GREATER Manchester-born James Hitchen was trained to be a BBQ pit boss in Nashville, Tennessee. Now managing director of East Coast Concepts, which runs popular Manchester city centre restaurant and bar, Neighbourhood, and Victor’s in Hale, he reveals how the group is on course to hit the £11m turnover mark this year with the launch of Neighbourhood in Liverpool in autumn.
He made “a few thousand pounds” selling cigarettes to fellow pupils at Ampleforth Catholic Boarding School, and later learnt how to cook meat in an authentic BBQ kitchen in the American Deep South.
Now the owner and founder of Neighbourhood and Hale-based Victor’s, he says the trajectory of the group both venues sit within, is very much pointing upwards, with the popular Spinningfields restaurant and bar about to undergo a major £850,000 refurbishment programme in May ahead of a re-launch on June 2.
“Neighbourhood was central to the boom in restaurants and bars in Spinningfields back in 2013, as a brand we always like to evolve and stay ahead of the pack,” says James.
“The refurbishment will see us improve the customer journey, we are creating a scheme that will be more comfortable for our dining guests, offering an all day, refined, casual dining service style we open for Brunch at 10am, right through to 2am. We host large and small business meetings, events and lunches and Thursday late afternoons and early evenings have become a thriving business hub.”
With annual net sales at Neighbourhood reaching £4.5m, East Coast Concepts, the parent of Neighbourhood and Victor’s, is an independent business which will employ more than 200 by the time Liverpool is on the map.
The team has just appointed former Manchester House general manager, Ciaran Hogg, as operations director who will boost the management team led by James and supported by his brother, Guy and brand director Ashley Williams.
James, 33, who lives in Manchester city centre, said: “I am absolutely delighted that a small, independent company such as ours has managed to attract a huge talent like Ciaran. He was an integral part of Manchester House’s success and has lots of great new ideas that we look forward to building into our offer here – hospitality is key to our service style, and we always strive to be the best and there is no better person in the city capable of helping us achieve this. With the refurbishment comes a renewed focus on our dining guests, with the introduction of a modern, all day brasserie menu, designed with a nod to the US, Neighbourhood will continue to offer an up tempo, yet relaxed, welcoming social space for meetings, dinner or catch ups.
“This appointment very much links to where we are and where we intend to go.
“Neighbourhood in Spinningfields has undoubtedly been integral to the explosion of the food and beverage scene in Manchester and the forthcoming refurbishment which will turn it, even more so, into a place for everyone.
“Neighbourhood is ideally situated within Spinningfields to become a really popular corporate venue and one with a unique corporate offering.”
Winding the clock back a bit though, James says his family has “a bit of a back story.”
“My grandad started food manufacturer Hitchen Foods in the 40s when he was 14, because he was told he wasn’t clever enough to sit his exams at school by his headmaster,” he said.
“My great grandfather actually bought my grandad a horse and cart, as well as some stock, which he went up and down the streets of Chorley, selling bagged potatoes. Within a month he had paid for the horse and cart.”
Hitchen Foods was later taken over by James’ dad and uncle who turned it into a £50m turnover operation employing more than 1,000 people.
And the company, one of the largest food manufacturing factories in the North West, is now part of the Bakavoor group of companies. When looking at it from this perspective, you could have hazarded a guess about James making it in business. But his journey wasn’t quite so smooth.
He says: “As a 17-year-old at Ampleforth Catholic Boarding School in North Yorkshire, I sold cigarettes I’d bought in Gibraltar to pupils – and made a few thousand quid.
“From there I went to study at Manchester Metropolitan University and during my sandwich year in industry I got an undergraduate job with Aldi.”
He adds: “Aldi really taught me the value of hard work and how to manage. It was through the experience learnt with Aldi that whilst in my final year I was offered a job with Lidl on their graduate scheme.
“Three months into the management training scheme I got given a district to manage and became the youngest area manager in the country. It was soul destroying work, but I learnt to stand on my own two feet. The turnover of the stores in the area was £8m. And I was responsible for hiring, firing and was managing more than 100 people at the age of 24 as well as earning £40,000 and driving a company car.”
James says Lidl reminded him of his family’s humble beginnings and made him focus on driving efficiency, and the bottom line.
After a year, interested by food concepts in America, he travelled there and nailed down a trainee BBQ pit boss job.
“I knew I wanted to start out on my own in the food world, but felt I had to go to America to find out more. And it blew my mind.
“I worked in Nashville with an ex-con and Vietnam veteran called Dustin, who trained me to be a pit boss.
“At that time, I think I was one of only around 10 people in the UK who were fully trained by working in a proper smokehouse in the southern states.”
The experience led to James launching Southern 11, an authentic BBQ concept in both Manchester Arndale and in Spinningfields.
“I wanted to bring BBQ to the UK in a chain format, because it hadn’t been done at that time,” says James. “I even worked at Byron and Nando’s before launching so I could learn on someone else’s money.
“I guess I didn’t really understand profits and bottom lines as well as I should and it wasn’t financially successful. We just couldn’t pay the £150,000 rent a year in the Arndale, selling £3 sandwiches at the end of the day.”
He adds: “It was a really tough time because no one in my family had ever failed in business.
“I thought I was invincible because of all my Lidl experience. And it knocked me sideways for a long time. But it taught me to get back up and do it again.”
One vow he made to himself, was to never fail again.
“There’s nothing like learning from your mistakes and the feeling of having failed or let your family down” says James. “That can often put people off business altogether, but in order to succeed you have to fail or you will never understand hardship and never be humble or down to earth. I am really excited about where we are with the business and East Coast Concepts is on a journey towards real success right now.”
“Liverpool Neighbourhood will open by October with work due to start in site in around 12 weeks weeks,” says James. “It’s an exciting time in our story.
“When that venue opens we will be on course to have a group turnover of £11m.”
He also thanked Allied London boss Mike Ingall for providing him with his ‘big-break’ in 2009.
“I was 28, and Mike gave me one of his prime retail units after asking me what I wanted to do with it.
“I told him about the vibrant American concepts in the many different US cities that I’d visited and said Manchester needs something like them.
“He talked me through the long list of well-known people and brands that were after that unit in Spinningfields, but that he was going to give it to me.”
James says his dad and uncle thought he was crazy pursuing such an ambitious project, but that he had to trust his gut.
“You could say the rest is history,” says James. “At the time when Mike handed me the 6,000 sq ft Grade A retail unit in the heart of Manchester, Southern 11 was only just washing its face.
“But Mike believed in me and I will be forever grateful.”
Victor’s in Hale opened in 2015 and soon followed Neighbourhood’s success, which has led to the expansion into Liverpool.
He says: “All three of these places are community focused and venues where people can go all night. I didn’t just want a bar or just a restaurant.”
“And it is paying off. I don’t think there are any other independent restaurants in Manchester doing £4.6m turnover.
“At Neighbourhood, there is something for everyone. We also employ 100 people from that site alone, we are proud to be part of the thriving Manchester community there.
“It makes me proud to be honest, proud of our young team because we have learnt on our feet and still are learning. Take Victor’s for instance. It’s a real business hub in Hale for meetings throughout the day and has great brunch. It’s also a popular spot for after work drinks. It’s not just a party hot-spot.”
James says no one teaches or owes you anything in life.
“You should always learn from your mistakes and take people at face value,” James says, “You should always listen and watch but always be prepared to follow your gut instinct no matter what advise others give you, if you can’t trust your own instincts you shouldn’t be in business.”