It’s Tuesday afternoon at Tast, a Manchester restaurant specialising in Catalan cuisine. The decor is camouflage-hued, the lighting is soft, and the atmosphere relaxed. A diner is sitting at the bar reading the newspaper, while in the adjacent open kitchen, a team of chefs prepare the restaurant’s signature ‘duck’in donut’, a white chocolate doughnut filled with fois gras mousse. Nothing about the place, situated on a popular shopping thoroughfare, says ‘celebrity’ and yet, one of the five directors is Manchester City football club manager Pep Guardiola.
Guardiola is not the first high-profile restaurateur. In fact, celebrity-owned and endorsed restaurants seem to be on the rise. Last month, news broke that Ed Sheeran has opened a restaurant in Notting Hill, while the Usain Bolt-fronted Tracks & Records, specialising in Jamaican cuisine, plans to open 15 locations across the UK, with the first already operating in London’s Spitalfields. Robert de Niro is continuing to roll out the highly successful Nobu chain he co-founded, while former Manchester United footballers Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville have just appointed celebrity chef Tom Kerridge to oversee the food at their soon-to-be-opened Stock Exchange hotel, which follows the pair’s other ventures within hospitality.
But the restaurant industry is a notoriously difficult business to make money from, and the celebrity-owned restaurant has a chequered history. Planet Hollywood launched in 1991, backed by famous investors including Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone but filed for bankruptcy just a few years later. Fashion Cafe, the international restaurant chain fronted by Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer, also went bust shortly after opening. So, why do people who are already successful in other fields decide to go into the restaurant industry?
“If you’re a celebrity and you’ve got plenty of money, you’re probably going to be eating out at nice places regularly, becoming quite comfortable within the hospitality environment,” says Gemma Krysko, co-director of Manchester-based PR agency We Are Indigo. “People have regular places that they like to go, and they then think that they can do that too – they can have this kind of place where people want to come.”
Signe Rousseau, who works on the food studies journal Gastronomica, puts it like this: “We're in a somewhat troubling time of ‘expertise creep’, where celebrity or expertise in one area can often mistakenly bleed into another, like Jamie Oliver behaving like an expert on childhood nutrition.”
“Another reason is that for some celebrities, their careers aren’t that long-lived, so they have to think about diversifying revenue,” Krysko continues. She also says that increasingly, celebrities want to become brands: “They want to be more than a footballer or an actor, they want to be like the Beckhams, and you can’t do that by staying in one field. One of the easiest things to roll out as a concept is restaurants all over, and become that name, that face – that’s everywhere.”
This, however, isn’t the only reason celebs consider entering the hospitality industry. Filippo Zitto, Tast’s deputy manager and sommelier, tells me that “Pep didn’t just put his name down as an investor, but actually the idea was to create a space for good food that they can enjoy themselves.” He adds that the manager sometimes eats there three times a week.
The examples of a country-wide restaurant rollouts like Tracks & Records and a one-off eateries like Tast speak to the different business models of using someone's name, either as a minority shareholder, as Bolt is, versus financial control, as Guardiola has.
"Sometimes, when people already have a successful background or are quite well off do something, it might feel like it’s a bit tacky.”
“I can only presume that the differences come down to how much a celebrity ‘needs’, or is likely to gain handsomely from, lending a name to a concept – not unlike Charlize Theron putting her face to Dior products – versus someone who is less interested in milking their celebrity status than in making sure they have a place to eat what they like, in their new home town,” says Rousseau.
Indeed, unless you’re a Manchester City fan, you probably wouldn’t know about Tast’s connection to Guardiola. He’s missing from the restaurant’s branding, and is infrequently mentioned on their social media. It’s chef Paco Pérez, who runs Llançà-based two-Michelin star restaurant Miramar, that is touted as the man behind the restaurant’s success, which since opening in July 2018, has served 50,000 customers.
Krysko believes that this is a much better strategy than flouting the celebrity connection as these days, “people like the authenticity of a restaurant being owned by a family or an independent, or someone who’s working really hard to do well in life and have some success. Sometimes, when people already have a successful background or are quite well off do something, it might feel like it’s a bit tacky.”
However, there are instances where someone’s prior success in a different field is actually what helps them get ahead in hospitality. When Luke Cowdrey and Justin Crawford of the Unabombers, a DJ duo who founded seminal Manchester club night Electric Chair in the 90s and later ran Croatian festival Electric Elephant, decided to open a bar in Manchester’s Chorlton ten years ago, it was their large network of friends and fans, who helped get Electrik Bar off the ground. This led to them opening Volta, an acclaimed small plates restaurant in the city’s West Didsbury neighbourhood. In turn, the restaurant’s success led US private equity group Starwood Capital, who acquired the former Manchester Palace Hotel, to invite Cowdrey and Crawford to run the hotel’s new bar and restaurant, Refuge.
“People who come from music have a very gut, intuitive understanding of hospitality, because, like in clubs, it’s about looking after people,” says Cowdrey when we meet over a coffee at Refuge, which opened in 2016. “It’s a disruptive approach. We love the idea of things that don’t necessarily go together, going together. Take Bowie, in his Low album, somehow two opposites make something really good.”
Cowdrey and Crawford’s prior experience of learning on the job as DJs also helped make them better restaurant owners. “When me and Justin started the clubs, we couldn’t really mix records at that stage, we just played them but we did it live in front of people and we improved in front of the audience,” says Cowdrey. “And it was the same [at Refuge]. When we opened, we weren’t some perfect showroom. But if things develop and get better, slowly and surely, people trust you.”
Indeed, as Rousseau says, more than ever, celebrity isn’t enough to ensure longevity in the restaurant industry. “Celebrity can get you enough attention for a first visit, but if the burgers are rubbish, diners aren't going to come back – and they will tell TripAdvisor about it.”
Perhaps then, Tast’s muted approach to advertising its celebrity endorsement is just right.