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BIG INTERVIEW: Owners of Crockers on launching a new business post-lockdown

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Food-driven hospitality concept Crockers opened its second site in Henley-on-Thames in August, marking the brand’s debut in the boutique hotel market. led by former chef Luke Garnsworthy, Crockers is bidding to build its profile on experiential dining, personal service and putting its people first.

Almost two years after the launch of the first Crockers in Tring, former chef Luke Garnsworthy is at it again with the opening of a second property in lucrative tourism hotspot, Henley-on-Thames.

Crockers is a food-driven concept, comprising multiple dining spaces in one space in a bid to make fine dining more fun. In 2018, Garnsworthy opened Crockers Tring bringing to market a new restaurant concept where the Chef’s Table takes centre stage in an intimate, yet lively setting. Operating alongside an a la carte Dining Room eatery, the Chef’s Table seats 15 people, designed to immerse guests in the theatre of the kitchen giving each diner a front row seat to the preparation, cooking and service of their tasting menu.

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After years spent working long hours with low pay and being treated badly in kitchens around London, Garnsworthy was driven to push for change in the hospitality industry. The launch of Crockers Tring marked the start of a new venture that focused as much on the staff experience, as the guests. Garnsworthy knew that his employee’s happiness would translate through to the customers.

In 2015, Garnsworthy formed Unique Dining, a company made up of four main shareholders alongside himself; Sir Hossein Yassaie, chairman, Derek Bennett, director and operation director, Ian Churchill. Long-standing guests have also come on board along the way as smaller shareholders to support the group’s growth.

Crockers Tring was a simple F&B operation and has built a solid reputation both in the local community and wider area, growing into a strong profitable business.

Speaking to BH, Garnsworthy adds: “Tring has nearly always been fully booked for dinners and weekends from the moment we opened the doors. We built a reputation prior to opening Tring and that really hoped. Now we’re actually busier than we were pre lockdown.”

This year Unique Dining opened its second branch of Crockers, and this time with seven bedrooms; the group’s first foray into overnight accommodation. The former Loch Fyne restaurant and Milsoms Hotel in Henley-on-Thames was transformed into a striking boutique hotel as part of a £1.5m project, designed by Ali Hearn Interiors, ready for opening on August 1. A daunting prospect for any expanding operator, let alone during a virus pandemic.

Garnsworthy says: “We knew from the moment we opened Tring that we wanted to open a second. I’ve always felt there is a gap in the market for this kind of experience so we wanted to capitalise on it. We first viewed the site in Henley in June 2018 so it took just over two years to open.”

Originally scheduled to open in the spring, Crockers Henley boasts three dining area, including two 16-seat Chef’s Tables and the Bar & Grill.

The Thames Table is overseen by head chef Dean Westcar, and serves a seasonal, modern British tasting menu, whilst The Gardiner Table, led by head chef Iain Dixon, sees a Pan-Asian tasting experience take centre stage.

Both showcase a seven-course lunch and 12-course dinner, with the same amount of theatrical flair and excitement delivered at each sitting. The concept is a new one for Henley, and despite Tom Kerridge’s Hand and Flowers down the road in Marlow, Henley-on-Thames is surprisingly a largely untapped market for fine dining.

Each bedroom comprises super king beds, roll-top baths and statement lighting pieces. Operations director Ian Churchill told BH that the bedrooms and layout at Crockers Henley were inspired by ‘places we’ve stayed and loved’, with the overriding theme of understated elegance running throughout.

Innovating during lockdown

The company was dealt a blow when diary dates meant missing out on any government help and although some employees could be retained through the business in Tring, the team had to get creative to ensure other jobs where protected.

Takeaway service Crockers at Home was quickly set up during lockdown and gained momentum among locals, helping to build some profile around the fledging business prior to its official launch date.

Now Crockers Henley is open, business is building nicely – occupancies at the Chef’s Tables are currently around 30%, with the Grill around 80% – but Garnsworthy knows there is still work to be done around promoting the bedrooms and the complete package. “I think it’s going to take time and printed press to let people know what we do with the chef’s tables and rooms,” he adds. “It could always be better, but we’re hopefully. The rooms are getting a lot of interest which is great.

“There will always be some people that want to pick fault with everything but that’s ok. The majority of guests love what we do, the environment we created and want to return.

“The customer base is really varied. I think an experience like ours is really open to everyone from young professionals wanting a treat to the wealthy people out there that come weekly/fortnightly,” he adds.

Whilst growth is on the cards in the future – “we just want to steady the ship for now. Get the bottom line back in the black and survive the next year. Then we may look at another site,” – for Garnsworthy and his team, physical expansion is worth nothing without a stellar staff line-up to back up the interior beauty, and this is where the former chef wants to invest.

Churchill added that money is used to invest in staff, with each employee having access to a raft of benefits from private health insurance to wine tasting experience. Part of expansion, he says, is growing a reputation to attract amazing staff, stressing it will ‘always be a group and never a chain’.

Tags : CrockersCrockers Henleynew hotels
Zoe Monk

The author Zoe Monk

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