Words by: Simon Difford
The London Sessions are a series of inspirational seminars organised by The Dead Rabbit’s Rebekkah Dooley, bringing together likeminded people from the drinks industry. With Rebekkah’s support, Nidal Ramini and the good folks at Jack Daniel’s recently hosted the first ever Glasgow Sessions. We thought we’d bring you a taster of the event.
The inaugural Glasgow Sessions saw Edinburgh bar operator, Stuart McCluskey talk about something he knows well, entrepreneurism. This was followed by The Savoy's Erik Lorincz talking about creativity and Jeff Arnett, master distiller at Jack Daniel's, talking about quality.
When Nidal approached me with the topic he wanted me to talk about, I thought it was a really good opportunity to try and draw out the inner entrepreneur in you all, because for me being an entrepreneur is not necessarily about owning and operating a bar or a restaurant, or whatever it is - we can all be entrepreneurial in whatever we do, in whatever outfit we work for.
To give you a brief history of my background...I was a bartender for a long, long time and was continually frustrated by the fact that I always felt I could probably do better than some of the places I worked in, or some of the people I worked for. That drove me to ultimately open my first venue, Bon Vivant, in 2008. At that point I didn't ever think that I would be sat in the position we are today, eight years later with five venues.
At the time of opening Bon Vivant, the world was just going into a horrible recession but it was still a period when if you presented a decent enough business plan, the banks were willing to back you. I had a bit of support from my mum and dad and my little sister, and I'd saved up a bit of money. I approached the bank with a pretty bulletproof business plan and took on what was an underperforming unit. I literally threw caution to the wind.
We took on the lease and got the venue opened with very little money. I think to get to this point we'd spent maybe £20,000. Now, there are guys that spend more than that on their toilets, but we didn't have the money, so you have to cut your cloth accordingly. We had to really focus on the elements that I believe are the most important things to any operation. The things that don't cost any money...the environment you create, the service you give and the quality of the product you put out. You can tweak the lighting and the music and all that kind of stuff, so we concentrated on the important essentials until we'd slowly built up money in the bank. We never ever went into the red. We always operated in the black, which is exceptional for a new business.
We kind of went against the grain in not making cocktails our focus. The likes of Bramble had opened two years prior and they were really flying the flag. An amazing, world class, quality cocktail bar to have as a near neighbour. I've always been a bit of a foodie and I love wine, I love the different aspects of the hospitality industry - not just cocktails. I wanted to open a venue where I'd want to hang out. I think that saved us because a lot of bars opened around that time and subsequently closed because they only served cocktails, whereas we were serving food and wine. We offered something different.
We were fortunate but we had some pretty dark times. I remember three or four months after we opened, being in the bar on a Monday night with literally 50 quid in the till. I was sat at table 12 thinking, what the fuck have I done. But you've got to stick to your guns and thankfully, through friends and developing a reputation we were able to trade through that to the point were we opened a couple more places. We opened next door as a specialist wines and spirits merchant, the Bon Vivant's Companion, then very shortly after that we opened the Bon Vivant in Stockbridge and then two weeks after, we opened a coffee shop.
Diversifying that much has been pretty difficult. I've been one of those naïve people that think, oh well I like coffee, how difficult can it be to open a coffee shop. It can be very tough!
But then we got to a point where I was approached by a customer I previously didn't know, a chap called Chris Stewart. He came into the Bon Vivant and said he'd some pretty interesting opportunities and would I be interested in having a conversation. He showed me what became our Devil's Advocate. It was a building site and turning it into a venue was a scary prospect.
However, he offered me a fantastic opportunity to go into business with him. I was fortunate enough that he saw the value in what we do as operators and wasn't one of those developers that tries to screw the guy that comes up with the concept and brings that concept to life. He gave me the opportunity to go into business 50:50 with him.
Everything I had done up until the point we opened the Devil's Advocate had been on my own. All of the good decisions, all the bad decisions, I had to live with. And by this point we'd expanded by three other units. So things were getting pretty serious. But it also meant that the things that I was good at had become diluted because I'd then had to learn different and very important aspects of the industry on the job. The stuff they don't teach you when you're learning how to make a Woo Woo in Brown's in 1992.
There was a lot of stuff I learnt intuitively and I'm fortunate to have a very supportive family and my sister who's a Ninja accountant. You've got to take the right advice and make sure you listen. But the dynamic completely changed when I took on a business partner. A partner who is very switched on, very savvy, very details oriented in terms of money and P&Ls.
We opened the Old Cartel a couple of years ago meaning we now have three businesses on Thistle Street in Edinburgh, which is not a big street. It's a narrow one-way cobbled street so at the time, a lot of people asked me what the hell are you doing? You're just going to self-cannibalise. But Old Cartel is a completely different offer to what we have across the road at the Bon Vivant and in the Bon Vivant's Companion. So in actual fact they really complement each other.
I'd be lying if I said that in 2008 I'd mapped this whole thing out and knew exactly what I was going to be doing now. I did not at all. It was a wee bit of flying by the seat of my pants and taking opportunities when they presented themselves. For example, I was not planning to open a Mexican restaurant opposite the Bon Vivant. But there was a Tex Mex restaurant there before and they went under. I was just in the right place at the right time. I love Mexican food and kind of felt there was a bit of a gap in the market because everything had been so Tex Mex in Scotland, so I wanted to do something a wee bit different. Again, a place I wanted to hang out in. I guess I was being entrepreneurial.
When asked to speak about entrepreneurialism I thought that we could link this in to what we all do on a day to day basis, whether we're bartenders, bar managers, owners or multi-site operators, this idea of being entrepreneurial I think applies to us all. We all have a responsibility beyond whatever our title is to be entrepreneurial.
Coming up with drinks and creating menus can have a huge impact on a bar's business - positively or negatively. Whether you're a bartender or a bar manager, you know, the products you buy in, and the prices that you sell them out at; the staff that you bring in and the number of hours that they work. Do you need to have ten bar staff on a Monday night? Probably not unless you're in a massive venue. So changing the way you think and being more entrepreneurial could ultimately impact the bottom line. Now, I guarantee if you're working for the right operator and you make a positive impact on the bottom line then some of that should come back your way in increased pay or bonuses.
Over the years we've made tons of mistakes and no doubt we will always make mistakes. Since acquiring a business partner I've been encouraged to go to different seminars and talks with various business groups. I walk into rooms with MDs of multinational businesses and I'd feel pretty inadequate. When I listened to their conversations and the issues they have running their day to day businesses, 99% of the time they would relate to what I was doing in my relatively small business. So I took comfort in that.
Since then, since we've grown to the point of having to bring in a head office team, which is completely different, we're becoming almost corporate. I take great comfort in the fact that a lot of the stuff that we've done has been intuitively right. But the mistakes that we've made we've learned from. Some of the stuff that's happened to us over the years I kick myself now when I think about what we did or what we didn't do to prevent it, but that's how you learn and you know, we're always encouraging our staff at work, not to make mistakes but to learn from mistakes or challenges.
When we opened El Cartel in December 2014, we'd been open for eight weeks and I got a phone call on a Sunday morning, going, you might want to get up here because the place is on fire. I was like oh fucking what, it's not the phone call you want to be getting on a Sunday morning. So the first thing that goes through your head is, God is everyone okay because there lots of people living above. Thankfully everyone was okay and the fire just tore through the kitchen, but watching smoke billowing out of your building is pretty scary.
I had a good insurance broker but ... and I've my wife kind of ringing in my head (she's a corporate lawyer) she always tells me, "make sure you read the small print" and I'm like, but that's boring. But it's so important. After the fire we were one piece of paper away from losing that business altogether because I hadn't read the small print properly. I missed the section about keeping cleaning records which we kept in the kitchen. They went up with the fire. A problem as a clause in the insurance policy says, not only can you not keep your cleaning records in the same room, you can't even keep them in the same building.
Insurance companies being insurance companies, when you try and make a claim they'll do everything they possibly can to try and wiggle their way out of it. So I'm like oh shit, we're on the hook for quite a lot of money. But thankfully we were able to prove that keeping records is standard practise throughout all of our group so we got away with it. But it was a lesson for me. We had to go back to the drawing board straight after that and bring in people to health check our business to see what we were and weren't doing properly. We were learning from that mistake and never letting it happen again. I mean that's a pretty major example of learning by your mistakes.
You know, if you ever lose that passion for what you do, then take a step out of it. There have been so many times that I've had wobbles, particularly back in the day when I was operating on my own and I didn't have anyone to bounce ideas off or take any of the slack. I had to face everything myself. It's not a sob story but it's just part of what I went through. I've come out the other side and it's made me a stronger and a better operator.
I think as we all become much smaller fish in a growing pond, it's important to stand out and take advantage of all the opportunities that there are on a global level. Genuinely, I believe we as an industry, in whatever level we're at, need to be professional and more entrepreneurial.
As a bartender you could have an amazing career. You could be like Erik Lorincz and you know, he travels .... He's like Phileas Fogg. But he's got to that position because he's worked his arse off and he's been professional. If you want to be the very best and get the most out of the industry, then I believe that you have to know some of the things that you can do to help you on that path. I just love this quote by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected African female head of state, "If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough."
You know, if you've got to that point where you think you've achieved everything then that's great, but why don't you push yourself, why don't you set the bar higher, see what else you can achieve. Back in 2005 I left Edinburgh altogether and moved to Australia. It's not like I was in the back of beyond but I wanted to prove to myself that I could... because at that point I was doing okay as a bartender and I was working in some amazing places, but I wanted to see if I could do that on the other side of the world and pretty much start afresh. I did okay, I didn't do brilliantly, but you know, I wouldn't change it for the world. I had some pretty life affirming moments when I was out there. It was really good for me in terms of building my character. For me that was the catalyst to come back home and go into it myself. So, think big and given it a hundred percent.