For a number of years, Hubbox, the US street food-inspired concept, was one of the West Country’s best-kept secrets but securing new investment and a high-profile chairman over the past 18 months means the business will need to win over new fans. Mark Wingett talks to founder Richard Boon
It’s not every founder’s story that takes in the DJ Carl Cox; a Cornish bouncer called Tank; running nightclubs in St Ives, Cornwall; JD Wetherspoon; and an associate of Colonel Gaddafi. And that’s just one of the stories that have shaped Hubbox’s Richard Boon journey to overseeing what could be the next big thing to come out of the south-west.
Boon opened the Hub in St Ives in 2003 and then hatched the idea for Hubbox, a burger restaurant in a container on Truro’s Lemon Quay, in 2012 before moving into the city’s Kenwyn Street in July 2014. Since then, the chain has expanded to Pentewan Sands, near St Austell, as well as Old Town Street in Plymouth, Exeter and Bristol.
It is some step from the summer of 1997 when Boon was owning and operating one of then five nightclubs in the Cornish town of St Ives, and as he admits “having the time of my life”. Acquired for c£300,000, he would eventually sell the then Isobar to someone who claimed to be an associate of the aforementioned ex-Libyan leader six years later for £1.2m. Today, it is a huge JDW site.
But, it was here that what would become Hubbox was born. Situated in the heart of the town, Boon launched the Hub. “It was an old school-style bar and 95% was wet sales. At first, it looks like an egg shell inside.” The Hub turned into a business that would generate £40,000 in the summer and £3,000 in the winter, and now has a 50:50 food and drink mix. It also planted the seed of what became Hubbox, Boon seeing what could be achieved with the Hub’s model linked with food.
A visit to Boxpark up in Shoreditch, London, led to the idea of setting up in a shipping container in Truro, it would also allow the company to keep its kitchen crew busy during the quieter off season in St Ives.
Boon says: “We found some land opposite M&S in the town and in the early hours of one morning we dropped a shipping container on it. The site was meant to be a pop-up to keep the chefs busy, just a short term thing but, in the end, it was so successful I ended up fighting the council for three years. We overran on the budget, which was £20,000 but it cost nearer £80,000 to fit out the kitchen, but within a year we had done £500,000 out of three tables. We had the chefs Nathan Outlaw and Paul Ainsworth queuing up for a burger alongside the likes of the Lord of Falmouth, school kids, couples, etc. That’s when we realised that we were on to something and that the whole focus on provenance would be a key to our success.”
Over the next five years, permanent sites in Exeter and Plymouth followed, plus an eight-month residency at Cornish holiday park, Pentewan Sands. During the period, Boon cemented the concept’s local links. Its food is all locally sourced, including meat supplied from Philip Warren family butcher’s in Launceston, Cornwall, from Devon and Cornish farms only, while rotating craft beers and ciders are from south-west-based microbreweries. It gives the concept an edge in terms of quality of offer but also in terms of being part of the community, which has always been a stumbling block for brands coming out of London.
By the middle of 2016, Boon was looking at investment opportunities to take the business to the next level. Aided by then chairman Mark Harper, the former managing director of Haven Holiday Parks, part of the Bourne Leisure Group, the company secured new funding from investment firm Provenance Investment Partners, at the start of 2017.
Location is strong point
Provenance, which was set up at the end of 2016 by Simon Henderson, a former partner at US private equity firm TPG Capital, the owners of Prezzo, made a £2.2m investment in the five-strong group via a mixture of equity, loan notes and options for a minority stake in the business. There followed a significant opening on the former Las Iguanas in Whiteladies Road, Bristol. Significant, as Boon grew up in Bristol, and opening there exposed Hubbox to a more competition, and it was on the site of a brand that had already broken out of the West Country to become a national chain.
Boon says he saw the move to Bristol as part of the business growing up, or as he puts its “sharpening up our game”. He says: “In Truro, we are a bigger fish in a little pond, they are quite proud of us and how we are connected to the local community. Bristol was an interesting one for us, going home to where I grew up. It was a challenge, but one we needed to take on. I am pleased we went there and that it is doing well. We could conceivably do another one across town in the future.”
Bristolians, it seems have taken to the brand, which could not be said for Polpo, which closed its site on the same street in January after only 18 months in business.
Last August, another piece of the jigsaw fell into place when Alex Reilley, co-founder and chairman of Loungers, joined the business as non-executive chairman. A customer and fan of the business, he had also got to know Boon and was excited by what the concept could achieve. For Boon, it was a chance to tap into the knowledge of someone who had been there and done that, to “bleed his knowledge of where to expand and when, on supply chain and recruitment issues”. Boon says: “Alex is a great sounding board, he is always positive about what we are trying to achieve. With his success with Loungers, he is the perfect guy to talk to about growing but at the same time keeping your identity and a high level of consistency in your offer.”
That offer is set to further evolve this year. Thrown in with the better burger movement, Boon is keen that Hubbox is seen as more than just a burger joint, which could even see the group’s current tag line of ‘Burgers, Dogs, Beers’ take a back seat. Boon says: “We will evolve our all-day offer and expand our drinks list, particularly the craft beer and soft cocktails.
We’re aware that as we grow the number of Hubbox sites, we need to ensure the integrity of the brand and maintain the quality of food and delivery.
“We also want to show off the full range of the offer. For example, the great seafood dishes that we do. Because of our locations, we can get people coming to us two or three times a week, so we had to have a wider menu, seafood, salads. We are not limited and that works for us. Especially if you are going to grow, you need that flexibility.”
Room to grow
In terms of expansion, Boon is happy that there is still plenty of opportunity in the concept’s heartland to go after, with coastal towns of particular interest. Sites in Barnstable and Taunton have already been secured for this year, while a second site in Plymouth, in the Royal William Yard scheme, is also close to coming to fruition. A larger premises in Exeter is also being discussed, while a move into Wales, possibly to Swansea, is also on the table. Longer term, the group, which hopes to get to around 18 sites by the end of 2020, will look to move along the south coast into Dorset, with Weymouth and Bournemouth target locations.
For Boon, expansion will only be possible if the company can continue to produce a consistent offer.
He says: “The West Country/south-west is a big region that gives us plenty of opportunity. If you understand the provinces, you have a greater opportunity to make your expansion play sustainable and successful, understanding the unique quirks of each location. That happened to us in Bristol, where we took one side of the road rather than another location further along.
Keeping that consistency as you grow is so hard to do, and a lot of brands have failed on this point, so the key is not to go too fast to mess with that.”
Boon says that, luckily, the business has not been impacted by the wider sector woes, and full year turnover is on track to be a healthy £7m, up from c£6m in the previous 12 months He says: “We are helped by that local following. We do have to deal with the highs and lows seasonally, but all the sites are individual and all have their own strengths that make up for that.”
You get the sense that if Hubbox did hit a bump in the road or suddenly found itself with a plethora of expansion opportunities, Boon wouldn’t be fazed and would work his way through it. It’s not every founder who can calm a baying nightclub crowd and stand in for an internationally acclaimed DJ when a bouncer called Tank turns what he believed was “some dickhead in a Merc” away from his nightclub door.