By Dan Chu Laura Sanderson Healy
November 14, 1988 12:00 PM

Change has come to Stapleford Park in Leicestershire, in the heart of the English hunt country 110 miles north of London. To be sure, the local gentry, joined by a titled aristocrat or two, still don their traditional scarlet coats to ride to hounds. But Stapleford’s 125-room grand manor house, which dates to the 16th century and served as the seat of the earls of Harborough, has gone quite mod. It now boasts such high-tech accoutrements as satellite-dish TV, American-type showers and oversize tubs. Guests taking libation in Stapleford’s paneled library, now doubling as a bar, are apt to be greeted by the new proprietor, Bob Payton, 44, bellowing, “Hey! What’s everybody so quiet for? You’ve got to make some noise!”

As one might guess, Payton, a bow tie-wearing individual who carries an impressive 17 ½ stone (245 lbs.) on his looming 6’4″ frame, is not native to these parts. He is an expatriate American whose earlier contribution to English culture was the introduction of Chicago-style deep-dish pizza to the sceptered isle. “We’ve sort of rewritten the rules,” Payton says of his transformation of Stapleford into what he calls a country house, hotel and sporting estate. “Our concept is of a 16th-century house with 19th-century hospitality and 21st-century technology.” The concept seems to have worked. Britain’s 1989 Good Hotel Guide recently dubbed Stapleford the outstanding new hotel of the year.

Casual is the byword in this establishment, where the staff are attired in rugby shirts and corduroys. A tennis-cum-basketball court has been installed beside the shooting range; a pitch-and-putt golf course has taken root in the walled garden. Signs of playful irreverence lurk everywhere. The flip sides of Stapleford’s Do Not Disturb signs, for example, carry the instruction: Please Clean the Room Now. So We Can Mess It Up Later. And there on the wall of a sitting room is a mural of Gunther, the Payton family’s 10-year-old schnauzer, with a red, white and blue bandana as neckwear.

Is Leicestershire’s ever-so-proper equestrian society outraged by such cheek? Apparently not. “They love it; it’s like going to Disney World,” says Payton. “They are dumbfounded that in this really stately home, we are just sorta hanging out.”

The new Stapleford has been accepted, Payton believes, because England is now in “a neo-Victorian age, with a new work ethic and a desire for people to get ahead. The British finally decided that World War II is well and truly over and it’s okay to have a fax machine, a car phone, a BMW, two VCRs and expensive shirts. And we [Americans],” he adds, “are the ultimate yuppies.”

Stapleford is merely Payton’s latest attempt at grafting American breeziness onto English traditionalism. It all started in 1977 when, during a night out in London, Payton and three friends discovered that it took 13 anemic English pizzas to satisfy their hunger. Sensing a market for the sturdier fare that he remembered from home, Payton, then a go-go advertising executive, scared up some capital and brought forth the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory in London’s St. James’s district. Five years later the Chicago Rib Shack was established in Knights-bridge to dispense barbecued ribs and onion-ring loaves. Next came honest-to-goodness hot dogs and peppery chili at Henry J. Bean’s Bar and Grill in Kensington (1983) and Chelsea (1984).

Last year Payton stumbled briefly with an American fish house in Soho called Payton Plaice, a bit of transatlantic humor that apparently sank somewhere in passage. But he recovered nicely with the West End’s Chicago Meatpackers, specializing in beef, and the Windy City Bar and Grill in Knightsbridge. “When the English go out to eat,” Payton has concluded, “they don’t want American seafood, they want meat.” Overall, his record as a purveyor of what he describes as “basically peasant food” is little short of spectacular. His My Kinda Town group of restaurants—14 in all—has spread beyond London to Aberdeen, Manchester and Glasgow and across the channel to Paris, Barcelona and Madrid. Together, his restaurants serve 50,000 diners a week and gross $30 million annually.

Despite his passion for Chicago as a marketing theme, Robert Payton was born in Troy, N.Y., and grew up in Miami, the son of a traveling costume-jewelry salesman. Payton worked his way through the University of North Carolina as a drummer in a dance band, then earned a master’s degree in business at Northwestern before forging his Chicago connection by joining the J. Walter Thompson ad agency.

In 1973, following a divorce from his first wife, Payton accepted a transfer to JWT’s London office. Abandoning advertising for pizza four years later, he soon emerged, by his own description, as “Chicago’s man in London.” His restaurant chain has thrown several parties for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, when they appeared at the Royal Albert Hall, and two years ago Payton organized a pep rally, replete with pom-pom-wielding cheerleaders, in London’s Hanover Square for the visiting Chicago Bears, in town for an American football exhibition game.

Seeking surcease in the countryside from his business cares, Payton found an old schoolhouse in Duddington 10 years ago. He promptly converted it into a weekend retreat, happily joined the local horsey set, and one day happened to canter through the 500-acre grounds of Stapleford Park. There he came across the manor house, a discovery that set his entrepreneurial instincts ticking again. To raise the $8.3 million needed for purchase and renovation, Payton sold shares in the venture. And to create signature guest rooms in the new Stapleford, he engaged more than a dozen decorators, including Lindka Cierach, better known as a dress designer for such elevated clients as Fergie, the Duchess of York.

Since January, Payton has also enjoyed the devoted assistance of Wendy Wolff Becker, 38, his most recent import from Chicago. Wendy, the widow of a construction tycoon, met Bob in 1985 on one of his frequent visits to America. They maintained a long-distance courtship for two years before marrying down the road from Stapleford last New Year’s Eve. (The bride, in top hat and veil, and groom, in hunting gear, rode off from the ceremony on his-and-her horses braided with white bows.) Together, they are remaking Stapleford (30 guest rooms finished so far, as many as 70 more to come) and leaving their mark on the place—sometimes quite literally. Outside the oldest wing of the building, for example, there is an inscription that reads: “William Lord Sherard, Baron of Letrym, repayred this building, Anno Domini 1633.” Now there is a new carving next to it: “And Bob Payton Esq. did his bit, Anno Domini 1988.”

—Dan Chu, and Laura Sanderson Healy in Leicestershire

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