Duncan Tift meets Birmingham restaurateur, raconteur and confidant Chris Kelly, owner of city institution The Metro Bar.
Chris Kelly likes to talk – equally, he has a lot to say.
Born and bred in Small Heath, he spent his early career as a grill chef for Associated Restaurants before disappearing into management.
Working in all the major cities of the Midlands and the North, he gained a thorough grounding in the catering business.
Spending seven years in London, gradually climbing the management ladder, provided him with, in his own words: “some good – and not so good – times”.
“I hated the first two years but the back five were brilliant, mainly because I had friends and money,” he says. Despite being firmly established in Birmingham he still professes a fondness for the capital.
“I was not intent on moving back to Birmingham but at the time I wanted to form my own business and as I was in the pizza business, one of the things that had attracted me was Pizza Express.
“It was the late 80s and the property market was flourishing but it was difficult back then for an individual to get a commercial property lease without a large deposit or personal guarantees.
“So one way in was the franchise route and so I approached Pizza Express with a view to taking one on.”
Options in London were limited and the company asked him by chance, to check out a potential business in Birmingham.
“The site happened to be outside the old law courts. ‘I sat there looking at it and the more I did, the more I thought to myself ‘This is a bloody good site – what do I do?’
“I didn’t want to miss the opportunity because I wanted to get in to the Pizza Express fold. I liked the site and I had been a frequent visitor to the area when I used to go to the old Hawkins bar just down the road.
“I knew you had the right mix of customers – solicitors, accountants and the like – so I went back to Pizza Express and said ‘Okay, I’ll take it’.”
Working hard to establish the fledgling business the last thing he needed was a stock market crash, but after seven months along came Black Monday and everything changed.
“For the next few years I found himself – like many others – having to pay extortionate business rates to the bank because I had used a lot of its funding to set up,” he says.
His business plan stalled and hopes of expansion had to be put on the back burner. However, a fresh opportunity was about to present itself, in the shape of the new Brindleyplace development.
“I had looked at the development and thought it would be a good place for a Pizza Express. Around the same time I met up with Alan Chatham, who now runs The Mailbox, but at the time was working for Argent.
“I told him I thought Brindleyplace would be a good place for a Pizza Express and he agreed, so I went back to Pizza Express and asked for a second franchise.
“At the time things had begun to improve and so we did a deal and the second restaurant opened.”
The second franchise flourished and he began to make plans for the expansion of his fledgling empire.
“My plan then was to open four or five Pizza Expresses around Birmingham and three in the suburbs,” he says.
Then, just as with Black Monday, another cloud appeared on his horizon.
“There I was making plans and out of the blue, Pizza Express announced it would be ending all its franchise agreements and buying them all back.”
The company was only looking at the best performing restaurants and was willing to pay over the odds to get them.
After selling up – for £1.3 million – the restaurateur paid off his debt to the bank and began looking around for a fresh challenge.
Starting to look around the city he happened upon the old Lopez restaurant in Cornwall Street.
“Back then (the mid 90s), it was busy area in terms of offices but there weren’t any restaurants. “My friends thought I was mad but I thought there was a lot of potential and so I decided to take it.”
“At the time there were traditional pubs there (Cornwall Street) but there wasn’t much else.
“I thought Birmingham was ready for something different – that Conran-style thing with all the white tablecloths which only existed in the hotels at the time.”
Just as with Brindleyplace, his foresight paid off and 10-and-a-half-years later The Metro Bar is firmly established as one of Birmingham’s top restaurants and meeting places.
“I’m very happy about what’s happened because statistics in our industry show that businesses such as this don’t always last that long,” he says proudly.
He then offers one of his favourite stories and one which goes a long way towards explaining the longevity of his restaurant.
“One of my customers came in the other day and ‘Oh yes, Metro ... it’s like an old shoe’.
“I asked him what he meant and he said ‘It’s comfortable and worn in but you keep it very well polished and it has a great sole’.
“I thought that was brilliant and if ever I could find a way of summarising Metro, then that’s it,” he says.
So, apart from shoe analogies, to what does he attribute his success?
"We never set out to be trendy because by definition, if you’re trendy one year, you won’t be the next.
“We prefer to keep things subtle, almost classical. We invest little bits of money each year and this has helped to keep it timeless.”
Is this the type of thing that’s kept him ahead of the game for so long?
“I’d like to think so. We spend a lot of the time looking at the details. We’re not afraid to say when we get it wrong and if we’ve screwed it up, I’ll apologise and say ‘Have lunch on me’.
“Equally, if I think the customer is wrong then I’ll tell them, I’ll debate with them and that’s the way it should be.
“We also try to reflect what the customer wants. We have very loyal customers here – many have been coming from day one, which is great, and while we don’t get it right all the time I think for around 95 per cent of the time, we do and I’m happy with that.”
Three years ago, he and business partner David Cappendale, expanded the portfolio with another Metro in Solihull and next year, the empire is being extended to Coventry, where a new restaurant is being planned for the redeveloped Belgrade Plaza scheme.
He is looking forward to the Coventry development.
“Coventry has been a city waiting to happen for a long time and it deserves something like this redevelopment.
“The city’s around 10, 15 years behind where Birmingham was but we think it’s important to establish a foothold now. I also think there’s money to be made in the city, which is why we’ve invested there,” he says.
The new venue, which will be on two floors and include private dining facilities, is likely to be open around spring or early summer.
The duo also have the White Horse pub at Balsall Common in their stable.
“We had looked at developing it as a Metro but the concept doesn’t work in a black and white pub.’’
So what is the overall business plan?
“We see Metro expanding to somewhere between 10 to 12 units over the next five years. Larger ones like here (Birmingham) and smaller ‘neighbourhood’ ones in suburban areas,” he says.
“We think that things are going to get a little bit localised again. People do have issues about coming back into the centre at night, the parking etc. Cities can be miserable places at night although things have improved a lot in Birmingham in this respect.
“The kind of areas I’m talking about are Harborne, Moseley, Shirley places like that. It’s still a regional focus.”
This is not to say that Metro bars won’t appear in cities such as Manchester or London in the future.
“We’ve had offers to set up elsewhere and I’d be lying if I said we hadn’t thought about it because the model would work there.’’
“However, to make the leap without a firm base would be unwise,” he adds, injecting a note of caution.
Many might find this cautious approach at odds with his apparent business philosophy of seeing an opportunity and taking it.
“I’m a natural worrier and things aren’t going to change. I would like say I’m a half-full type of person, although I’m sure friends would say I’m a half-empty person.”
This has characterised his career. While he is willing to take a chance, he has to be convinced of the potential before committing.
However, once he has committed, he will put his heart and soul into a venture and will try and carry others along with him.
Approaching 50, his aim is to retire by the time he is 55 with a successful business behind him.
His aim is then to invest in young talent and to help the restaurateurs of tomorrow flourish as he did, by passing on the benefit of his knowledge and experience.
Is he looking forward to retirement?
“I am, although I’m sure I won’t be able to leave the business behind completely because it’s all I know.
“I would like to think that I’d be able to look in at the restaurants from time to time and chat with customers and friends – just to make sure they’re alright and still getting what they need.”
He believes that customers should be offered choice and is not afraid of competition.
“Having large chains dominating an area is never good because it limits choice. In a place the size of Birmingham there is plenty of scope for a wide range of restaurants and cuisines – and I would be the first to encourage that.”
Away from work, he admits he likes to eat out and explore new venues.
“I don’t like fussy eating. I like places where you can be comfortable and relax.”
So what type of critic is he?
“Harsh but fair critic. It’s very easy to spot when things go wrong. Everyone has problems but when you see poor training and work practices then that’s unforgiveable.
“You can’t offer excuses. If something’s no good, it’s no bloody good, there’s no point beating around the bush. The thing is, what are you going to do to stop it happening again?” he says.
Which brings us on to his pet hate – restaurant critics.
“Nationally and locally there are some good critics but equally, there are some who want to use the review as a stepping stone for their careers by being subjective rather than objective.
“They do 2,000-word reviews and only 150 are on what they actually ate and speak without any authority or knowledge of the business. I don’t like that and I think they are doing a disservice to potential customers.”
Not something Chris Kelly could ever be accused of.