Left Field

Football, and footballers, are not often associated with great food, but Manchester United heroes Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville have made some strong signings to their new hospitality management team in Stuart Procter, Michael Wignall and Brendan Fyldes in an attempt to change all that. Michael Jones gets on side

The word ‘legend’ must be one of the most over-used superlatives in football. But for Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, players forever synonymous with an all-conquering Manchester United team, it would be churlish to suggest either was undeserving of such an exalted description.

Neville hung up his boots in 2011 and is now forging an impressive reputation as an insightful commentator, while Giggs continues to perform regularly for United in the English Premier League in the twilight of his playing years. Both men, though, have turned their attentions to their post-playing careers and have intrigued the industry with a bold foray into the hospitality world under the moniker GG Hospitality. They have teamed up with a management team boasting a Catey award-winning hotelier in Stuart Procter, a two Michelin-starred creative director in Michael Wignall and an executive chef in Brendan Fyldes, who boast years of experience at some of London’s top eateries.

In days gone by footballers at the end of their careers would typically buy a pub as a nest egg for their retirement (though many would drink away the profits). Giggs and Neville have set their sights a little higher, launching two businesses, Café Football and Hotel Football, under the GG Hospitality brand. The former is a 120-seat (with an additional 40 al fresco) restaurant set to open in November in Westfield Stratford, London. Hotel Football is a three/four-star development with 139 bedrooms that will open in October 2014 and is situated within cheering distance of United’s hallowed Old Trafford stadium.

When I meet with GG Hospitality’s managing director Procter (formerly the GM of London’s Stafford hotel), Wignall (Pennyhill Park Hotel in Bagshot, Surrey) and Fyldes (Bentleys, Marco Pierre White) at the company’s plush new central London headquarters there is a fantastic sense of camaraderie between them as well as a gregarious air to them all, fused with a will to succeed.

The likely lads

“I think like any team, it’s about trust. Trust and credibility. It’s all I ever look at,” says Procter. “Ryan and Gary were both clients at The Stafford in London, where I was the general manager for numerous years. We really hit it off. They wanted to get into the hotel, hospitality and restaurant business and they basically asked me my opinions and what I thought they should do. And then they asked me to come onboard. It was a great, exciting opportunity for me. That’s how we forged our relationship.”

For Procter the partnership with Giggs and Neville, and the relationship with Wignall and Fyldes, both work because of their similar backgrounds and a like-minded desire to succeed. “We’re all of a similar age. We’re all straightforward northern guys. We all have an ambition to achieve something quite special, but we’re also realistic on how we can achieve things and what we need to do to achieve them. I think that hotels, restaurants and football have so many synergies. Like any business, it’s all about the team and without the likes of Brendan and Michael and the people we have around us who have this quality and talent, we’ll achieve very little. We’re all hungry. We want to do this for a long time. It’s not just ‘let’s put our names to something’, it’s about growing something, slowly, and hopefully getting to the top and maintaining that level.”

Leading Café Football and Hotel Football from concept through to fruition has taken time and real thought, says Procter. “We have been working very hard over the last three years, pulling together a brand, [involving] the right people, the right products and the right location. Hotel Football came together first and that was the brainchild of Gary. He owns a plot of land in Manchester, on which we wanted to develop a really great hotel and one night he thought of ‘Hotel Football’.

For Procter, football “is a sport that brings everyone together, from your grandma to your mum, to little kids; it was an easy extension to take that into hospitality. From those thoughts and ideas we’ve formed, what we hope will be a really solid and creative brand.”

The rest of the management team simply fell into place, according to Procter. “I brought Michael to the Devonshire Arms [the Devonshire Arms Country House Hotel in Bolton Abbey, North Yorkshire] probably 14 years ago and we forged a great relationship there. Michael is very talented – you don’t get two Michelin stars unless you’re an incredible, innovative chef. I thought he’d be a great person to bring on board. He’s very honest, very straightforward, like us all really. Michael’s influence on what we’re doing is vast and it’s always good to bring in a team that you know and trust.

“Myself and Brendan have known each other since we were 16 years old. We were apprentices together at Northcote Manor [in Langho, Lancashire] when I was the front-of-house apprentice and Brendan was a chef. We have both gone on in our careers and worked for various people and we’ve always maintained that friendship as well as the industry relationship. He is an amazing chef.”

The project has clearly fired up the chefs too. “It is an exciting project,” says Fyldes, “because it’s something very different. The people here are fantastic and to come and work with Stuart again, and with Michael, who is on top of his game… there is always something to learn when you work with people like this.”

Wignall is in full agreement: “I’m always looking for another challenge and working with Stuart again appealed,” he says. “We’ve got on really well over the last 14 years. Together we can make this really happen and a real success.”

Location, location, location

And that success, according to Procter, is reliant on remaining true to the principles behind the GG Hospitality brand. “The unifying theme of the business is that we have knowledge, we’re innovative, and we’re creative,” he says. “It’s quite simple. What will define GG Hospitality is us ensuring that Café Football, our first business, and Hotel Football, our second opening, are successful.

“With Café Football, we’ve worked slowly. We’re not in a rush here and we’ve covered all the bases. The biggest challenge is trying to find a location that you’re comfortable with. That’s always fundamental. You can have the best concepts in place, but if it’s not in the right location then you’re not giving yourself the best chance. It’s even harder when you are launching a new concept which the market doesn’t know about. Westfield appealed to us because it’s a very successful destination. The footfall there is very strong. We feel that the Olympic Park and stadium close by are only going to go from strength to strength. The synergy with the Olympic Games works for us too, especially with Ryan being the captain of Team GB’s Olympic football side. It’s the right site for us to launch our business.”

The team has been careful to keep the design concepts contemporary and to avoid pastiche. “When you see the designs for Café Football and Hotel Football, they are very subtle,” says Procter. “There are elements of it, where, if you’re a big fan of football, you’ll get it instantly. If you’re not a football fan but you love great food and service you’ll hopefully love Café Football and Hotel Football because they’re about hospitality. The brands are not clichéd, the food is not clichéd and there will certainly not be a signed football shirt in sight.”

The business is also confident that it will be able to attract women and non-football fans. “We’re trying to appeal to all families, across the board, to come and eat there. We want to appeal to everybody,” says Fyldes.

“Even a mum that doesn’t like football is probably involved with it in some way, shape or form,” adds Procter. “The experiences that we want to provide are not in your face or offensive. It’s very subtle, it’s good fun and it’s very energetic. It’s an environment that you’d want to come to with your family.

“We’ve got, I think, two of the best chefs in our country. I think people will love the food and they’ll want to come and try some of the dishes that we’ve got on the menu.”

Global aspirations are clearly evident, but tempered with a knowledge that the two new brands have to learn to walk before they can run (and show off their silky skills). “Both brands can both go international,” says Procter. “Football is the biggest global interest in the world and, together with great food, it can certainly connect with anybody. In the future we would like to take this to various cities in the UK. Certainly it could transport to Asia and the UAE. But we’re very clear on our aspirations for today. Once we are comfortable with our branding positioning, then we’ll look forward. We are building something that we strongly believe can grow far and wide, but first let’s deliver on what we’re doing now.”

How fancy the footwork will be in their new venture remains to be seen, but few would bet against more glory on the horizon for a group of lads for whom success has become second nature. Perhaps, like the careers of Giggs and Neville, the business may even become a legendary one too.

Food is the main event

Michael Wignall explains the reasoning behind the menu at Café Football: “We’ve done a lot of dishes that will take you back to childhood memories. Meals that will remind people of families eating together, sweets that you remember buying at the corner shop, food you eat on the way to the match or food that you had at school. For example, we’ve got a Pot Noodle dish with a difference. We’ve also had some fun with the desserts. For instance, we’ve done a dessert based around the half-time orange – it’s a parfait of Seville orange with a confit of orange zest. We’ve got a ‘frosted pistachio and dark chocolate turf’, which looks like a piece of the pitch cut out, with the white line markings. We’ve got a giant sausage roll too – but it’s all butter puff pastry, hand-made with black pudding and wholegrain mustard. There are fun elements, but the base of each dish is the best ingredients, cooked to the best of our ability. It’s all down to the flavour. It’s all proper, home-cooked stuff that has that ‘oh my God’ element of surprise to it. It’s not too stuffy and it’s really tasty food.”

Chef Brendan Fyldes adds: “It’s taken over a year to develop the menu. We’re actually still finalising some of it now – and there are still new ideas coming to the table. Like any menu it’s going to evolve over time and consistency is the massive thing. People are more educated about food now. They know what they want to eat and they expect a certain level.”

Wignall agrees: “The menu will mature with the business. You’ve got to move with the times and keep trusting what you are doing. Attention to detail, the ‘sourceability’ and the seasonality of, mainly English, ingredients are really high on our agenda. It’s paramount now when designing a menu.”


Giggs and Neville Q&A

Why did you decide to start such an ambitious business as GG Hospitality?

Ryan Giggs: Gary and I have known each other since we were in our early teens. A few years ago, when we knew we were coming to the end of our careers, we were talking about how we could use the experience we’ve gained from playing football all over the world, staying in hotels and eating in lots of different restaurants. We realised we shared a passion for the hospitality industry and decided that we could try and create something a little different. I met Stuart at The Stafford and we instantly hit it off. So I introduced him to Gary, we told him our plans and asked if he’d like to come on board with GG Hospitality.

Why do the Café Football and Hotel Football ventures excite you?

Gary Neville: We are creating something Ryan and I are passionate about. Both businesses are unique. We’ve lived and breathed every element of each venture, from the branding to the chairs, menus and décor. We’ve been involved at every stage and with every detail. It’s the detail that excites us, knowing we are creating two ventures that will get people talking.

Why does the partnership work?

Giggs: It works because we all have different personalities and all bring something different to the table. Most importantly, we get on; we’re friends as well as business partners. We all have the same vision and passion – we’re willing to put in whatever it takes to make GG Hospitality a success.

Neville: We have a fantastic team. Stuart is a brilliant hotelier and understands the industry 100%. Ryan and I want to help the business grow, develop it and market it – we know we’ve got to work hard at it, though, and we’ve created a strong management team of specialists who can each bring a different but essential element to the business.

What does great food mean to you?

Neville: Great food brings people together. Food is at the very heart of Café Football, it’s what it’s all about. What we want to do is offer quality food, with our own little unique twist on it, which appeals to everyone. Both Ryan and I have been very hands-on with the menu – we both love food. Right from the beginning we’ve been very involved, making sure every dish and flavour is spot on.

Giggs: We wanted to ensure the menu had an international feel. There will be lots of sharing dishes. We know what we like and what we don’t, but we also know we have to appeal to lots of different tastes.

Michael Jones


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