The Big Interview: Robert Cook, chief executive of Fridays owner Hostmore

Robert Cook is chief executive of Hostmore, the parent company of hospitality brands Fridays (rebranded from TGI Fridays) and 63rd+1st, which launched last year.

By Emma Newlands
Sunday, 8th May 2022, 4:55 am

London-listed Hostmore was created in 2021 after a demerger by Electra Private Equity, with Mr Cook taking the reins after becoming the CEO of Fridays in 2019, with the newer business choosing to be headquartered in Edinburgh.

The Aberdonian has 30 years’ experience in hospitality and leisure, with his childhood ambition to be a successful hotelier. His CV shows he certainly achieved that, having been at the helm of Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, plus De Vere Hotels and Resorts, as well as serving as chief operating officer of Macdonald Hotels & Resorts.

Consequently he holds an honorary doctorate from Robert Gordon University for his contribution to the hotel industry, and he is a director of the firm behind The Cookie Jar, a luxury boutique hotel in Alnwick, Northumberland, with 11 rooms and suites.

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He has also been the boss of Virgin Active UK – and says his aim now is “to make Fridays great again and make Hostmore a respected plc that is seen as a benchmark in the industry, with a collection of highly rated brands”.

The executive has flagged his plans for Scotland to be a key part of the group’s growth, with cocktail-led bar and restaurant 63rd+1st having opened in Glasgow, with another set to follow in Edinburgh, for example – and a “pipeline” of further sites. South of the Border, a new flagship Fridays is opening in Essex this week, taking the group’s total UK sites to about 90.

Hostmore has chosen Edinburgh as the location of its headquarters – and you’ve cited reasons such as the city being on the international stage. Can you explain more about why you have put down roots in the Scottish capital?

Fridays has a near 30-year history in Scotland – the first one opened on Buchanan Street in Glasgow in 1993. With its longevity, the brand resonates strongly north of the Border. Currently, we have eight Fridays across Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.

'We have seen nothing short of revolution in the hospitality industry since I joined it 30 years ago,' says Mr Cook. Picture: Mark Cocksedge.

Scotland’s rich heritage of university towns also makes it ideal for the growth of our new 63rd+1st brand (named after where 63rd Street and 1st Avenue meet in Manhattan, where the first Fridays was situated). We opened in Glasgow last year, and we are currently expanding to Aberdeen and St Andrews.

Finally, the economics work for us in Edinburgh, and its power and reputation as an investment community was another key factor in our headquarters decision.

What is your longer-term vision for the group’s presence in Scotland?

Our longer-term vision for the group as a whole is to grow Fridays to 100 sites and 63rd+1st to 25 over the next three to five years in the UK. Further expansion north of the Border will be a key part of that. For 63rd+1st, expanding in Scottish cities is a good fit.

Fridays did a major piece of customer research on the perception of its brand – what did this reveal and how is it helping growth?

The Fridays brand has always been about fun and camaraderie, and I remember it as a child. But there was a perception that it was a bit “tired” – I strongly believed we could do something with it and reignite the engine.

I joined in December 2019 and, with a new management team, we spoke to some 3,500 Fridays customers, both existing and lapsed, and that work focused us on the need to invest in improving quality, to be more relevant in our food and drinks offering, and tackle our over-complicated menu. Notably, we had lost our throne in the drinks market.

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Therefore we have concentrated on those three areas – quality, relevance and simplification – to refresh our offering and improve the customer experience.

We invested heavily in a digital transformation… We have also transformed the way we think about our social and environmental responsibilities and have put those at the heart of our business. Currently we are focusing on three areas in that regard – supply chain, energy consumption, and menu quality.

Scotland is home to the first-ever branch of takeaway-focused Fridays And Go – and you’ve said you think there's “a real opportunity” to grow it to a “meaningful number” of Scottish sites. What are your ambitions for the brand more broadly, including the rest of the UK, and how is it tapping into the way consumer behaviour has been altered by the pandemic?

Fridays And Go is the world’s first Fridays Quick Service restaurant and we have high hopes for the brand, which is still authentically Fridays and offers all the “classics”. It addresses the “fast casual” revolution and, with the growth of electric vehicles meaning more time spent at service stations, it’s an interesting time to enter the “grab and go” market.

We launched, very successfully, in March in Dundee and we have current plans to roll it out in Inverness, Stirling, Perth, Edinburgh and Glasgow. It is “capital light” and should work well in satellite towns as well as big cities, so current thinking is that we can aim for 30 to 40 sites in the next four to five years, although it is still early days.

You’ve talked of how the hospitality sector is facing the “quadruple whammy” of the rent moratorium ending, the rise in business rates and the National Living Wage, and VAT returning to 20 per cent from 12.5 per cent – with UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls forecasting that the latter alone would “prove nothing less than catastrophic”. What is your outlook for the impact on Hostmore and the broader industry?

There are two sides here. There is going to be a lot of short-term pain (supply chain, inflation, lingering Covid effects), but if you can get through it, there will be long-term gain. Strong businesses will survive and those with the balance sheet and cash will have opportunities to grow, and this excites me.

We are in no hurry, but we believe there will be plenty of opportunities (probably fledgling brands wanting to become stronger ones) for bolt-on acquisitions of businesses looking for proper investment and the sorts of skills we have developed in transforming Fridays.

We have a strong balance sheet and cash reserve, and being listed is helpful – not least because it gives us credibility and visibility. However, I in no way underestimate the challenges ahead of us all as we navigate what is going to be another difficult year, with many uncertainties for the hospitality industry.

Staffing shortages remain a major issue in the sector, exacerbated by the impact of Covid and Brexit. How is Hostmore managing this issue?

The availability of the right talent, and churn, are big issues for the whole industry. Too many people are moving quickly from brand to brand. Offering career opportunities plus training and development are front and centre for us and we work very hard to provide the right culture and working practices to attract and retain the best people.

We have addressed pay structures (as part of this we share 100 per cent of our gratuity pot, one of the biggest in the industry, with staff), we have invested in a chef academy, hired trainers from chef development backgrounds, joined the Institute of Hospitality so we can offer accredited training in store, and created our Sparks training programme (young people learning about cost control and menu engineering) that has been a real success.

You’ve led high-profile brands such as Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, have worked with racing driver David Coulthard on the likes of the Dakota hotel business, and have been awarded various accolades. What have been career highlights, the biggest challenges, and how has hospitality evolved since you started out?

The highlights for me have been floating Fridays as Hostmore last year, growing Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, and turning around Virgin Active in the UK.

The thing that links all of these is working for brands I admire, and which I can make even better.

We have seen nothing short of a revolution in the hospitality industry since I joined it 30 years ago. The likes of Malmaison and Hotel du Vin have led the way in hotels, and in restaurants and dining The Pig, CitizenM, Five Guys, Wagamama, Nando’s and, of course, Fridays stand out. The same has happened in coffee and sandwich bars, together with a boutique fitness surge with the likes of Third Space and 1Rebel.

It has been a generation of change that has been both exciting and inspiring, and in which it has been great to be “knee deep”. I look forward to the next decade of even more inspiring brands and concepts coming to the consumer.

I should say that I am particularly proud of how the industry has responded through Covid. It has proved itself, yet again, to be remarkably resilient and those who are nimble, agile and well-resourced will prosper, despite the many headwinds.

The thing I most value is watching and helping young people grow and become better. When you stop becoming better, you stop being good.