The new Café Football restaurant in London’s Westfield Stratford shopping centre is a smart, welcoming and distinctly cool-looking venue; all muted greys, blacks and whites and subtle lighting. Football-based epithets like Hustle & Heart Set Us Apart are printed on the walls while TV screens unobtrusively show clips of kids from around the world showing off their skills and celebrating their goals. But this is most definitely not a sports bar. There’s not a signed football shirt in sight and none of the usual sporting paraphernalia adorning the walls. So hats off to owners and footballing icons Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville for resisting the urge to go down that route.
On opening night, while GG Hospitality’s managing director Stuart Proctor proved to be a genial host for the evening and his executive chef Brendan Fyldes dished up an array of delicious canapés – teasers from the menu that Café Football will now serve to customers – Giggs and Neville were both clearly enjoying themselves hugely and feeling positive about the future for the Café Football brand.
For Giggs, this has been something of a labour of love. “Me and Gary started thinking about this three or four years ago and it’s evolved into what you see here now,” he said. “It’s taken a lot of really hard work. Meeting Stuart gave us a leg up into the hospitality market with his expertise. Sourcing the chefs and working with Brendan and Michael [Wignall, creative director] was so important.”
And while many celebrity owners of restaurants are happy to just put in the money and sit back, watching their investment grow, for Giggs it was vital that he and Neville were committed to the project from the start. “Gary and I have been very hands-on throughout the whole process. We wanted to do it right; do it well. But it’s been a team effort,” he says. “Gary, myself, Stuart, Michael and Brendan have worked well together, had lots of meetings and deliberations about the menu. We all wanted this to be perfect, the best we could do, and so that’s why we were hands-on. We didn’t want to just leave it to someone else.”
So, what does success look like to Giggs? “Hopefully the punters who come will enjoy good food and good service. We know we have the capability to roll this out to different locations, but we want to get this one right first. We want to walk before we run. The main focus is on Westfield Stratford at the moment. But let’s see what the future holds. Hopefully in about five year’s time we could have 15 or 20.”
For Gary Neville it was vital that they got the look and feel of the restaurant right. “We’re really happy with the way it looks and we’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve,” he said. “We wanted it to have subtle references to football. This is not a sports bar. It’s not about celebrity; it’s about the roots of football. The team has worked tremendously hard. Ryan and I have learned the importance of having a good spirit throughout the years and there is a wonderful team spirit here in the group. We are hopeful we’ll do well. A lot of work has gone into this over the last twelve to eighteen months. There are people here tonight who have contributed towards that in a big way.”
Choosing the right location was very important to the team. “When we came down to Westfield Stratford we were stunned,” said Neville. “It’s wonderful. It has incredible shops, a great quality of restaurants. There’s tremendous footfall and great sporting connections.”
The food on the menu at Café Football is a mixture of smart new variations on old favourites such as chicken in a basket and fish and chips alongside perennial kids’ fodder of hot dogs, pizza and fish finger sandwiches. There is also a distinct touch of the playful in dishes like the ‘Vimto Ripple’ and ‘Nev’s Noodle Pot’.
“We wanted the menu to be about sharing food with your friends or family, to bring back memories from your childhood and the atmosphere of going to a football match,” said Giggs, a self-confessed “chocaholic” who admits to liking the menu’s melting chocolate football the best. “The quality of food is really important, and so is the service. Our old manager Sir Alex Ferguson used to always tell us before a match ‘go out there and enjoy it. Have fun’ and we want everybody who comes here to have fun too. If we can achieve, that we’ll be happy.”
The team’s Hotel Football concept, which launches in Manchester next year, remains on track. “That’s going well,” said Giggs. “We’re looking to open at the end of September 2014. It’s been great to have Stuart’s expertise in the hotel market, but again, we’ve all been hands-on. We’ve been involved in the new designs, picking the beds, selecting what goes on the walls in the rooms, looking at the Café Football pitch on the roof. So, we’ve been involved in every little aspect of Hotel Football, too.”