Interview with an Innovator

Inception Group’s Charlie Gilkes: “We’re not trying to get a Michelin star – we serve good bar snacks, simply done”

The co-founder of one of London’s quirkiest food and drink operators talks tiffin tins, toasties and testing the waters outside the capital.

5 October 2018
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Gilkes on Paper – CV

  • Founded the Inception Group in 2009 with Duncan Stirling, unveiling the company’s first venue, Barts, the same year
  • Followed this up with a series of different F&B concepts, including pizzeria-meets-bar Bunga Bunga, ‘80s themed club Maggie’s and Victorian-inspired Mr Fogg’s
  • Launched the Inception Group’s 10th site on Bedford Street in September 2018, dubbed Mr Fogg’s Society of Exploration

Can a selection of bar snacks replace a full meal? Charlie Gilkes believes so. In fact, it’s the style of dining he hopes to promote at recently opened Mr Fogg’s Society of Exploration.

“Quite often now, people go out for food and choose lots of small plates instead of dinner,” says the co-founder of restaurant, bar and club operator Inception Group. “We’re not offering dinner, but we’re offering interesting small plates, which means people don’t have to go to a restaurant. They can spend all night here!” 

The latest iteration of the popular Mr Fogg’s brand joins a five-strong roster of kitsch venues that play on fun themes of travel and exploration. In a year of rapid expansion, it will soon be joined by a sixth member, Mrs Fogg’s Maritime Club and Distillery, opening on October 20.

The past decade has been good to the Inception Group. Its first venue, Barts, opened in 2009 and outran the economic crash. Since then, the group has expanded dramatically, racking up a total of 11 venues over 10 sites.

Gilkes aligns this success with the bold themes and in-depth storytelling that characterise his company’s various concepts. In this interview, he tells Food Spark about the method behind creating distinct experiences, trialling ideas through pop-ups and ratcheting up the food at Mr Fogg's.

 

I’ve always loved my food. My favourite places to eat as kid were roadside places in France where you’re not given a menu but are brought courses by a husband and wife team. I’ve always loved simple, local places.

At Inception Group, we keep our food simple too. Bunga Bunga and BungaTINI are all about pizza. We make our own dough with more of a Romana base.

A big thing for us is our afternoon teas at Mr Fogg’s, but we are also scaling up our bar snack menus, as previously they have been dictated by kitchen size.

This new Mr Fogg’s will have a more substantial food offering. Really good charcuterie, really good cheese boards, toasties, halloumi fritters, sweetcorn fritters. We’re not trying to get a Michelin star, but they’re good bar snacks, simply done.

A lot of my early exposure to food was through travelling. We [Gilkes and his business partner Duncan Stirling] got into hospitality through the side of promoting. When I left school, a way to pay for travel was running club nights. We knew how to fill a place, but in all honesty, we didn’t really know how to run a place.

Travelling is still a big influence. For instance, the tiffin tins – the bar snacks we serve at the new Mrs Fogg’s in the City [opening October 20] – are inspired by the tens of thousands of people who deliver tiffin tins with the day’s lunch in Mumbai.

image credit: Inception Group

Our first venue, Barts, taught us how to run a business, not just fill a venue. We opened Barts in 2009 as a little resident’s bar tucked away behind an apartment building. We thought, how can we turn this disadvantage into an advantage? Twitter was taking off at the time, so we created this underground buzz. We didn’t have any money, so the whole initial budget was 30K funded by Duncan and I, and a big overdraft.

In those days, we didn’t have money to spend on glassware, so we went to boot sales and bought old tea mugs and teapots. I’m almost embarrassed now because everywhere does it, but at the time they weren’t. Being ahead of that trend almost happened by accident, because it was all we could afford. We also had a friend do a mural on the wall and commissioned other artists to do various artworks. I look now at what we’re spending on these venues and I wish we could pull things in like we did then.

We believe a unique idea is a combination of existing ideas. For instance, we didn’t create pizza, we didn’t create karaoke or live entertainment. But the way we combine them creates a unique concept.

It’s always a challenge finding sites. It’s getting a little easier for us now as landlords get what we do. We lost lots of early sites to big European brands who want flagships here in London.

Recruitment is a constant challenge. Finding people and retaining people. Post-Brexit, we’re seeing this as a massive issue. We’re not getting a level of interest in job adverts, which is our biggest challenge.

We’ve always said work culture is key. We had four people who left us last year, but three of them came back. We have a development programme, so most of our general managers now start as bartenders or waiters and waitresses. We find home-grown talent is the very best, so they climb all the way up. We inspire staff by having monthly company breakfasts, and we have a massive company conference where everyone comes and we do a big party in the evening – we’re big on culture. It sounds cheesy, but when people join, we say, ‘Welcome to the family.’

Hospitality will fall foul of being replaced by artificial intelligence if we aren't careful. We’re all about personality. Our waiters don’t come to work as waiters, they come to work as who they are.

I never quite believe something will work until it does. We’ve had a couple of failures, which are good as they take away your complacency. My advice is that our first four venues didn’t have any footfall but they were strong concepts. If you have a strong enough concept, people will find you.

The likes of Uber makes it easy to open venues off the beaten track. Restaurants are that much more accessible. The digital world means you less and less find things walking down the street, you find things on Google Maps. Have confidence in what you do.

Mr Fogg’s Society of Exploration is probably the right postcode, wrong street. Yes we’re closer to the drag here, but it is still a basement. However, Broadway Circle and St Martin’s Lane, for instance [where there are other Inception Group venues], have huge footfall.

image credit: Johnny Stephens

I’d always recommend people to try their concepts as street food first. Get your brand, get your 10k followers on Instagram. Then you’ve already got your following.

Pop-ups teach you a lot about new openings. In the City, it’s all about speed. We ran a pop-up in the City and we learned that people don’t want to wait 10 minutes while we stir an old fashioned.

We tailor our venues to the audiences. Around Covent Garden, there is a high level of tourists, whereas we’re more concept led in Fitzrovia where there are more offices. In Mayfair, we aren’t as in your face with the [travel and adventure] concept.

People want to go to a specialist, not a generalist now. People aren’t going to come and have a sit down lunch at Mr Fogg’s, but they will come in the evening for a cocktail and share small plates. 

I’d love to open outside of London, but I’d want to spend a substantial amount of time getting to know the markets in say Manchester or Oxford.

Experience is what justifies the margin between what you pay in a supermarket to what you pay in a venue. That experience is what we’re selling. We’re not selling goods, we’re selling experiences. I think that’s key. At Maggie’s, you’re not paying for the bottle of Champagne, you’re paying for the ET Robot to bring it to you.

I think people need to be braver when opening new venues in London. I’m not sure whether small regional towns would want a Cahoots, but there are a lot of buzz words in the industry which are very generic now. ‘Luxurious’ and ‘sumptuous’ are just words in a press release.

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