On the top floor of a drab building in London’s Fitzrovia district, the gaudy decorations in Richard Caring’s office are a glimpse into his plans for his hospitality empire, which includes Mayfair members’ club Annabel’s and the Ivy restaurant chain.
A marble statue of a winged angel, a two metre-long silver tiger drunkenly purchased during a Monaco auction and a life-size crocodile, gifted to Caring by one of his sons “because it reminded him of me”, are scattered around the room. “Everything here is going to end up in a restaurant somewhere,” said Caring.
The 74-year-old rag trader-turned-restaurateur is certainly not short of new venues to decorate. Last month, Caring launched Bacchanalia, a luxury restaurant that takes its name from the Roman festival of excess, two refurbished Mayfair clubs are in the works, and he has found a location for a New York outpost of Annabel’s, which he hopes to sign for early next year.
Caring recently sold a further 25 per cent of his business to Sheikh Hamad Bin-Jassim Bin-Jaber Al Thani, the former prime minister of Qatar, making them 50/50 partners, the Financial Times can reveal.
Thani, known as HBJ, first bought a quarter of the group for £200mn in 2019, valuing the businesses at £800mn, as part of a deal that gave him the option to become a joint owner.
Caring retains complete operational control under the terms of the deal. HBJ, who also part-owns the Maybourne Hotel Group, which runs Claridge’s, is “a very bright, sharp gentleman”, he said.
Through the partnership, HBJ gets first refusal on freeholds of sought-after real estate in London and beyond. “They were interested in property . . . I was interested in selling a position in the company,” Caring said.
Last month, the Qatar Investment Authority said it would review its London investments, including the Shard skyscraper, which HBJ was pivotal in pushing during his time as prime minister, after the city’s transport authority banned the Gulf state’s advertisements.
What does Caring make of the negative publicity surrounding Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup? “I can only relate to the experience I’ve had with Qatar and I can’t share that negativity.”
HBJ’s decision to increase his stake, which was conditional on the business meeting certain performance targets, comes after a strong year for Caring’s restaurants and members’ clubs, which have recovered quickly from the lows of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sales across Caring’s companies — which include casual dining chain Bill’s, Mark Birley Holdings, through which he owns his clubs, Caprice, the company behind the original Ivy, and Troia, which owns the Ivy chain — are up between 15-18 per cent compared with 2019 levels, putting the group on course for revenues of more than £600mn.
“It sounds great until you start taking inflation into [account but] it’s very positive,” he said. The companies are turning a profit again after booking steep losses during the pandemic. Even Bill’s, which has languished in recent years, has edged back into the black. “Bill’s is not a basket case.”
“I can’t sit here smugly and say luxury [dining] is totally safe [from the cost of living crisis] . . . I believe the top end of the market is slightly more insulated but it will probably be felt across the board.”
At the end of last year, Baton Berisha, a one-time waiter-turned-executive, left as overall chief executive of Caring’s companies after what one industry insider described as a “falling out” with Caring and his wife, Patricia, who runs the Birley clubs. Berisha declined to comment.
Caring denied there was any animosity between him and Berisha. Following Berisha’s exit, Caring stepped back into a more day-to-day operational role and he promoted Laura Bamber, a long-time employee, to head up Troia, the biggest company in his group.
“I don’t want to say I prefer to work with women than men but — I’ll get myself into trouble here — sometimes you find that women are a little more attentive and want to prove themselves so I really enjoy working with women,” said Caring.
As a self-described “control freak”, finding and launching new venues still occupies most of his attention. “I’m involved in every detail to the point of ridiculous involvement in the pot we’re going to sell the olive oil in.”
Caring first made his fortune by sourcing cheap garments from Asia in the 1980s, counting Philip Green’s Arcadia Group among his clients. His first foray into hospitality came in 2005 when he bought Camden Market, Wentworth Golf Course and Caprice Holdings in quick succession.
Fine dining insiders speak of Caring with equal parts awe and antipathy. He has a reputation for nabbing staff from rivals and elbowing competitors out of the way in the fight for sought-after leases.
“It’s only really Caring plus international investors who are opening anything new in London,” said one admiringly. “One moment he is pretending to be your best friend and the next moment he wants to undermine you,” added another rival operator.
“A lot of them would like me to slip on a banana skin and break my nose,” said Caring of his competitors. “I haven’t had any banana skins thrown in front of me recently.”
One target that eluded Caring was the Wolseley, an upmarket restaurant group run by restaurateurs Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, which came up for sale in February after its owner, Thai hotel operator Minor, forced it into administration.
“We could have probably got the Wolseley,” Caring insisted. But he said it would have been “morally wrong” to take advantage of “Chris and Jeremy because they were having a difficult time”.
Instead, Caring, who also owns around one-fifth of the stock of Soho House owner Membership Collective Group, says he is now “leaning a bit more towards America”. This year, he launched a new branch of Sexy Fish, his high-end sushi offering, in Miami.
The New York site he has scouted out for Annabel’s in the city’s hip Meatpacking district “will be completely insane”, he said. “You have the starkness of Meatpacking and then you go through, almost like Alice in Wonderland, to this glamorous plot.”
The renovation of Annabel’s in London took around a year, costing £65mn. He estimated the New York outpost would take three years to develop. Being a member costs £3,250 per year, with a one-time joining fee of £1,750, according to reports.
How far would Caring go to beat the competition for prized locations in London and beyond? “I wouldn’t do anything — we just do whatever we can to make the thing work. It’s a rough, tough world out there.”