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‘It doesn’t feel special’: is Soho House a victim of its own success?

<span>The Soho House chief executive, Andrew Carnie, has helped oversee its global expansion. </span><span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
The Soho House chief executive, Andrew Carnie, has helped oversee its global expansion. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

There is a Soho House meme account on Instagram with 128,000 followers. Among its recent posts are ones lampooning the exclusive private members’ club for supposed frat boy behaviour and a video with the caption: “Love it when £200 leaves my bank account then I’m told to wait four hours for a table at 3pm.”

It has hit a nerve with some members and investors worldwide. “It’s like this every time, every time I come,” says Zach, an “every house” member, which means he can access all of the 42 houses across the world for £2,920 a year. “You can never get a table, it takes ages to get served, and you’re paying a lot for the privilege of being a member. I don’t really know what the point is any more. It doesn’t feel special, I don’t feel special.”

Soho House’s rapid expansion, in terms of the number of locations and number of members – about 200,000 people – has got longstanding customers griping. So much so that it has attracted the attention of the Wall Street short sellers GlassHouse, which recently warned that Soho House was “facing an existential crisis” that was “eerily similar to WeWork”, the once red-hot shared office provider that collapsed into bankruptcy. Soho House rejects any comparison with WeWork, saying that at the end of its third quarter the company reported $30m (£24m) of cashflow from operating activities and had approximately $250m of liquidity.

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The pressure will mount on Soho House’s bosses – including the founder, Nick Jones – when the company reports its full-year results on 6 March. The business, which Jones founded with a single “house” on Soho’s Greek Street 29 years ago, has never turned a profit – and pre-tax losses this year are expected to come in at about $73m.

The GlassHouse salvo, which accused Soho House of running “a broken business model” and “terrible accounting”, sent shares in the company down 19% on the day of the report in February. The shares have recovered to $5.97, to value the business at about $1.2bn, but are still down from the $14 its shares were floated at on the New York stock exchange in July 2021.

Soho House has said it “fundamentally rejects” the GlassHouse report, which it says “contains factual inaccuracies, analytical errors, and false and misleading statements, all designed to adversely impact the company’s stock price for the benefit of the short-seller”. The chain, which appointed Andrew Carnie to replace Jones as chief executive in 2022, says it is “confident in the strength of its business and is focused on executing its strategy”.

The company, which is in a close period ahead of its results, says its majority owners have been taking advantage of the fall in the share price to increase their stakes, and that a board special committee was evaluating “certain strategic transactions, some of which may result in the company becoming a private company”.

The US retail billionaire Ron Burkle’s investment vehicle Yucaipa is Soho House’s biggest shareholder, and together Burkle, the restaurateur Richard Caring and Jones own more than 70% of the shares.

When Soho House started above Jones’s restaurant Cafe Boheme in 1995 only people working in the creative industries were allowed in – bankers and those dressed in suits and ties, while not banned from applying, often found their memberships cancelled.

Jones, who is married to the TV and radio presenter Kirsty Young, later relaxed the rules to allow anyone “with a creative soul”, no matter what job they did, to join the clubs.

“What we like are decent nice kind people, anyone with a creative soul,” Jones said in an interview before he stood down as chief executive in 2022 after revealing a prostate cancer diagnosis. “It means you can work in any industry that you choose. I think that’s an evolution … When we [started] we thought if you’ve got a creative soul the only thing you would be doing would be a creative job. But I’ve met lots of people who are incredibly creative souls who might not be in a creative job.”

The anti-financier vibe came back to bite in 2015, when Jones tried to raise money from bankers by inviting them to a bond presentation at its Shoreditch House venue near the City of London. “It’s pretty funny,” one potential investor told Reuters at the time. “They say that we’re not cool enough to join their club but they’re perfectly willing to take our money when they need it.” Another said Soho House’s message was simply: “We don’t want you; we want your money!”

While Soho House has never made a profit, it has succeeded in becoming the go-to party spot for the rich and famous, from Kate Moss, Kendall Jenner and Ellie Goulding to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

The Sussexes met on a blind date in 2016 at its 76 Dean Street house, one of eight Soho Houses now in London including a townhouse in Mayfair, and a club, hotel and rooftop pool inside the BBC’s former studios in White City.

Across the world there are 42 houses – from Istanbul to Mexico City – three Ned hotels, a beach club in Mykonos, Greece, and nine shared workspaces. More are planned: Soho Houses in Portland, Oregon; São Paulo, inside a historic former maternity hospital; Miami; Charleston; and Manchester will open this year. In the longer term, houses are planned in Rhinebeck in upstate New York and Sydney, Australia.

The Manchester house will occupy five floors of the former Granada Studios, with promise of several bars and restaurants, a gym and the trademark rooftop area.

“It’s great that Soho House is going to cities like Manchester,” says Amanda, who works in advertising and has been a member for 15 years. “But when there are so many houses around the world, and so many people are members, it kind of takes away the exclusivity – and to be honest it is the exclusivity that we are all paying for.”