Gary Usher, The Rebel Chef crowdfunding a restaurant empire

The  Staff Canteen

How do you crowdfund more than £500,000 to open restaurant after restaurant, when banks are turning away restaurateurs in troves?

We spoke to Dan Burns, founder and managing director of creative company Natural Selection Design and director of The Rebel Chef: My Restaurant Revolution, to find out.

The documentary, set to air on Channel 4 on Thursday 19th September, captures the six months during which Gary Usher, now the proud owner of six popular bistros across the North West of England, sought to open Pinion.

 GaryUsher%2C Dan Burns%2C George Ellis low res

Gary Usher with Natural Selection team

Dan Burns, George Ellis

The chef raised a record-breaking £50,000 in a day to open his Prescot venue in a former Betfred bookies. The odds were stacked against him: in Prescot, Dan told us, the next best restaurant is a Wetherspoons, possibly followed by a Greggs.

Dan also shot a film about the opening of Wreckfish (which the chef and his team did with no electricity, no gas, no running water, and for which he raised £208,956 on Kickstarter) and has been Gary's friend for the best part of a decade.

For him, as for Jay Rayner, who recently reviewed the chef's Manchester restaurant, Kala, Gary's food, his business-minded proficiency and his personality are indisociable. 

So how did he do it?

Dan said he often finds himself applauding the chef's ability to reach his audience. 

"Sometimes you'll think: 'bloody hell Gary, that is marketing genius.' He always puts himself down, he dropped out of school because he was dyslexic and he just walked out of an exam one day and never went back, but he is savvy." 

"Sometimes I think: is he getting advisors from marketing boards on his decision, and I'm thinking: 'no, he's probably sitting at home in his underpants, drinking a can of Stella, just doing what he feels is right and what he feels is honest and truthful."

"I honestly think that's why people buy into him. People do want to support him."

Gary Usher is undoubtedly a laborious man, not only opening restaurant after restaurant, but working as hard (if not harder) as his team, leading by example. 

"He's the first in work, he's there at 7 in the morning, polishing the glasses and then he's the last to leave."

"I think that is also why his team and my team bought into him because he's the hardest working person I've ever met; he doesn't stop." 

A man of the people 

With Pinion, as with his other ventures, success was important to Gary, but not without bringing the locals round. This wasn't a given: the pair got a good idea of this when handing out menus to the people of Prescot. 

Pinion external (Before   when it was BetFred)
Pinion - when it was a Betfred

Dan explained: "There was  semifreddo on there, and someone said: 'semifreddo, is that half a freddo bar?'" 

"With the buffalo mozzarella, they were like: 'he's not, he's not serving buffalo is he? Oh my god, I'm not eating buffalo.'" 

"We had someone like: 'what the f**k is pate?' and we were like: 'it's pâté mate.'"

Locals weren't convinced that a French bistro would work - Dan said one of the people he interviewed laughed in his face when he described the concept to her - but they were elated that he did. 

"They were so willing and happy to be involved; they're so proud of this little place and they were just really proud and happy that someone like Gary was coming and launching a place, a humble little bistro in their town," he said. 

Second thoughts 

For Dan, being a chef gave Gary something he excelled at - and a way of imparting joy in other people, but, he insisted, to say that he is unaffected by criticism would be misleading. 

"People think that he's bulletproof to click-baits and trolls online," Dan said. 

"He's a good chef. That's where he's come from, he's not media trained. He'll get home after a Wednesday night of service and he'll look at his phone and he'll see someone's called him a c**t because he's got his arms folded or someone's slagging off his tattoos." 

"I think shit like that does hurt him, it does sting him, it's a vulnerability."

It doesn't help that people often misconceive what crowdfunding means: it isn't a case of just donating money, every penny spent translates into money back (in the form of a meal or another recompense) when the restaurant is open. 

Pinion Exterior (After) low res
Pinion now

But it is his honesty - one that Midsummer House chef Daniel Clifford commended, as according to Dan he called Gary "one of the most honest people on social that he's seen"  - that stirs his critics, and the reason he considered pulling the plug on the documentary. 

"Everyone is thinking the same, but Gary is the only one saying it. With that, expect comebacks, but the comebacks do hurt." 

After Prescot, Soho?

After launching six bistros - all of which, it is worth noting, made it into this year's Good Food Guide - and crowdfunding more than half a million pounds to do it, there have been rumours that the chef is considering a restaurant in London. 

Gary himself Tweeted that he was viewing a site in Hackney last year, while Dan said he heard mention of a restaurant in Soho. But whether he should, or needs to, is another matter. 

"What he's got up here is something special. He's carved himself an amazing reputation, he's getting coverage that restaurants would only dream about in London." 

"I think he should concentrate up North for a bit longer - but I'm with him. You never know with Gary, he could wake up tomorrow and tell me he's signed for somewhere in Mayfair, but I know that he will have thought about it, and it will be a savvy business decision, and I'll be there with him, every step of the way."

Watch Wreckfish: The restaurant that could be

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th September 2019

Gary Usher, The Rebel Chef crowdfunding a restaurant empire