Trade profile: Rocket bars and restaurants

James HorlerJames Horler talks to Mark Ludmon about the development of Rocket Restaurants & Bars

It is nearly two years since London’s Rocket restaurants and bars were taken over by entrepreneur James Horler. Known for their pizzas and cocktails, the business had been slowly growing since the first was opened in Mayfair by Duncan and Anna Watts and Amit Joshi in 1999. Now, after expanding to five by adding two new sites in Nottingham and London last year, Horler’s company, 3sixty Restaurants, is on the look-out to expand the concept to new locations in London and possibly beyond. “Since acquiring Rocket, we have evolved it and focused on improving the quality of the food and front-of-house and the business model,” he says. “We are getting ourselves ready to move forward.”

James has a strong track record in identifying strong concepts and rolling them out. He started out at Trusthouse Forte, where he was a regional director of Little Chef by the age of 24, and then ran motorway service areas for Granada. He moved to City Centre Restaurants where, as operations director, he expanded Frankie & Benny’s from five to 65 sites in five years. In 2001, he acquired La Tasca, backed by private equity firm Penta Capital, and grew the Spanish restaurant chain until it was bought five years later by entrepreneur Robert Tchenguiz.

In 2008, James took on Mediterranean restaurant chain Ego from founders Jason Ellison and Jonathan Poole and merged it in March 2011 with the newly acquired Rocket Restaurants to form 3Sixty. The business is majority owned by Horler, who is chief executive, and non-executive chairman Luke Johnson, whose career spans from PizzaExpress and Signature Restaurants to today’s stakes in Giraffe and The Draft House pubs. James is also non-executive chairman of Charterhouse Leisure, which operates waterside restaurant and bar Severnshed in Bristol and the six-strong Coal Grill & Bar chain in Basingstoke, Bristol, Exeter, Sheffield and Wimbledon, London.

By 2011, Rocket stood at three sites, adding Old Broad Street in the City of London six years ago and Canary Wharf in 2010. The new owners opened the fourth Rocket at the Shoreditch end of Bishopsgate in March last year and then, attracted by its popular rooftop terrace, acquired Nottingham bar Saltwater from Principle Leisure Group which had gone into administration. With a loyal following, the bar was relaunched in May after a refurbishment as Rocket At Saltwater (pictured below). Since then, food sales have shot up, James says. “What it never had was a good food offering. It’s become a bit of a venue for a night out under one roof.”

James has made a number of changes to operations at the group, such as appointing sales managers to look after corporate and group bookings. “This is probably one of the biggest changes in the bar-restaurant market. It’s now something you have to have,” he says. To make both the bar and restaurant sides of the business work, staff are now divided into separate front-of-house and kitchen teams. “By doing that, we get good-quality food and good-quality drinks without the focus being on one or the other,” James explains. “Most wet-led concepts don’t do food that well but we have a combination of both.”

Despite Rocket being best known for its Zagat-rated pizzas, 60 per cent of business is wet sales, with good-quality wine and cocktail lists. The cocktails are created in-house, under Amit Joshi who remains with the business as operations manager for front-of-house. Alongside plenty of classics and twists, there is an extensive list of modern cocktails such as the Sputnik, made with Wokki Saki vodka, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh grapes, lime juice and elderflower cordial, and the Parachute, a mix of Havana Club Bianco rum, raspberry liqueur, raspberry juice, lime juice, gomme syrup and fresh raspberries.

The sites are different but have recurring themes such as stripes, with Bishopsgate and Nottingham designed by hospitality specialist Fusion DNA. “The design is quite quirky and very individual. We don’t want a cookie-cutter approach,” James says. The perfect recipe for a Rocket site includes an outside area, although this is lacking at the original Rocket down a narrow passage in Mayfair. The company is also in talks that will allow it to invest in its outdoor space at the front of the Bishopsgate site.

“We want to open more Rockets, mainly focused on central London, but only at the right price,” James says. “There might be other sites outside of London if they come up and are worth having like Saltwater.” Having built up Frankie & Benny’s to 65 sites and La Tasca to over 70, James now has Rocket ready for take-off.

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