When it comes to restaurants, bars and private members' clubs, Nick Jones doesn't seem to put a foot wrong. Gaby Huddart caught up with him at his soon-to-open venture in Chiswick, west London
Nick Jones has come a long way since his days as a school-leaver on the Trust House Forte training scheme some 25 years ago. He's now one of the hospitality industry's most well-known entrepreneurs, both in the UK and overseas. And he's one of the most successful, too, with a multimillion pound collection of businesses and plenty more on the drawing board.
As we go to press, Jones - who's still only in his early 40s - is preparing to take the wraps off his latest venture: High Road House & Brasserie in Chiswick, west London. The complex, which will open for business on 26 July, will comprise an 80-seat public restaurant (with a further 40 alfresco seats), and a private members' club complete with 14 bedrooms, meeting rooms and large bar.
Jones explains that he likes his businesses to have a number of different prongs rather than simply relying on a single element. "The perfect scenario - and where we'd like to expand - is where we have five strands to a business: an all-day brasserie, a cinema, a private members' club, bedrooms, and a Cowshed spa," he says.
Not all of his businesses currently follow this rule - for instance, Balham Kitchen & Bar or Cecconi's restaurant in Mayfair - but the majority are multifaceted, with both open-to-all and private members' elements. And it's certainly proving a lucrative policy: last year, Jones's company turned over £36.3m and pre-tax profits were just under £3m.
As the major shareholder, Jones would have pocketed the lion's share of anything that wasn't ploughed back into the business himself, while his 10 or so other investors have also been enjoying healthy returns.
The eclectic group of shareholders includes art collector and former restaurateur Hani Farsi, founder of the New Look fashion brand Tom Singh, ex-BBC chairman Gavyn Davies, and TV comedy duo Ant and Dec. And it's this pair who are responsible for the latest Chiswick project. Local to the area, they got Jones to check out Foubert's hotel when it came on the market last year and he snapped it up.
"I didn't know much about the area when we bought the building," he confesses, "but it's perfect for us. It's amazing the number of people who live in this area who are media-based - the BBC is close, as is Sky and numerous record labels - and there's a good-quality mum behind the buggy here, with a decent disposable income. Chiswick High Road is mobbed - it's even busier than Portobello Road."
Indeed, even before any efforts were made to approach possible High Road House members, some 500 enquiries were made by early this spring about joining, he boasts. What's more, he's in no doubt that his modern European brasserie will be a hit as most other local restaurants are chain outlets.
But despite the healthy signs, wasn't it a bit foolhardy to buy first and research the area later? Jones roars with laughter and confesses that acting first and researching later has tended to be how he has done business over the years. Indeed, with his first club, Soho House, which he opened 11 years ago, and which continues to boast a 1,000-plus waiting list, he went in "totally blind", he admits. It came about simply because he was offered a good property deal and opening a private club seemed like the best idea for the site.
Three years later, in 1998, he opened Babington House in Somerset, where he met his now wife, newsreader Kirsty Young when she came to visit. And in the years since, his empire has expanded to take in New York - another venture he launched with little knowledge of the local market, but which now boasts just about every Hollywood star among its membership. "I tend to work on gut instinct," he says. "And that's what the shareholders invest in - though they are trying to make me build in more of a thought process, and I'm working hard to try to make myself become more strategic."
Indeed, he has recently appointed Robin Hutson, one of the original founders of the Hotel du Vin chain, as his company's chairman. Hutson is working two days a week, helping to create a more structured company.
That said, Jones's gut instinct has served him incredibly well and it's partly driven, he explains, by an early disaster in business. His first venture, back in the 1980s, was a small restaurant chain called Over The Top, which offered diners a pick-and-mix menu from different meats and different sauces. "The food was absolutely bloody terrible," Jones chuckles. "I remember sitting there with no customers at all and wondering what the hell to do."
Since that failure, quality is the focus of everything he does. For instance, the food in his restaurants is always based on good ingredients and he creates clubs that are thoroughly cosseting. "The bedrooms at High Road House will have the comfiest beds, flat-screen TVs, fluffy towels, tropical rain showers and so on," he enthuses.
It's the passion for what Jones does that makes him tick and gives him a buzz every day of his life, he says. And it's also the reason why he would never consider listing his company on the stock market or losing his majority share. "The day that restaurants are run by accountants is the day they go to pot," he says. "I want this business to grow and be the best it can be and I've got good shareholders who understand that. I would never do a stock market listing."
Indeed, rather than retiring with millions in the bank, Jones would prefer global expansion. Next year will see clubs opening in Miami and London's Shoreditch - the latter will be the biggest so far at 30,000sq ft and will feature a rooftop pool, bowling alley, gym and Cowshed spa - "and I'd like to open in LA, Paris and Istanbul. There are lots of opportunities out there". And there's no doubt at all that Jones will grab them.
Apart from your own restaurants, where do you like to eat? I love the River Café [in Hammersmith, London] for Saturday lunch. I have to put up with Rose or Ruth growling at me because I've nicked one of their chefs, but it's a fantastic experience and the quality is unfailing. I also love E&O [in Notting Hill, London] and every other Will Ricker-owned restaurant.
Nick Jones: Q&A
Which is your favourite hotel - anywhere in the world? The Hotel du Cap in Antibes. It's unashamedly French and very traditional - there aren't even TVs in the bedrooms - so it's completely different to what I do and what I know and I love it for that as I can switch off.
Do you have a favourite holiday destination? The last place I went was to One&Only's Reethi Rah resort in the Maldives. It was absolutely fabulous. I couldn't fault it in any way, and I'll definitely go back.
Who, if anyone, has been your mentor? Keith McNally, the man behind Balthazar and Pastis in New York, has become a mentor and a good friend. I cold-called him when we opened Soho House New York for a bit of advice and he was so open and helpful, it was fantastic. He's always there if I need anything. I adore him - we could talk for days on end about business.
Who do you most admire in the hospitality industry in the UK? Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers at the River Café do a marvellous job. The way they're still there every day is incredible - you have to respect that. And I have never had a bad meal there - they achieve that all-important quality of consistency.
What are you most ashamed of having done in business? The food we offered at my first restaurants, Over The Top, in the 1980s was completely terrible. In fact, the whole concept was so bad, it's really no surprise that it failed.
What are you most proud of having achieved in business? Soho House New York, because there we were faced with a whole new set of rules and lots of businesses fall flat on their face in New York. But three years on and we're still going strong. In the UK, I'm most proud of turning Cecconi's around - it's got a new lease of life now.
If you hadn't worked in hospitality, what do you think you'd have done? Undoubtedly something creative… marketing, perhaps.
Nick Jones: the businesses
- Balham Kitchen & Bar
- Bohème Kitchen & Bar
- Café Bohème
- Electric Brasserie
- Babington House, Babington, Somerset
- Electric House, London
- Soho House, London
- Soho House New York.
SPAS AND BEAUTY PRODUCTS
- The Cowshed, London
- The Cowshed, Virgin Upper Class Lounge, Heathrow Airport
- Cowshed products are available in 50 stores across the UK and 20 stores in the USA.
- High Road House & Brasserie, Chiswick -opening 26 July
- Shoreditch House, east London - set to open summer 2007
- Soho Beach House, Miami - set to open 2007