The London-based steakhouse chain has been trying to open in NYC for years, but the pandemic had other plans.
By Tom Hunt as told to Hugh Thomas
Tom Hunt is restaurant director for the New York expansion of Hawksmoor, the eight-location British steakhouse chain. Hunt was leading plans to open a Hawksmoor branch in Manhattan, New York, in March 2020. The pandemic put that opening on indefinite hold. Having already endured an aborted launch at the World Trade Center, the chain’s first restaurant outside the UK—and its staff—again finds itself in limbo.
We were fully training, and all the last orders for trading had gone in. The owners Will Beckett and Huw Gott were flying backwards and forwards from London at that time because we were due to open on the 19th of March. And then we could see the writing was on the wall.
We decided to close on Thursday the 12th of March, and we were probably one of the first businesses to call it before the mandated closure. We were fortunate to see the news coming from the UK and Europe, and that’s where I feel quite reassured of the decision to close. That of course is now the right decision, but when we made it we didn’t really know how serious this was going to be. By the 14th of March, we told the team, who as you can imagine were devastated.
On the 16th of March was when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio locked it down. We had articles and press about us ready to come out, and so to pivot into cocktail delivery or food delivery without a team that had been fully trained up, without a name, without the goodwill of the city, felt very premature. You only get one chance to launch. Also, we’ve got a huge business we’ve got to worry about in the UK.
So the decision was to close as well as possible, and look after the team in what was a horrific situation, because they’d all left jobs to come and join us, and then we were telling them we weren’t opening. We did what we could financially for everybody, and gave them lots of opportunities to come and sit with HR to go through their options.
People keep asking me, when are you going to launch? It would be insensitive for us to think New York is ready for a new steakhouse when so many of their favorite steakhouses have been lost. And when there are so many independent restaurants that have closed already, or are going to. The last thing we want right now as a company, or as individuals who care about this industry, is to start shouting from the hilltop, “We’re opening, please come and support us.”
People are worried we’ve thrown in the towel, and I can categorically say we haven’t. We’ve had a tough time in New York—there’s no doubt about it. But we are committed. The five-year timeline to get this far sounds worse than it really is, because of delays that are part and parcel of doing business in New York—construction, or things not working out with the World Trade Center.
But me being here for the last two years is testament to how much we respect New York and how much we want to do business here. There’s too many businesses around the world—especially restaurant companies—who find a site, walk in, open their doors, and hope to be successful. New York is not that. Everybody’s got their favorite pizzeria or steakhouse. We don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.
A huge part of the last seven years has been about understanding what people eat, how it’s produced, what suppliers have the same ethics and welfare standards as we would like. And we didn’t want to come into New York with a one-size-fits-all “this is how we want to do it” approach and potentially upset the apple cart. We want to be a great employer, we want to champion amazing suppliers from Pennsylvania, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho. We want to learn about the beef industry. We want to meet the fishermen and women from Maine who do our lobster.
Now I’m keeping a very close eye on the legislation that will happen to support restaurants. Some companies have been able to apply for big loans, small business loans, and disaster loans. Some got millions, where others didn’t get any. The next big discussion is employment and around tipping—and how divisive the tipping structure is in New York particularly, but also across the US. I have to be very careful about how I talk about this because we’re so lucky that in the UK we can give service charge and tips and spread it to the full team, front of house and back of house. Whereas in New York, it’s illegal to give anyone who isn’t customer-facing a proportion of the tips.
We’ve got about ten employees left. Some of them are back in the UK supporting the team there, and they are quite senior. Some of the team are based in New York, and we catch up every week or so, to keep spirits up as they always ask me, “Any news on dates?” We’re going to be hiring an amazing New York team. We’re going to bring over only senior members from the UK so it doesn’t feel like a British import. As we want to champion everything from the US, we have coined ourselves as a great steakhouse that happens to be British. In terms of our PR and marketing, which hasn’t really come out yet, that was really the angle and the tone that we would go along.
Americans have a different palate. Hopefully they’ll like our versions of a burger, or how we charcoal-grill our steaks, but we’re absolutely not telling them that’s how it should be done. We want them to think this is our way of doing it with their product, in their city, in their country. And hopefully that our being honest about that will be enough for them to give it a go, like it, or pass critique. New York is the home of the steakhouse, so we want to do something different and something better rather than a version of what came before.
People who’d do any digging on our website would find out we’re from the UK, but it’s about showing we aren’t just going to bring over British beef, a British team, and lots of British wine. I’ve been doing the wine list, and it’s not about putting on just the big expensive Napa Cabs. It’s about finding the smaller, more affordable wines that are not on every steakhouse wine list, and charging a little bit less, because it’s hard to find a balanced wine list that isn’t overpriced in big cities.
That’s exactly what we do in the UK, but when I explain it to a lot of sommeliers and wine distributors here, they were quite shocked, saying that I needed to start at this price, otherwise people wouldn’t come. And I was like, I’m going to start at half that, and if I don’t get the people they’re talking about, I’m not bothered. Because they can always spend more if they want. I want people to be able to come along and spend $35 on a bottle of red and not feel they have to spend $60.
For recipes, we’ve had to change everything. Even down to the cream. We have double cream in the UK, which you can whip up. Here you have heavy cream, whipping cream, half and half, and certain creams don’t whip up as well, so you have to boil them down to make them thicker and drive off the moisture. Just in pastry alone we’ve had to test flours, sugars, all of the different weights. Imagine our average recipe which we’re comfortable with and have taken 13 years to improve—in December, January, and February, all we did was test our recipes again and again.
All my UK friends here in New York ask me about Sunday roasts. Some say they won’t come at all if we don’t do it. We’d love to, but don’t know how just yet. Our prime rib is crying out for it, but do we serve it as a plated roast, or as a roast meat and the trimmings on the side? The plan is to do dinner for three months, and once we’re comfortable, launch lunch, and hopefully roast will be a big part of it.
We’ve got to create a trust in the beef, in the service and hospitality, the feel of the room and our style of service, which is very informal—not like big steakhouses with their waistcoats and bow ties. That casual professionalism might be quite a shift for New York. And we have to work hard at that because otherwise it looks sloppy. We’ve worked on that for many years in the UK. Here we’re going to have to do it from the start and really win people over very quickly. Otherwise people will be like, “Yeah I went to Hawksmoor. It was all right. I’d still rather go to Keens.” We want to be part of New York dining for the next 40 years.