Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
It’s the run-up to the tenth anniversary Boutique Bar Show, and Andrew Scutts is busy, having already hosted seven events across the UK this year, Boutique London on the horizon, helping with the launch of Cocktails in the City Los Angeles and CITC Edinburgh just around the corner.
He’s organising Cocktails in the City, Bristol, supporting an affiliate with Cocktails in the City, LA, preparing for London’s Boutique Bar Show and gearing up for Cocktails in the City, Edinburgh. Quite the workload for a business he started, with just ten grand in cash and nothing so much as a business plan, a little over a decade ago.
“The advice I’d give someone else and the way I do things myself are two very different things,” he says. “In terms of a business model, I knew my fixed costs for venue hire, I knew what the space cost and how much money was potentially available, and those two numbers for me made sense. And the feeling I had that the time was ripe was shared by many others, and if I think I’d spent time waiting and researching and doing a business plan someone else might have done it.”
Scutts didn’t plan on being an entrepreneur, or, for that matter, making a career out of the drinks industry. An athlete at school – he could run 400 metres in not far off 50 seconds – the original plan was to become a PE teacher. After studying sports science at university, he went off travelling, including a stint coaching football in America and time working in bars and restaurants. Back in the UK, he took a job at London’s Mint Leaf but was part way through a teaching qualification when his father became sick with cancer. So he chucked it all in, and moved to Newcastle to support his family through illness, death and its aftermath.
The world didn’t stop because of grief, and he needed a job. So Scutts approached a friend who’d repped Blackwoods Gin, then a very small, boutique brand, in London. “I said, ‘I notice there’s no one doing your job in the north of England. I’m here for a year, can I do that for you?’” he recalls.
The job took. Soon after he moved back to London in 2007, he found himself working the Bar Show at Earls Court with Joanna Dennis, one of his bosses at Blackwoods. “We’d got a very small stand in the back corner of these huge exhibition stalls. You’d see these very large stands from companies like Corona - a huge space, lots of free drinks, people getting drunk – but for the smaller, newer brands it was difficult to get seen,” he recalls. “Exhibiting at shows around the UK I personally found it very stressful going to ExCeL or any of these big events spaces, because anything you want to do, even move some stock around, they charge you for it.”
He told Dennis he was sure he could create a business that would work better for small brands and the bartenders who wanted to discover them, registered the name “Boutique Bar Show” at the end of June, and put on his first event at London’s Truman Brewery that September. Plenty of brands signed up, the bar community was enthusiastic and, despite a 24-hour Tube strike, big buyers managed to make it: the event was a success.
“The big learning came in year two, where we scaled up quite quickly, and went to the Old Billingsgate Market along the Thames,” Scutts recalls. “That was the biggest show we’ve ever done, with 65 exhibitors and some great speakers, including Ian Burrell, Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown – but we just didn’t get the footfall.”
“Sometimes I can be a bit negative, and I was very disappointed after that second show,” he says. “I left the first one feeling very optimistic, and after the second one I was very pessimistic. But I wouldn’t give up or not do something just because it wasn’t good the first time: that’s not part of my character. I’d always have another go.”
Scutts realised the missing element was marketing – for which there was, of course, no budget line – and brought on Get Elastic to support in the show’s third incarnation. “I didn’t want to share this company – I was a bit protective of it, because it’s my business. But to grow a business you need good people around it, and they were very good at what they did,” he says. “My learning from that experience was that it’s probably better for me in the long run to partner early rather than try to do it all myself.”
Scutts didn’t make the same mistake twice. After he set up Cocktails in the City, an event that brings together local bars, brands and consumers (over 30,00 to date) for an evening of hardcore cocktailing, Reverend JW Simpson, owned by promotions company Bourne & Hollingsworth, participated in the show. “Their bar manager approached me and said, ‘We do a lot of events every year: we could help you grow this in the capital,’” he recalls. “In terms of that partnership, the business has grown quite significantly – I couldn’t have put on the last two events without them and their resources, experience…”
Although Scutts has support from a colleague and hires in teams for events, the Boutique Bar Show remains fundamentally a one-man band, run out of a shared office space in Peckham’s Bussey Building. While his office is blessed with a rooftop bar, unusually for this industry he is not a big drinker. “I know a lot of people who can go out four or five nights in a row and stay energised in the morning,” he says. “But if I drink one or two nights in a row, I have very little energy. I’m a terrible procrastinator: if I have a hangover I make terrible decisions.”
Even when child-free and working for drinks brands, he managed not to consume a great deal. “The trick was to drive a scooter. It’s a really good way to stop yourself from drinking, because when you work for drinks brands it’s easy to drink every day, and you see a lot of people who do drink every day and it’s not a very sustainable way to do it,” he says.
Now the primary carer for two kids under four – his wife works long hours as a management consultant - Scutts unwinds, instead, by running. The night before Cocktails in the City Bristol, he competed in a 5,000-metre race in London. “Racing gives you a lot of energy,” he says. “If you want a healthy mind, you need a healthy body.”
Healthy in both mind and body, he’s also excited about the tenth anniversary Boutique Bar Show, in Holborn, on Tuesday 26 September 2017. The Gibson’s Marian Beke will be talking about rethinking ice. “People use ice in their drinks for many reasons, particularly dilution and as a cooling mechanism,” Scutts says. “But ice is tasteless, colourless, odourless – it doesn’t add to the drinks. You can buy a commercial ice-cream maker for about £500, and Marian’s going to talk about what you can create using that to make a cooler drink.”
Tom Soden of Sweet&Chilli and Nine Lives will present on sustainability in the bar environment; Jon Hughes from Edinburgh’s Lucky Liquor Co. will talk about creativity through constraint; and there’s a feature called the Coffee Catwalk with coffee-inspired booze and a Coffee SOS workshop for bartenders.
Intriguingly, the Cocktail Trading Co. will present about how three bartenders opened four bars in their first year of trading, without the help of banks. “They’ll explain where they spent money and how they saved money,” Scutts says. “That should be really inspiring to bartenders looking to take that next step.”
And for anyone looking to move into events? “It’s good to start with an understanding of where you want to get to: whether you want to be a sustainable business or a side project,” Scutts says. “I set up the show while I was in employment with someone else, because even if it didn’t make a penny I was OK as I was taking an income from another job. If you’ve got a very low break-even, you can set your prices low – but if you realise you want to make a career out of it, it can be hard to move up from that. So make it a sustainable business model from the get-go.”
Scutts thinks the market is much tougher than it was a decade ago, when he started a business with just £10,000 in working capital. “When I interviewed the Cocktail Trading Company, one piece of feedback from Elliot was that they’re very big on their business models,” he says. “If they don’t think they can make a site make money quickly, they don’t do it. Take a very unemotional view at the beginning, and confirm whether it works on paper before you invest time and energy into it.”
And, finally, as in any industry, he advises: “Play to your strengths. Do something that you know a lot about in a sector where you have good contacts.”
Ten years after he began, he’s happy with where the Boutique Bar Show is at. “The underlying ethos and raison d’être for the Boutique Bar Show is the same: providing an equal share of voice to small businesses and a good quality of drinks products for visitors,” he says. “We’ve had offers from cigarette companies, all sorts of different types of businesses, but we’ve always stuck true. I think that’s a good thing to say after 10 years that your founding principle and ethos remain true.”
Register for Boutique Bar Show London 26 September 2017