Successful Tavistock Hospitality Group vow to honour visionary founder Mark Hird who died at just 46

A successful businessman will be honoured by the global export brand he established.

Sunday, 9th February 2020, 1:48 pm
Mark Hird outside of the Roker Hotel on the seafront in 2014. The Roker was the 'jewel in the crown' of his hospitality group.

Mark Hird was just 46 when he lost a long battle with cancer in December last year, but in that time managed to achieve more than most people could dream of in a lifetime.

As well as being a devoted family man, Mark, of Burdon Village, Sunderland, founded the Tavistock Hospitality Group, steering it to great success and changing the face of dining on Wearside while also branching into South Tyneside and Hartlepool.

Now the jewel in the crown of his leisure group, The Roker Hotel, and its award-winning Poetic License distillery, which exports gin around the world, will honour him with a special gin named in his honour.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Jonathan Graham and Mark Hird at The White Lead in Hebburn in 2013.

For the hundreds of people he employed and the eight businesses currently in the group’s portfolio, it’s a way of raising a glass to a man whose vision spawned a multi-million pound leisure group - which is set to continue to thrive in his legacy.

Husband to Nicola and dad to Charlie, 19, Grace, 13, and Amelia, six, Mark was a well-respected man in Sunderland whose death sparked an outpouring of grief from both customers and employees.

His best friend of 30 years, Jonathan Graham, was also his right hand man in business as operations director at Tavistock Hospitality.

The pair met on their very first day studying hotel and catering at Newcastle College when they were just 16 and forged a close bond, both personally and professionally.

Sunderland Echo Portfolio Awards 2013 presentation evening held at the Stadium of Light. David Cook of TTR Barnes (right) presents the large Business Award to from left Keith Donkin, Mark Hird, and Jonathan Graham of Tavistock Leisure

Jonathan, who has vowed to continue the success of the group’s brands in Mark’s honour, said: “We’ll be keeping the existing products, with aggressive expansion in brewing and distilling in Mark’s legacy, with plans to increase the product range.”

Plans to name a five-year celebratory gin and bar in reference to Mark is a fitting honour for a man who lived and breathed his business, leading to multiple industry accolades including Sunderland Echo Portfolio Awards and The Publican Award for “best value gastro pub chain.”

Speaking at the Roker Hotel, which Mark propelled from a three-star to a four-star venue, Jonathan said: “Every idea, every innovation, it was all Mark. He had such vision and was really on the ball when it came to predicting trends. He would travel to London, and all over the world, for ideas and then bring them home to Sunderland.”

Today, the Tavistock Hospitality Group own and run The Roker Hotel and its Poetic License distillery, Italian Farmhouse in West Rainton, S43 Brewery and its gastro pubs including The Lambton Worm in Chester-le-Street, but over the years have had 30 properties, including the Grand Hotel in Hartlepool, the Italia Retro and The Rattler restaurant in South Shields and the White Lead in Hebburn.

Best friends for more than 30 years: Jonathan Graham and Mark Hird.

How it all began

Mark’s first foray into hospitality began with buying the Copt Hill in Houghton in February 1996 and running it with former 1973 cup winning SAFC captain Bobby Kerr.

It whetted Mark’s appetite for an industry for which he worked tirelessly until his final weeks, only reluctantly giving up work a couple of months before his death because he was too weak.

Jonathan said: “Mark always wanted to be his own boss, even when we were at college. His granddad worked in catering in First Class on trains on the East Coast mainline and it was that that inspired him to get into that field.”

Mark and his son Charlie, then 11, who used to muck in breeding pigs for his dad's company. They're pictured here in 2011. Mark was passionate about using local produce in his venues.

In 1999 Mark met his wife-to-be Nicola and the pair set up 11 Tavistock Place in Sunderland city centre, which would inspire the name for their brand, and change the face of dining in the city.

Jonathan explained: “At that time it was ground-breaking for the city and brought a flavour of fine dining to Sunderland. It was very much an occasion place and people loved it. It paved the way for more high end restaurants in the city.”

The success of Tavistock Place allowed Mark to purchase the Marsden Grotto in 2001, turning around its fortunes, and selling it for a huge profit 18 months later.

It set the firm on a huge growth trajectory as they acquired multiple businesses across Sunderland, South Tyneside and County Durham.

Turning around the Roker

In 2002 Mark’s firm brought the Roker Hotel, which would become its flagship site. Spotting the rise in popularity for gin, Mark opened the Poetic License distillery, and bar of the same name, at the Roker in 2015. It soon become one of Sunderland’s most-successful exports, producing 50,000 bottles a year for national supermarket chains and high-end retailers such as Harvey Nichols.

Mark Hird at the Italian Farmhouse Restaurant, South Street, West Rainton, in 2011, which the company still owns.

“The Roker has always been our jewel in the crown,” said Jonathan. “When he took it over it was owned by what was then Scottish and Newcastle Breweries and it had fallen into disrepair.

“Mark’s business model was buying pubs that were either closing, or about to, and turning them around for the local community. He gave every venue its own identity and people loved it.”

Speaking about continuing the business in Mark’s honour, Jonathan said: “People say you should never work with your friends, but that wasn't the case for us. We both had the same drive and goals. He would never let me down, so I would never let him down, and I still won’t.”

Mark’s legacy

Jonathan says the family have found comfort in the countless tributes made to Mark: “He made such a great contribution to the economy of the city and is a great loss for those who knew him and the hospitality industry as a whole. He really was a pioneer.”

Mark's business portfolio previously included The Grand in Hartlepool.