When Wreckfish opened in 2017 it was off the back of the most successful crowdsourcing campaign for a restaurant seen in the UK.
With three successful restaurants in the North-West and a sold-out pop-up experience in Liverpool early in 2016, Gary Usher’s reputation preceded him – so much so that he raised over £200,000 just from customers who wanted the chance to regularly eat in one of his restaurants.
Reflecting on the opening of the Slater Street bistro, Gary gives the impression he is still slightly disbelieving.
“I thought we will just have a really good crack at doing it and it will be a lot of fun and kind of like ‘why not’?”.
If it sounds slightly madcap it’s worth remembering that Usher opened his first restaurant a few years ago. Following stints in London at Michelin-starred kitchens, running Gordon Ramsay and Angela Hartnett’s kitchen at the York & Albany, and Jamie’s Italian, Gary embarked on a lauded career as chef-restauranteur across the North-West.
While Wreckfish marks Usher’s first permanent restaurant in Liverpool he first opened Sticky Walnut in Chester in 2011, subsequently voted AA best restaurant of the year in 2014. But while critical acclaim was heaped on the restaurant Usher found it hard to overcome the physical limits of the building.
When the banks turned him down for a loan to open a second restaurant he turned to crowdfunding, offering backers free meals right the way up to private parties. He pulled in over £100,000 in a week and Burnt Truffle in Heswall was born in 2015.
Lightning struck again with the opening of Hispi, in Didsbury, which benefited from another £50K sourced from crowds. You get the feeling he might not be finished. But when it came to crowdfunding he was initially downbeat.
“I know it sounds silly to do something that you don’t think will work,” Gary admits. “I guess there is that 1% chance in your mind that it might happen but in all honesty I didn’t think it would.
“But when it pay off it is almost overwhelming because saying thank you isn’t really enough, so it was just amazing. Absolutely amazing.”
Turning his eye to Liverpool, Gary initially ran a pop-up over one week in early 2017, inviting interested diners to pay whatever they thought appropriate. But what could have been calamitous paid off handsomely.
“I didn’t realise so many people would come and all of a sudden the tickets for it sold out in a couple of minutes,” says Gary of the pop-up’s launch.
“There was a lot of pressure about doing it. I was telling everybody it would be rubbish and so expectations where quite low but it ended up being a really good experience”.
“We where really surprised about how much people where paying. We took £8,000, some people put £500 in for their dinner”.
“Some people said it was the best meal they have ever had and that was really weird because we did it in a building that didn’t have any electrical gas, water or toilets and it certainly didn’t have any cookers.”
Once again Gary looked to crowdfund a permanent eaterie in Liverpool, but this time he would require £500,000 to buy and convert the Georgian end terrace on Slater Street in Liverpool’s Ropewalks. Derelict for much of the decade previously, he only discovered it when a friend alerted him to the potential. While the bulk of the cost was financed through banks and suppliers, two fifths of the sum was crowdsourced.
One year on the stunning 90-cover Wreckfish is taking bookings for three meals a day, with a bar area and communal dining area, two first for the Usher portfolio. That name? A bastardisation of rockfish, sometimes known as a wreckfish in the trade. It’s a good insight into Gary’s character.
Clad in sleeves of tattoos and not afraid to speak his mind (his social media presence is amusing, often caustic and usually sweary), he’s an unpretentious restauranteur – you suspect he might roll his eyes at the description – who has brought a hint of the same level of disruption to the food and drink industry as an Uber or Tesla has to mobility.
But he’s no tech-bro. It’s the outlook that Usher has in mind that earns comparisons to outriders in different industries.
And Wreckfish has the same winning lack of pretension as his other outlets, all unfussy and well-priced bistros where everything is made from scratch, a three-course meal can cost twenty quid and menus feature seasonal British food done well.
The campaign to open Wreckfish attracted some big-name support, which has continued through the restaurant’s opening – a sign of the esteem in which Gary is held in the trade.
Late in 2017 Tom Kerridge cooked a six-course menu at Wreckfish, chef owner Gary Usher’s latest restaurant in Liverpool and Chef Director of Duck & Waffle, Dan Doherty, hosted an exclusive breakfast (above), while the restaurant collaborated with nearby wine bar The Merchant for a Summer pop-up in 2017 (below).
When reflecting on Wreckfish’s extraordinary genesis Gary is clear on what the restaurant has to offer – and what the future might hold.
“What’s different about Wreckfish is we actually care, we choose the products based on its quality, we train staff in a way where they take pride in what they do and they are not just slinging out anything to make money.
“We don’t make that much money and that is not what we ever intended to do because we are more interested in the product that we are doing”.
“It makes think ‘what is the next thing we can do?’ What is the next challenge?’”
Written by Beth Harms; images by Natural Selection Design