said we were a good company. But on a broader scale, the Sunday Times thing is really meaningful.”
 

 

Extra portions

While it took four years before Beckett and Gott opened a second Hawksmoor restaurant, expansion since that point has been swift and successful. In 2012, they launched their first foray away from being meat-only with Hawksmoor Air Street, which also serves a selection of fish dishes. So are there plans for more venues in the future?
Beckett says that the appetite is there for more, from both the team and the public. “We do 40,000 covers a month between the four restaurants at the moment, and we turn away around 20,000. That gives you some comfort that you could grow. Then there’s the internal question, which is staff. If we’re doing a good enough job developing staff, or the top people aren’t leaving and the people junior to that are kind of [drums fingers], what’s going to happen? If we feel that the demand’s there externally and internally people are ready for more, then as long as we have the money, which at the moment is fine, then we’ll carry on.”
Expanding at such a rapid pace doesn’t seem to worry Beckett. Much like working in a restaurant, he says, it’s all about the work you put in before service. “You put a massive amount of work in before you grow, and then the actual growth of it doesn’t seem too horrific,” he laughs. “As soon as this place [Air Street] opened, it took two, three months to settle down. Now, not that we’re saying anything specifically, but everybody’s kind of thinking, ‘well, we were 40 people three years ago, and now we’re 420...’ 
Signs are looking good for more Hawksmoors, then? Or something different? “Let’s assume that in a couple of years we’ll be 600 employees as a company. What needs to be in place to do that? I think as long as you put work in before it happens, then it feels comfortable. It’s when you’re trying to catch up with yourself that it would be awkward.”

 

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