The Big Interview: Rusk & Rusk co-founder Louise Rusk

Louise Rusk ideally would like to see Rusk & Rusk venues opening in other major cities around the world. Picture: Will McGregor.
Louise Rusk ideally would like to see Rusk & Rusk venues opening in other major cities around the world. Picture: Will McGregor.
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Now in its tenth year, hospitality group Rusk & Rusk in late 2018 opened the doors to its latest restaurant, So L.A., in the centre of Glasgow, joining city stablemates The Spanish Butcher, Hutchesons City Grill and The Butchershop Bar & Grill.

Nestled between Argyle Street and Gordon Street, the site was billed on its November launch as a £1 million venue “inspired by the vibrancy and diversity of the West Coast’s drinking and dining scene,” and the first of its kind in Scotland.

It also saw the unusual pairing of the sunny climes of California with the dreich weather of Caledonia, and has been warmly received, according to Louise Rusk.

She is the co-founder, along with husband James, of the group which now has more than 150 staff.

It came about after the duo had fallen not just for the food, drink and dining environment they had experienced in the Golden State, “but everything about it”, such as the blend of cultures. They felt sure that others would share their enthusiasm.

The site further typifies the pair’s fondness for the American approach to business that the couple had been immersed in before starting the venture.

James had worked at locations such as celebrity hotspot Balthazar in New York, while Louise was employed by Texas-based, female-focused fitness chain Curves, launching the brand in Motherwell in 2004.

That came after four years as a professional Irish dancer, during which Louise travel the world.

She had harboured a desire from an early age to be involved in business and tap into her creativity rather than pursue a conventional career. “I kind of had to find my own path, which I did quite early on.”

Indeed, in 2007, having grown Curves to four franchises with 1,500 members and turnover of £350,000, she received the Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust/Royal Bank of Scotland Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, hailed as having “shown herself to be a true entrepreneur in her approach to building and expanding her business”.

Having settled in Scotland and met James, she was keen to fuse her business background and his knowledge of hospitality. “We just thought it was a really good idea to join forces and decided, ‘let’s combine our skill set and see where it takes us’.”

They wanted to focus on local produce, and adopt the customer-led US model of making people feel good, “which we wanted to incorporate in everything that we did”, as well as open a restaurant “people will talk about and love and come back to”.

Their first operation, The Butchershop steakhouse (mixing the “hustle and bustle of Manhattan” with Scottish beef) opened in Glasgow’s Finnieston in 2009 when it was “the middle of nowhere”, according to Northern Ireland native Louise. It would go on to become a veritable foodie hub, after The Butchershop was joined by the likes of Ox and Finch, Crabshakk and Six by Nico.

The next Rusk & Rusk venture, in 2014, was Hutchesons, located in a Grade A listed building in the Merchant City and serving Scottish produce, while The Spanish Butcher, combining Mediterranean influences with modern, New York loft-style interiors, arrived in 2016.

Also part of the portfolio is The 158 Club Lounge (a bar paying tribute to “old-school Glasgow glamour”) in Hutchesons, and The White Box, which sits under So L.A. and is described by Louise as a highly exclusive, “subterranean urban events space” suitable for events such as parties and weddings.

Now Rusk & Rusk is looking to further diversify its business activities to become a lifestyle brand.

“As a hospitality and lifestyle group, we always have new ideas, we have aspirations to do different things, so we could be moving more into lifestyle this year,” Louise explains.

“It would be fantastic at some stage to go into the hotel sector, to maybe go into some lifestyle brands as well along with that. There are so many different avenues you can progress within the hospitality sector,” she continues, adding that such new paths can all sit under one brand. “It’s going to be an exciting year for us.”

None the less, such a keen appetite for growth sits against a backdrop of a challenging high-street environment for the retail and food and drink sectors.

Casual dining has famously suffered, with Prezzo, Byron and Jamie’s Italian, for example, all shutting restaurants and culling hundreds of jobs.

The Scottish high street has been hard-hit by the squeeze on retailers, but Glasgow’s Buchanan Street remains second only to London’s West End in footfall and retail spend – and shopping is hungry work.

“Investment in the city is still very important when it comes to the hospitality sector, for restaurants and for bars” says Louise. “I hope that we are part of that and at the helm of that.” She believes that opening So L.A. on Mitchell Street will encourage more businesses to come to the city centre, enabling Glasgow to flourish.

And Rusk & Rusk is looking to continue carving out its own distinctive niche. “We believe that you have to be different and you have to be innovative. For the city to also flourish on a global platform, it’s important that operators in the hospitality industry and further afield in different sectors do start creating different things and different experiences – so we embrace that rather than shy away from it.”

Sometimes you have to be a pioneer, which is not always an easy task.

“We try to place ourselves on a global platform, because Glasgow is such a fantastic city,” says Louise. “It’s such a vibrant and energetic city – why not bring these fresh new concepts to the place?”

But Rusk & Rusk’s commitment to its present home doesn’t mean it’s stuck there. “We love everything about it, but it would be nice to go further afield at some stage,” Louise admits, though any decision regarding expansion would be based on a specific spot irrespective of what city it might be in.

“It’s about sometimes just finding a little gem somewhere or a little space,” she says. “London would be a great place for us to be and bring a bit of what we do down there. We’re always on the lookout, but you never know, it could be Glasgow.”

The company is keen to form a growing part of the UK hospitality sector, which is the third-largest private sector employer in the country – double the size of financial services – employing about three million people and generating a collective annual turnover of some £130 billion, according to UKHospitality.

The trade body has backed a campaign – Hospitality Works 2019 – launched in February and backed by major names including Marston’s, Hilton, and Caffe Nero, promoting the sector providing gainful employment and a successful career amid a skills shortage.

The problem of finding qualified staff has been intensified by Brexit, although Louise is not currently concerned by the potential impact of this on Rusk & Rusk’s workforce. “We just keep running the business from day to day,” she says, while working hard to attract new people.

And while it has been reported that a potential sale of Hutchesons was being mulled as part of a long-term growth strategy, Rusk & Rusk insists that it is “very much” business as usual at the Glasgow landmark that was bought by the National Trust for Scotland in 1984 and before its major revamp had lain empty since 2008.

It is set to host a series of champagne parties this summer, while Louise is confident that Rusk & Rusk will be fizzing a decade into the future.

“It would be great to see Rusk & Rusk have venues across the world in major cities – London, New York, Shanghai.”

But Louise stresses that complacency is not an option, and keeping abreast of local, national and international trends is essential to staying ahead. “We like to push the boundaries. We want to push innovation in the culinary world and in business as well.”

That, and a great atmosphere. “It’s very important to us to know that our customers are having fun. That’s why we’ve done what we’ve done, that’s why we love doing what we do and continue to do it… we create restaurants that I hope evoke the best emotions in people, and they come feeling good and leave feeling great.”