Eating, drinking and sleeping football.
Hotelier Stuart Procter tells Mel Flaherty about his football and hospitality start-up venture. What do you get if you cross two footballers and a hotelier? It might sound like the beginning of a joke but there is actually a totally serious business ‘punchline’ – GG Hospitality.
Next month, the company will open Cafe Football, a unique football-themed restaurant at Westfield Stratford City, followed in October 2014 by Hotel Football in Manchester. The firm’s Managing Director, and the hotelier of the trio behind it, is 38-year-old Stuart Procter, the former General Manager of The Stafford Hotel in London.
The footballing two-thirds of the equation, whose respective surname and first name are responsible for the GG in the company moniker, are Manchester United legends Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville. A lifelong Blackburn Rovers and Accrington Stanley fan (and shareholder in the latter where his son has been club mascot countless times), Procter is as equally passionate about the beautiful game as he is the hospitality business. Combining these two loves and fulfilling a long-held ambition to create a new company from scratch, he is now having the time of his life. The fact he is doing so with two such like-minded colleagues (Procter got to know the fellow Northerners, who are similar in age to himself, when they were clients at The Stafford), is the cherry on the cake and his enthusiasm for his new venture is infectious.
The first Cafe Football, a 120-cover casual dining concept, not, Procter emphasises, a sports bar, will open at Westfield Stratford City following a £1.5million investment.
Average spend per head will be around the £22 mark and the restaurant design and its level of homage to football is stylish and quirky rather than fanatical. For example, there will be hexagonal floor tiles, like the panels on a football and splashes of colours evocative of certain teams but not a framed football shirt in sight.
The venue will cater as much to families as to business lunchers, Procter explains, and it will even offer something to those within a group of customers who maybe cannot see the appeal in teams trying to kick a ball into the opponents’ goal. The big matches will be shown on screens but there will also be video footage from fans’ favourite experiences of the beautiful game – Procter says the aim is to reflect the part that football plays in everyday people’s lives, either as participants or spectators or even the mums who don’t like football but ferry their kids around to play it.
“Wherever you’re from around the world and whatever your age or background, everyone understands football,” he says. “You could be in Asia or Europe and start kicking a ball around with people, even if you couldn’t speak to them – it is a real leveller. “Football is on TV everyday and so are food programmes – we are bringing together those two elements that play such a big part in people’s lives.” The food at Cafe Football will be a playful nod towards international football cuisine, with a twist and all very high quality as you would expect from a menu created by a collaboration of the two Michelin-starred Creative Director, Michael Wignall (who Procter worked with at The Devonshire Arms) and Executive Chef Brendan Fyldes (with whom Procter served his apprenticeship 20 years ago at Northcote Manor; latterly Fyldes was his Executive Chef at The Stafford).
Procter is healthily obsessed with “keeping it real” – he doesn’t want the food or the surroundings to seem at all pretentious: “No-one involved in this is interested in egos – we’re all very grounded, hard-working and ambitious.” The ethos behind the £23 million, 139-bed Hotel Football due to open alongside Man Utd’s famous Old Trafford ground in Manchester next year is the same. Pitched at the three – to four-star level, room rates will vary between circa £90 and £150. Rooms are expected to be occupied by home and away fans when games are on next door but the hotel will have broad appeal to the leisure and business sector, like the Cafe.
In the short-term, the ambitions for both Cafe and Hotel Football are to simply get the operations up and running properly and to iron out the inevitable wrinkles of any start-up. Once that is done, though, Procter is confident that both concepts have the potential to roll out initially throughout the UK and then longer term in mainland Europe, Asia and the United Arab Emirates. Particularly important for the hotels, Procter says, is a sense of local identity and not necessarily related to the local teams. At Manchester, for example, there will be a five-a-side pitch on the roof for use by local schools and businesses. Beyond Cafe Football and Hotel Football, GG also wants to contract manage hotels for other operators. By his own admission, patience is not a virtue Procter possesses in spades but on the flipside he is focussed and driven so while it may seem he has plenty on his plate for now, these characteristics and his achievements to date make these goals realistic.
Procter has lived in London with his wife and two children for ten years now but retains the straight talking, no-nonsense, black and white qualities of his native Lancashire upbringing. He has encountered prejudice in the past for the way he speaks – he turned down a job from an employer who expected him to have elocution lessons – but on the whole says he feels pretty blessed that so far in his now 14-year career in hotel management, he has mainly worked for inspirational bosses who have given him great autonomy.
He is thankful to have worked with the likes of Tony Spencer at Shire Hotels; Jeremy Rata under the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and with Terry Holmes at The Stafford. It says just as much about him as it does his former colleagues and employers that they always let him get on with things his way and that he was presented with the opportunities to take on the big roles he did at a relatively young age. At The Devonshire Arms he helped steer the establishment through the tricky post Foot and Mouth Disease crisis and in his seven years at The Stafford he a led a team which managed to grow the hotel’s annual revenue from £8million to £12.5million and profitability from £2.2million to £5million. Procter is an avid reader of business autobiographies and says he loves the American peoples’ ability to celebrate entrepreneurial success – jealousy towards those that do well and schadenfreude towards those who stumble are anathema to him. He wishes more people recognised the opportunities offered by the hospitality sector. “It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have got or where you have come from – if you have got the right attitude and work hard you will get on and it is a skill you can transport around the world.” “It might seem an easier option to do something else but if you put in the hard work, the rewards are tremendous – I have been fortunate enough to travel the world, get paid well, stay in the best hotels in the world and to make the best friends in the world.” He says all this without a hint of boastfulness – he’s just telling it how it is. And the fact is now, he adds, he has the best job in the world. No joke.