The Garrison pub and Village East in Bermondsey, Riding House Café in Fitzrovia and Blixen in Spitalfields Market are a cluster of institutions that anyone in the hospitality business would be happy to have named as their legacy.
Creating hip-to-be-there, go-to spots has been the hit-maker calling card of frontier food and drink pioneer Clive Watson during his time working in the sector, so it was surely only a matter of time before a tempted toe was dipped into the world of hotels.
Part of the distinctive Autograph Hotels brand by Marriott, The Dixon is a newly-opened boutique that’s sat charmingly at the foot of Tower Bridge and is providing the latest project to tickle the fancy of Watson.
Go your own way
When White and Watson launched their business Village London and bought The Garrison in 2003, the duo envisioned a style of pub that didn’t really exist at the time. They wanted to move away from cosy rooms, open fires and dark aesthetics, replacing those traditional elements with a light, airy, feminine pub that targeted an all-day trade.
It wasn’t the done thing. In fact, he laughs at the memory of builders and project team members shaking their heads at the new owners’ vision – something he says has pretty much happened with every site launch he has had a hand in.
“We looked at the landscape and thought we could do something a little bit different with The Garrison,” he says. “When opening most of the pubs or restaurants I’ve been involved with, the builders and others involved have thought we were idiots. But then they see it once it’s opened.
“No more so than in here,” he adds, gesturing to Provisioners, the restaurant he has created at The Dixon. “This is stranger still, and everybody has been in a queue to tell me ‘I told you so’, but mostly they like it. There’s an element of bravery or stupidity, but most of these calculated risks have paid off.”
Indeed they have. So much so that within a year of opening The Garrison they started serving breakfast – something pubs just didn’t really do in 2004. The success continued throughout the years, which allowed the business partners to launch New York-style Village East and then, in 2011, The Riding House Café. It was after 12 years of working together that White and Watson parted ways.
“Adam wanted to continue to open bigger restaurants, and I was missing smaller neighbourhood places – hospitality rather then scale – so we parted company. In order to facilitate that deal and split our shares, we sold The Garrison to the other Clive Watson and the City Pub Company. They run it in exactly the same way as we always did.”
It was in February 2015 when Watson launched Blixen, the all-day brasserie in Old Spitalfields Market in Shoreditch. I can remember the arrival well, and over the past four years have visited the site for breakfast, lunch, drinks, dinner, private events and industry dos.
The venue sits above Bar III, a basement bar launched in partnership with Max and Noel Venning, the pair behind Three Sheets in Dalston. It’s a place that, for me, feels like it has always been there, or has at least been operational for way longer than its actual four years. Is this a good thing?
“Any place I’ve ever opened, I’ve always hoped they will become an institution,” says Watson. “I’ve tried to create spaces that will age well and won’t need refitting and rebranding, just updating. To create strong identity in places that can stand up on their own and stand the test of time, so I suppose that is a good thing, yes.”
From Blixen to The Dixon
When Watson launched The Garrison, he was 29. Now, as he turns closer to 50 than 40, the time has come for a change in tact, a new challenge. As he began considering a wider role in hospitality consultancy, he was approached by the Dominvs Group, a family business that specialises in real estate investment, development and asset management.
Domnivs is led by Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia, who in 2011 sold his Euro Car Parts business to LKQ Corporation for a cool £225m. Now, as Dominvs looks to rapidly expand its hotel portfolio across the UK, it is looking to partner with brands and operators to deliver unique hotel businesses in the buildings they have purchased. With The Dixon, the hotel brand is the Autograph Collection by Marriott and the operator is Clive Watson.
“I’ve never partnered with anyone like this before,” he explains. “They have put a lot of trust in me and I return that trust with making sure I deliver something really great for them. It feels like a brilliant partnership.”
The Autograph brand motto – ‘Exactly Like Nothing Else’ – is actually nicely suited to Watson’s approach. The aim isn’t for this new operation to feel like a hotel restaurant or bar, but an F&B concept that operates on its own.
While the basement kitchen at The Dixon provides all of the food for Provisioners (restaurant), The Courtroom (bar) and the hotel’s rooms, the distinct food offer combined with a separate street entrance to the restaurant allows for an individual identity that harmonises with the wider hotel operation.
When considering Watson’s experience in running pubs and his new tie-up managing a site for a hotel business owner, I point out the increase in this sort of arrangement in the pub world, with more pubcos employing the services of expert operators to run their managed sites. He knows the Karen Joneses and Rupert Clevelys of this world, and understands how businesses such as Hippo Inns work.
“There is a real similarity between hotels and F&B operators, and pub groups and F&B pub operators,” he says. “It is essentially F&B operators working for property companies. People assume hotels are leisure, food and beverage companies because you stay there and you need to eat and drink something. But they’re property companies – they rent rooms by the night and have a yield based on how much they pay for their building and how much they can get out of it. Lots of that is profit if the occupancy is high.
“Restaurants are not high-profit vehicles. It’s only normal that the experts in F&B and the experts in ownership come together and help each other – and there will be more of it. Hotels can’t keep opening rubbish restaurants and pub groups can’t keep expanding and offering rubbish food products. It’s an obvious thing, really, and there will be more.”
The guest experience guru
At one point during our conversation, Watson admits that he cares more about the experience of his guests than making lots of money. He talks earnestly about the science of understanding what each individual customer needs and how to provide it for them – it seems to go beyond this new-found obsession with the ‘experience economy’.
I’ll let the man himself explain it for you: “It’s something I preach about 20 years on,” he says. “Everybody talks about ‘experience’ now, but that has always been what I thought to be important. I was drilled early on with how to create that – lighting, music, temperature, who sits where, think about guests as individuals and tailoring hospitality experiences to them. Everyone has different needs, so why treat everyone the same? Maybe I’m long in the tooth and my views are antiquated now, but I still live by the same mantra and approach. It’s about hospitality.”
When I was transcribing the next paragraph the day after our conversation, I found myself re-reading it several times before taking a screen-grab of the words and sharing them on Twitter. Whether I knew he and his team at Blixen were carrying out this approach or not, the following description of Watson’s methodology explains why I have found myself frequenting his sites so regularly over the years.
“You can simplify how I view it,” he says. “It all boils down to making people happy. If you make someone happy, there will be an emotional connection there that remains very strong. An emotional bond is hard to break. Everyone has different needs. You arrive at an outlet with physical needs – hunger and thirst. But then there are emotional needs to be cared for and looked after – you’re an animal at the end of the day.
“You can probably satisfy those physical needs at 20 places on one street, as they all serve food and drink. But there is probably only one place on that street that looks after you, gives you a hug, sits you down, thinks about you as an individual and gives you just what you need. When you leave that place, you will have an emotional bond with it.
“The next time you visit that street, there will only be one place you go to, because those memories and that experience are the things that stay with you. Create that connection; tailor the experience to their needs to create those memories.”
If he had an endless supply of people who could live by that philosophy and carry it out effectively, Watson might well have his own empire. However, like so many hospitality businesses, he is finding recruitment harder than ever. The fact is that fewer people are applying for jobs in this sector, and if he can’t find the people that instil his operational values throughout Blixen, Provisioners and the rest, his projects won’t succeed. What’s intriguing is the point our conversation ends on – for this Clive Watson, recruiting is a two-fold tactic that leads to loyalty. By recruiting the right employees, the business can in turn recruit a certain type of customer, creating a symbiotic relationship between the two.
“People are either born with hospitality in them or they’re not,” he concludes. “It’s no secret that you can’t train it, and you may have heard there’s a small staffing crisis going on at the moment. But for the people you do have, you have to create a nice working environment and culture – put some time into that. Make sure people are coming to work happy so they don’t leave – that’s common sense. Having a strong identity and team culture so you can then attract a certain type of person is really important – that can then come down to defining who your guest is and making sure your guest and your staff are able to create a rapport because they have something in common. I think that’s more important than ever.”