The entrepreneur has been involved with some of London’s most popular bars, ranging from the Freedom Bar in Soho to the trio of Beach Blanket Babylon bars in Notting Hill, Farringdon and Shoreditch.
He is a bon viveur, welcoming the likes of Brigitte Nielsen and Alan Carr in for lunch and getting involved in a drinking contest with Julian Lennon which saw them sink 25 B52s.
The London Word caught up with him in the Notting Hill branch of Beach Blanket Babylon.
You’re originally from the East End. What was your upbringing like?
‘I was born and raised in Hackney, living on a council estate. It wasn’t like it is today with the gang warfare and all the drugs. There were a lot of what I would call manners around, like if you saw a woman coming along with some bags of shopping, you would go and offer to help her with them.
‘I suppose we were working class but we didn’t see ourselves as poor. It was only when my brother came from visiting this girl in St John’s Wood that I realised the difference between us and other parts of London. He told me that they had a man all dressed up who would bring in cakes on a silver tray and for us, that was like a different world.‘
You’ve owned and sold places such as Freedom and Sloane’s Cafe. Is it hard selling a place you’ve built up?
‘I’ve sort of got mixed feelings about it. I’m not really a person who likes to keep things. I am first of all a businessman. I tend to look at a deal backwards. I think to myself, “Does this venue have the capacity to make money? Can I make it work so that it will make money? Should I then go through with the deal?”
‘With Beach Blanket Babylon, building up a brand is actually the hardest part. A lot of restaurants fail because the owners go in very naive and end up beaten by the system. Because I go in with a business mindset, I know what I can make work and Beach Blanket Babylon is a brand with a lot of potential.’
What was it like going back to the East End with the opening of the Shoreditch branch?
‘It was very peculiar because I remember what it was like back when I was growing up there. For me, the East End is linked with men in caps and people in jackets with their elbows popping out of the holes in the sleeves. Now it’s a completely different environment and it’s an environment that’s exciting for London.’
Is it strange being part of the gentrification process of the area which means that East End is losing its identity?
‘For me, that identity has already been destroyed. The working class community that I knew and was part of has long since gone. And that’s down to the council allowing the developers in and all they produced were these concrete jungles. So in regards to what’s going in the area, I personally think that it’s a good thing.’
With the Beach Blanket Babylon brand, is there the intention to roll it out further?
‘Absolutely, the Beach Blanket Babylon brand has a very international flavour. In terms of London, I’m looking at possibly taking to a place like Chelsea. With Beach Blanket Babylon, I’m not looking to educate people and the places that I’m looking to expand to, they will get what Beach Blanket Babylon is all about.’
What attracted you to Notting Hill?
‘I first knew about the place as my dad used to come back home and tell me all about it. I like the area because of its affluence and because it’s where the beautiful people are. To me, it’s like a little pocket of Bel Air.’
How well do you think the reality show Seven Days captured the essence of the area?
‘I’ve got to be careful as I’m contractually obliged not to say anything too damning. When I was first asked to be involved in the project, I was kind of interested because Notting Hill is like a village. There’s a lot of social interaction and a great deal of diversification. I had no problem in being portrayed as being successful because I’ve earned all that I’ve got as a result of my endeavours and hard work. Then I was watching the first couple of shows and you’ve got this guy with 15 houses worrying about how he’s going to finance his next addition. I’m shouting at the screen “Hello? You’ve done this 15 times before”. I just found it all a bit boring.
Talking of reality TV, your son Rex came fourth in Big Brother 9. How do you think he came across?
‘I think he came across as very honest. A lot of people thought he was lying about his lifestyle but that is honestly the life he leads. There was some talk about a follow-up show featuring myself and my family, a bit like Meet the Osbournes but it never went ahead.’
Your other son, Bret, runs the Dollar Bar and Grill. What do you think he has learned from you?
‘He’s very like me in that I had a restaurant in my early twenties and he’s in a similar situation. He knows that you need to wear a number of hats if you’re doing this job. And he also knows that you can’t carried away with the glamour associated with the job. It doesn’t matter if you’re running a restaurant or a shoe shop, the numbers need to work out.’
You eat out at a lot of places. What are your favourite places to eat in London?
‘I don’t really have a favourite place to eat. I have a very extreme variance in taste. I can eat at a Michelin-stared restaurant or at a fast food place. It really depends on what mood I’m in.’