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April 2008

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April 2008

The executive's chef

The executive's chef


Is Paul Heathcote a chef who's got into business or an entrepreneur in the food business? The answer to this question could well influence the future gastronomic direction of the North West. Michael Taylor tucks in to find out.

Take your mind back to 1990 and chef Paul Heathcote's earliest foray into the restaurant game. He had just opened his restaurant at Longridge, near Preston; it was a destination restaurant in the rural French tradition. Sourcing local produce and applying imaginative kitchen techniques and using influences from a world of experience. It earned him two of the highest foodie honours known to man: Michelin stars.

Now sit yourself down in one of the 15 Olive Press restaurants and wonder whether to order the lasagne, or the pizza. This isn't meant to be rude, but it is worth noting that half of his £315m-a-year turnover business now comes from cash taken at the Olive Press chain.

"I wouldn't ever have believed I'd build a chain of restaurants serving pizza, pasta and grills. I didn't even know how to make a pizza 15 years ago," he confesses.

But the story of Paul Heathcote, the gastronomic entrepreneur, took a twist in 2007 when he bought out his private equity backers, who were driving the business for growth. Heathcote is now in partnership with Chris Oglesby, the chief executive of property powerhouse Bruntwood Estates; they own half each of Heathcote Restaurants and it's enabled the Bolton-born masterchef to rethink what he's doing with the business and try out what interests him.

"It's a neat fit," he says. "Chris is genuinely passionate about the restaurant business. He likes quality food and wine and he's a good barometer for what we're doing."

Like a lot of entrepreneurs in the early part of this decade, Heathcote got seduced by taking on a venture capital partner, in this case Aberdeen Murray Johnstone (AMJ). The plan was for AMJ to back him as he rolled out Heathcote's restaurants around the country and expanded his corporate catering arm Heathcote Outside. In 2006, with some of the investee funds now under the management of Close Brothers, and with the executives at AMJ originally responsible for Heathcote's business working elsewhere, there was little, er, appetite for what he was trying to do.

"We enjoyed good relations with AMJ, but when Close came in they tried to install disciplines and systems into the business that weren't just wrong, but damaging. They hadn't enough time to get to know the business," he says.

In a swift sequence of events AMJ and Close sold the outside catering business to Lindley Catering, a specialist in this kind of thing, serving platefuls of food to corporate guests at sports stadiums and conferences. Lindley, itself backed by Sovereign Capital, kept the Heathcote Outside brand at its existing locations at Anfield, home of Liverpool Football Club, at Preston North End FC and at Chester Racecourse, while the business has since gone on to secure the catering at the new Liverpool Arena.

Heathcote then used his cash element of that deal to complete the other side of the investment, buying his unenthusiastic investors out and cancelling his own earn-out agreement. He admits he also had Oglesby lined up at that point too.

The original gameplan, when he was backed by AMJ, was a network of Simply Heathcote's around the North West, and in Leeds. But while he's keeping that brand in Liverpool, where it's been a success, the rest are changing and the new openings will be more individual in character.

So, formula is out, individuality is in. The celebrity chef famed for his use of black pudding has, as his latest venture, a very smart restaurant called Grado on New York Street in Manchester city centre, where the restaurant forms part of the ambitions of his business partner's day job. The Spanish restaurant and tapas bar is a cornerstone of Bruntwood's own ambitions for New York Street, where it's invested in street-level improvements and better quality buildings.

Grado is doing well, the entrepreneur says - "ahead of budget" - and the chef says the food is pretty good too.

It's fair to say he's never really cracked Manchester city centre, in the way that he has Liverpool and Preston. Simply Heathcote's has been a victim of a changing Manchester. It never quite established itself as the corporate dining room of the professional classes, which Piccolino and Restaurant Bar and Grill grasped.

But Heathcote has never quite carved a niche at the top end either. That said, it's still in business, unlike other pretenders to that crown such as Le Mont and Establishment, which aimed for the fine dining title and went bust.

"I think they set out to get the Michelin stars and that's a mistake," he says. With his next venture, The Elliot, Heathcote is looking to reclaim that fine dining crown. The 70-seat restaurant will open in October 2008 and will be squarely aimed at the top end of the market, which has been vacant since the closure last year of Establishment and Le Mont.

Heathcote says: "I want this to be a restaurant which all of Manchester can be proud of. I am aiming to create the best restaurant in the city. We hope this is an opportunity to really raise the bar in terms of quality."

His attempt to woo the wealthy Cheshire set, London Road restaurant in Alderley Edge, has had a slower start than he'd like. He says the menu is very much like The Ivy, London's celebrity goldfish bowl. "Lots of things that are familiar, but done better and with a touch of class - a greatest hits of dishes," he says.

Two months after he opened, he suffered from a stinging review in The Guardian, which ended like this: "That Heathcote is a sharp businessman is clear, this restaurant being cutely positioned to soak up the custom of those with more platinum credit cards than active taste buds, and there are people with stronger calls on our sympathy than the Wags and retired minor rock stars of Cheshire. But as a Michelin-starred chef long regarded as one of the North West's most gifted cooks, he should be ashamed of himself."

Understandably, that hurt, and he's worked hard to keep the staff morale up and the customers happy. "We went through everything on the menu that the critic had tried. We looked at what we were doing closely, and hopefully we're on the right track now," he says.

With Oglesby's investment Heathcote is investing in his stock of restaurants again. Roughly £31m each on Grado, London Road and The Elliot. He's enjoying himself again, he still loves his food, is still proud of what he's done. Like any business person he's taken risks too, and deserves credit for sticking at it.

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