Gary Usher isn’t either, but he’s not afraid to admit it. Just as he’s not afraid to publically stand up for his staff and seize opportunity when it knocks. We talk crowdfunding, the ugly side of chain restaurants and the pitfalls of social media.
If you’ve not heard of Gary before, it’s a surprise; he’s a force of nature, both on the dining scene and for his infamous rants on social media. His first restaurant, Sticky Walnut in Hoole, is award-winning and has lead to a string of successful, quirkily christened establishments (under Elite Bistros) across the North West – Burnt Truffle in Heswall, Hispi in Didsbury, Wreckfish in Liverpool and Pinion in Prescot. And, it doesn’t end there. With a recipe for success that’s tried and tested, he’s seemingly unstoppable with the latest project Kala in Manchester, being the fastest funded restaurant in the world – 100k in 11 hours, and he has plans for new venues in Leeds and London.
Whether you like what his self-professed ‘big mouth’ has to say on social media or not, he’s garnered the fervent support of local customers and communities, keen to propel him as far as he wants to go.
But, powerhouse chef turned businessman wasn’t an inevitable path for Gary. He’s come a long way from humble beginnings, struggling in school by day and working as a pot washer in a pub by night. This eventually evolved into cooking, and so began the desire to run the show.
Fast forward a few years and his dream started to become a reality, but not without a few hurdles. ‘I got Sticky Walnut very late in 2010, inheriting all its problems; broken cookers etc.’ says Gary. A year later he was looking to refurb, and realised he was going to have to find his own way to develop the business. ‘The bank turned me down for a £10k loan for air con and I realized they weren’t going to help at all.’
For some, this could have spelt the end, but not for Gary. A positive review ensured they became and stayed busy, and sparked the need to expand. ‘I couldn’t give people the opportunities I wanted to with only one place,’ he says, ‘then a friend told me about crowdfunding and that’s how we opened Burnt Truffle. We’ve now crowdfunded restaurants five times.’’
What does he think is motivating people to put their money behind him?
‘I don’t know,’ he says, ‘I really don’t know why people support us. We had Tom Kerridge come up and cook for two nights with us in Wreckfish, as part of the crowdfunding. At the end, all my staff and all his staff got together and I said, Chef, I just want to say thank you, I don’t understand why you’re helping, but thank you, and Tom said, “The reason we help you is because you’re like us; nice people.’’’
It’s a sentiment I’m inclined to support after my (albeit brief) conversation with Gary. Sure he’s outspoken, uncensored, perhaps quick-tempered, but it all flares from defending the people that work with him. And it certainly looks like an effective business model. A recent Tweet from his personal Twitter account reads, ‘An online presence is imperative for a successful business. Building up your personal profile will also be a key strategy in moving your brand forward. Join me here as I teach you how to totally fuck it up.’
When I ask if he regrets anything he’s said on social media, he says (after a considered pause), ‘Do you know what, I actually regret not telling more people to piss off.’
A wonderful statement in itself, but worth elaborating on – ‘It’s not about me. If you want to disrespect me, that’s fine. But if you attack the people that work in the restaurants, I’d say get out, you’re not welcome here. The staff aren’t there to put up with that -no one is in any workplace, in life even. But when they’re in a place I own, I want to protect them. I’m not talking about social media, that’s just bollocks. I’m talking about in the restaurants. If someone’s been sexist or racist, I wish I’d of been there.’
He tells me that staff facing these abusive incidences is alarmingly common. ‘In restaurants, people are sometimes drunk, or paying for a service and feel like they’ve got power over people. Unfortunately, there are still bigots everywhere. There are still people that treat others as less than them; either because they’re a waitress, a woman, or because they’re not white English etc. There are so many reasons people will disrespect, embarrass and intimidate other people.’
It’s not surprising that he’s not a fan of the adage, ‘The customer’s always right,’ then. ‘It’s a stupid statement. If the customer puts their hand on a waitresses bum and asks for a bottle of wine then the customer isn’t fucking right, the customer’s wrong. If the customer says they’d rather have an English waiter than the Polish guy who’s serving them then the customer isn’t right, the customer’s fucking wrong and deserves to be kicked out.’
Gary’s straight-talking, passionate thoughts on the matter add necessary challenge to an industry where, the emphasis has heavily rested on putting the customer first, regardless of their behaviour and demands. I suggest to Gary he’s demonstrating you don’t have to hold your tongue and accept everything in order to have a successful customer-facing business.
‘I need to be careful as I don’t want to encourage new businesses to attack their guests – that’s wrong as well. But definitely stand up for yourself as long as it’s done in the right way and try and have a bit more dignity maybe than I do sometimes – don’t accept what’s morally wrong.’
This moves us on to discussing the Northgate Development. One of the main questions arising from the recent Good For Nothing survey is how were the team going to ensure an equal balance between independent and chain retailers, or, better yet, incentivise the Indies. I wonder if he has any thoughts on this.
‘Chains piss me off. Particularly the likes of Zizzis, Coates and Pizza Express. They piss me off because they serve shit food and I don’t know why they get away with it. It’s uncared for and unloved. I understand how helpful they are for families, and if you’re taking three kids out a Las Iguanas is probably great; big open spaces, areas for children, chains make enough money to do that. But the food is terrible and that frustrates me when I see Chester being full of those places and the smaller independents closing.’
A differentiating aspect of each of Gary’s restaurants is that he trusts the chefs to design and deliver their own menus.
‘It’s difficult to get pride out of people if they’re not doing what they believe in. Let the chefs do what they want to do, otherwise you lose the creativity.’ It’s an approach that clearly works, and I wonder what Gary recommends Indies do to attempt to attract new customers and thrive.
‘The first thing is independents need to be good enough. So many are shit. I’m not saying, don’t go to Las Iguanas, go to an independent. I’m saying, don’t go to Las Iguanas, go to a good independent. Some independents don’t do the others any favours at all. There needs to be experience and pride there.’
Looking ahead for the Elite Bistro empire, I wonder if Gary has maxed out on restaurants. If he’s itching for something leftfield? ‘No, I want to keep opening. I just like to busy and I’m always on the lookout. Leeds is going to happen. London will probably happen. Anything. If the right chip shop came about, I’d open a chippy. Or the right pub. Or hotel. I’m up for anything. The easiest option is more restaurants. It’s what I’m most comfortable with – anything food and drink, I’d give it a go for sure. ’
*All images courtesy of Elite Bistros.