The City is strewn with stories of disillusioned workers bored of the rat race and desperately running for the emergency exit. It’s a tale as old as time – or at least Canary Wharf – where our intrepid heroes break the shackles of well-intentioned university degrees, years spent clambering up the career ladder and sucking up to their boss, and bravely turn their back on the whole thing in favour of pursuing their true passion… or maybe a cushy role in insurance.
Gordon Ker is one such individual. In 2013, he was working as a lawyer for Olswang in the firm’s M&A private equity division when he decided to get off the hamster wheel in search of something better. Ker “fell into law”, almost immediately realised that it wasn’t for him, and he wasn’t going to stick around waiting for apathy to kick in.
While he’s the first to say he didn’t have a fully fledged plan for what was to come, his short time working with a number of restaurant operator clients had planted an idea that would later grow into one of the most exciting multi-site chains in London. “I had this real passion and drive to run my own business and do my own thing – build a company from zero to something,” Ker tells me when we meet at his latest restaurant in Covent Garden. “I think that idea of growth is what really motivates me, it’s what I get really excited about, and is a big part of my job now.”
During Ker’s time at Olswang he assisted Hawksmoor founders Will Beckett and Huw Gott on their deal with private equity firm Graphite Capital. After finalising the paperwork, he talked late into the night with the pair about his own aspirations of opening a restaurant. Naturally, the Hawksmoor founders thought it was the celebratory cocktails talking, but Ker was serious – so serious, in fact, that not long after the meeting he quit law and took up a waiter job at Hawksmoor while he searched for the site of his first restaurant. You’ll be pleased to learn that Beckett and Gott were early investors.
Ker’s idea was Blacklock – a relaxed chophouse serving high quality meat at highly competitive prices – and, suffice it to say, he hit a nerve with London’s carnivorous population. Blacklock went against the grain of the stuffy and expensive steakhouses that are dotted across the capital, but without sacrificing the quality or provenance of the meat.
“It’s not really rocket science,” Ker laughs after I ask him his secret to success, but the hordes of repeat customers looking for their fix of Blacklock’s ‘All In’ platter – a drool-inducing feast of beef, lamb and pork chops served atop chargrilled flatbreads for the measly sum of £24 per person – suggest that the young restaurateur has captured lightning in a bottle.
Seven years after Blacklock first launched in Soho in 2015, there are now four restaurants across London, with plans afoot to expand across the country. But growth is just one string to Blacklock’s bow. It’s also in the final stages of gaining its B Corp certification, a movement that designates businesses that balance profit, with social and environmental performance. It’s a business that is determined to better itself not only for its loyal customers, but its stakeholders as well.
Meeting Gordon Ker reminds me of a quote from the irreplaceable Anthony Bourdain: “To want to own a restaurant can be a strange and terrible affliction. What causes such a destructive urge in so many otherwise sensible people? Why would anyone who has worked hard, saved money, often been successful in other fields, want to pump their hard-earned cash down a hole that statistically, at least, will almost surely prove dry?”
The answer for Ker, it seems, is because of the people. Forget the dated image of the restaurateur holding court in the best table in the restaurant drinking the profits, Ker’s story is not only about the success of Blacklock, but how it succeeded. He’s one of the good guys. No wonder he didn’t fit in at the law firm.
You left your City job in 2013 and opened the first Blacklock in 2015. Where did the idea come from? Were you sat at your desk dreaming of this?
I definitely didn’t have a plan when I left the City. I can’t sit here and say that I always wanted to open a restaurant, or that my family was in restaurants so it was a natural step for me, because that’s simply not the case.
I never really knew what I wanted to do and I sort of fell into law, fell into a law firm and became a lawyer, ended up in M&A private equity corporate law, and pretty much instantly was like, “Oh, I don’t know what I want to do, but I definitely know what I don’t want to do.” I didn’t enjoy being a lawyer. It’s long hours and, certainly out of my friends who I studied with, none of us were enjoying our jobs.
At the same time, perhaps because I was in the business field, I had this real passion and drive to run my own business and do my own thing – build something from zero to something. I think that idea of growth is what really motivates me, it’s what I get really excited about, and is a big part of my job now. I think that combined with the culture in the law firm really shaped the how and why.
I very much believe that if someone is passionate and interested in something, there’s a strong chance they’ll be good at it, because you want to go the extra mile, whereas if you’re not interested in it you’re unlikely to be very good at it. I think that has really shaped my ethos at Blacklock which is first and foremost a people business, a great place to work, before we are a great restaurant. The hope is that the former influences the latter. Our people are great, they’re passionate and motivated, and they will be able to do a great job, so therefore our guests will be happy and our restaurants will be great too.
So all this came from a passion to want to do my own thing teamed with cultural issues in law firms that shaped how I thought my business might be and the focus of it. My work in private equity was all with a leisure and hospitality focus, so I was immersed in restaurant, hotel and leisure asset classes, I met a lot of people in this industry andI started to have a few ideas in restaurants.
After that, I got close to the guys at Hawksmoor, Will Beckett and Huw Gott, in 2013 and pitched the idea of Blacklock to them and in the end quit my job and went to work as a waiter at Hawksmoor while I set myself up and found the first site for Blacklock.
It’s a very circuitous route to market; what did you learn in your time as a waiter?
I understood the back-of-house part of the industry and some of the business side of it from my previous job – although, thinking back, probably not that much actually as I was quite naive at the time! – but I really was clear that I wanted to understand the day-to-day operations.
I’d never worked in restaurants before, ever, and while I had a very specific idea of how restaurants should be and the focus on experience, I was conscious that I was essentially stepping into the role of general manager when we opened our first site, so I felt like I needed to understand how to be a waiter, how the bar runs, the pressure on the kitchen, the pass – what even is the pass, which is a question I remember asking at Hawksmoor – so I could actually understand how to run this thing.
It’s a bloody tough job working in a restaurant so it was really this baptism of service, hospitality, running the floor, and how you cope with that pressure, because it’s a very different kind of pressure to what you experience working in a law firm.
Having gone from no experience in the industry to running four sites, including the latest Blacklock outpost in Covent Garden, do you feel like a restaurateur yet?
I guess when you have to fill in your job description on a form at the bank I’d write restaurateur. Yeah, that’s something. What I would say is I’m very close to the restaurants, I’m very close to the people, and I think it comes back to how I see the company.
We are obviously a restaurant business, but we spend more time talking about the quality of the company than we do about the quality of the restaurants themselves – how we are as a company to work for, the quality of training we do in our people, the opportunities we’re creating, how do we go as a company to create more opportunities for our people. So more of my job is focusing on that and leaving it to the exceptional people in our team to deliver the Blacklock experience. I’m just here to assist and support with that. Is that a restaurateur? Yeah, I suppose so.
That all flows into your recent pursuit of B Corp certification. That feels like the culmination of what Blacklock as a business has been trying to achieve.
We’re going through the certification process at the moment so we don’t have B Corp status yet, but we’re definitely on the path to it. I think it’s something that’s come up relatively recently in the past 18 months, and when I first heard about it I was a little unsure what it actually was, but the first thing that struck me was, it’s really a focus for companies who are purpose led. Everything I was reading about sounded like what we were doing already at Blacklock – it was slap-bang in the middle of our ethos as a company that was set up for all our stakeholders not just our shareholders.
The fundamental premise of B Corp is that the company is set up to consider everything and everyone that it touches in the doing of its business, rather than a typical business which is set up to technically and legally make profit for its shareholders. In a B Corp, you are required to balance the interests of not just the shareholders, but employees, the supply chain, the environment, and sustainability. You have to focus on all these elements and all of them have an equal weighting in your business. That’s something that we’ve always done, so it felt like a very natural fit.
There is the small matter of the food tasting good too! The thing about Blacklock is that the price point doesn’t come at the expense of the produce. What’s your secret?
I don’t think value is a dirty word. We talk about Blacklock being great value for money and we want people to have, what we call ‘positive bill shock’ – you know, you get the bill and are like “Oh, wow!” rather than some high-quality restaurants and the bill leaves your eyes watering and praying that someone else picks up the tab. We want you to have the very best experience, super high quality, great service, wicked atmosphere, as good as any other very high quality restaurant, and we’re hopefully just going to give you that positive bill shock at the end, which means you’re more likely to come back a bit quicker.
How do we make it work? I suppose that’s twofold. One, we try and drive volume through more repeat custom and being open to more people in terms of accessibility of price point, and, two, in terms of quality at value we absolutely believe that we serve the very best quality meat you can buy anywhere, we have just mastered how to buy smart. We don’t want to serve cheap meat cheaply, we want to serve very high quality, sustainably sourced meat with great value.
It’s not really rocket science. We buy the whole animal and then we make something out of as much as we can of that animal. What that means is for our farmer, Phillip Warren and Ian Warren in Cornwall, they can farm less intensively, so they don’t need to kill as many animals, which means quality is instantly higher. Taking the whole, rather than cherry-picking the prime cuts, means they know they have an outlet for a whole rather than for a bit of the animal and having all this meat that we don’t want and they then have to shift to someone else. Simply, that means we get a better overall price.
It also means that we’re able to showcase lesser-known cuts that, we believe, on a great animal are just as good if not better than the prime cuts that you can go and get somewhere else. If the animal is good, why are we discriminating between X and Y when those two cuts can be very close to each other on the animal? We don’t fetishise any cut here, we try our best to broadly serve everything.
Typically, our property costs are another way in which we make it work. All our restaurants are not on the high street, they’re often not on the ground floor, they don’t have much of a shop front, we’re a little tucked away so you’ve got to find us and know about us, and therefore the spaces are not as rentable as, say, round the corner from our Covent Garden site on the piazza. But we back ourselves to drive people to the restaurant and that’s probably where we catch up.
The final piece of the puzzle is we make less margin certainly than what ‘Restaurant Economics For Dummies’ would recommend you need to make on your food product – but we’re totally fine with that if that drives more volume. That means that our sales are higher, and all the other costs that come around with running the business become more efficient.
Is there anything on the menu that typifies using the whole animal?
One of my favourites is Cull Yaw, which is a really nice full-circle mass approach where a farmer called Matt Chatfield is buying lambs that would otherwise be slaughtered, he takes them to Cornwall gives them a nice sunny home, fattens them up, and then sends them to us about a year later. We use the shoulder for our Cull Yaw Crumpet, which has become a favourite among our starters.
Another thing we do is serve what we call ‘whole animal steaks’, so those points on the animal where you’re discriminating X versus Y when actually there’s a negligible difference. We sell Denver steak for £12, which is a cut from the shoulder with really nice marbling and is so tender. It needs to be butchered in a certain way so that you don’t get any chewy pieces, but on the plate it’s just absolutely delicious, even though it wouldn’t normally be treated like a steak.
We also serve ‘sixth rib eye’, which is a fantastic example of our relationship with our butchers Phillip and Ian Warren. Basically, we wanted to put rib eye on the menu when we started Blacklock, but rib eye is a prime cut of meat and it goes for about £36 in most steakhouses these days. We were in their butchers in Cornwall looking at the ribs ageing and we spotted a couple of ribs on the end of the main section of the rib eye, and we asked what they were and Ian told us: “Oh, that’s the fifth and the sixth rib. Rib eye comes from bones seven to twelve.”
They were there to protect the meat during the ageing process but are then chopped off and put into burger mince. We looked at him and asked why. Why mince a perfectly good piece of rib eye? The answer was that’s just what they’ve always done. The fifth and sixth ribs have a slightly smaller eye of fat on them than would be considered standard on a rib eye, and so butchers can’t label them as such.
We took a few of these ribs, treated them like we would any cut of steak, and they were fantastic. Good fat content, nicely marbled, it’s got great beef flavour from the ageing. Our butcher sells us that for more than he would sell burger mince, so he’s winning, but he sells it to us for less than he would for rib eye. That means we can sell 300g to our guests for just £18, but we would stand that rib eye up against any other available in London, and we think you’d struggle to tell the difference.
One of the arguments posed by certain members of the green movement is that meat-centric restaurants like Blacklock have a shelf life in a world that is turning more towards veganism and conscientious meat eating. Is there still a place for a chophouse in the next ten or twenty years?
Absolutely, there is. We’re focused very much on conscious eating and also we’re not that ‘dude food’ kind of place that’s throwing you massive portions of everything. We’re focused on very high quality, sustainable meat and see meat as a celebration. We want people to have the confidence in us to be able to come here and know that the animal they’re eating not only tastes delicious but has lived a great life, was reared sustainably, low intervention, and regeneratively farmed.
Those practices are actually better for the environment and are putting back into the whole ecosystem in a way that’s required in order for us to be climate positive. To your point, yes, I definitely believe that people should eat better meat less often. We don’t need you coming to Blacklock every day of the week. I’m pretty much vegetarian outside of restaurants and, yeah, practising moderation is the right way to go.
What’s next for Blacklock?
I really get motivated by growth, building the company and creating opportunities for our people. When we talk about opening new restaurants, generally it really comes down to, ‘Bloody hell, we need to open a new restaurant because all these fantastic people who work for us, what’s next for them?’ We want to keep those people, we want them to grow, and actually we need to grow to give them the next opportunity – the next management role, the next chef role, whatever it might be.
So we’d like to continue to grow the company and, yes, we’ve got to step out of London at some point. We’ve been looking in Manchester for a while, Birmingham, big cities in the UK. We did Blacklock at Home during Lockdown, which was a really cool thing in terms of keeping our staff busy and off furlough, but it also meant that we were able to sell and test Blacklock outside of London. We sold boxes nationwide and in the end we were 50-50 sales London to nationwide, but within that there were definitely pockets of the country where interest was particularly strong.
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It’s only a matter of time until we open up outside of London, but we’re really conscious of doing it in the right way, and not just opening a restaurant for the sake of it. It has to be when the right site becomes available in the right location. We’re under no pressure, there’s no rollout schedule, as it were, so each decision needs to feel brand positive.
I think the other thing I’d say is while we want new restaurants to be great, the existing restaurants have to continue to get better. You can’t open a new site and take your focus away from what you’ve already got.
Would you ever diversify away from the Blacklock concept? Would you go into the world of fish or something like that?
We’ve talked a lot about fish at some point and whether there could be a fish Blacklock, or a Blacklock that has fish on the menu. There’s a lot of cool things we could do with fish on the grill. It’s something we’ve definitely thought about.
What would your advice be to anyone thinking of starting their own business?
It’s your own business, so you have to do what makes you passionate. I had no idea about restaurants when I first started, but I loved how restaurants can make you feel and was really passionate about people and building opportunities for them. Together, those two things are the essential parts of Blacklock. As long as you’re passionate about something, there’s a good chance you can make it work.
For more info, see Blacklock London