Gary Usher is the outspoken chef-patron whose fledgling bistro group punches above its weight. Despite insisting he’s simply winging it, is there actually a calculating business mind behind the bluster? Finn Scott-Delany finds out
Gary Usher would be the first to downplay his own culinary talents and business nous.
According to the social media-savvy chef, all he ever wanted to do was create a humble neighbourhood bistro, where locals could stroll in wearing scruffy clothes, and have braised beef, chips and a beer, with little fuss.
Yet underneath the apparent modesty is a man who, though at pains to point out his own limitations, has his eye on a bigger prize. His first three restaurants, Sticky Walnut, Burnt Truffle and Hispi, followed a familiar neighbourhood bistro model, supported by crowdfunding, but not making much money.
It is fourth project Wreckfish, the Liverpool city-centre bistro which opened in October 2017, which has changed everything. Wreckfish, his largest and most expensive project yet, is making money, giving Usher confidence this city bistro model could be rolled out. And it’s acted as a springboard for his next two, wildly different projects – Manchester city centre’s Karla, a slick 80-cover operation, and Pinion, a tiny bistro in “down and out” Prescott. For the latter he is upping the ante on his crowdfunding, with a 24-hour campaign to raise £50,000.
So why, when things seem to be going so well, is he opening a risky site in a rundown town where the only branded operator is a Wetherspoon pub?
“It’s fucking down and out,” he says. “There’s nothing going on. After 3.30pm there’s not a single person on the street. “So why open there? I like the idea of being part of the regeneration of an area.
“But I can’t imagine it ever being busy. Could it drag us down? Yes, massively.
“There’s zero demand. I don’t know who’s going to go.”
There are some incentives at play from the landlord, the same as for Wreckfish, who are helping with the build.
And with a Channel 4 TV crew making a pilot about the Prescott restaurant and to follow its progress, Usher admits there may be other reasons for the curveball opening.
It’s worth remembering that without the early success of Wreckfish, and forthcoming big-ticket project Karla, he would not have been able to pivot to Pinion, and it the former that will surely become the engine room of growth for the group.
“When you open somewhere like Wreckfish, you realise you can still keep the same ethos and the original idea, but you can be much busier,” he says.
“I don’t want to stop expanding – I want to keep on opening and opening. I haven’t been able to do it before because restaurants don’t turn over enough. This one could. It has completely changed what we do. It is a much more attractive model.”
While admitting there is a recipe for success in his Elite Bistro’s group, Usher insists there is no calculated strategy behind it all.
“There’s no plan, we’ve just been winging it. I’ve decided to do something and it’s worked, and I’ve said fuck it, let’s do it again.
“There’s a recipe here, and we can move it to somewhere else. “But there’s not much business sense from what we’ve done. I don’t know what people could learn from us.
“We must be doing something right, but I don’t know what it is.”
The chef’s blunt honesty and willingness to admit his mistakes have endeared him to people, he says. “I think we relate to normal people.
They believe in what we say. You’re not bullshitting, standing behind some big corporate bollocks.”
Price point fears
And it was his irreverent use of Twitter that got him a following at Sticky Walnut, and led to restaurant critic Marina McLaughlin making the trip up – despite his pleading with her not to. He still insists what he does is no different to any other bistro, derides his own culinary talents, and says the business would operate happily without him.
But he concedes it would be overly modest to suggest he doesn’t help the business. “It’s probably a mixture – I’m definitely not needed for day-to-day running, but I do help keep people interested.” Having stepped into a wider creative role, handing executive chef duties to Richard Sharples, he’s lost none of his surly attitude, one of several bugbears his price point, with three courses at Wreckfish coming in at £20.
“It’s a nightmare. I resent how cheap we are, I really do,” he says. “We’re obviously not good enough. Michael O’Hare doesn’t have to put his prices down. People want to go there a year in advance.
“If I didn’t do lunch offers, we wouldn’t be fully booked.” Isn’t his proposition more everyday? “It is, but we’re still too cheap,” he adds, returning to a familiar theme, as he pivots to people taking his restaurants too seriously.
“I like to stroll in somewhere in a shitty pair of jeans, hoodie and beanie, have one course, a beer and go without any fuss. I wanted our restaurants to be like that. “It’s not the way it’s gone, it’s ended up becoming a special occasion place.
“I don’t know why. The food we do is bistro – and there’s thousands that do the same thing as what we do.”