Words by Sammy Hemmings
It's been a shattering year for most industries across the globe. Yet, Lewis Hayes, owner and operator of two award-winning London-based bars, Black Parrot and Merchant House, sees opportunity in the face of adversity. "I'm always positive and believe that even the bad stuff can shape us into stronger people," he says.
We caught up with Lewis in late August, following five months of Covid-19 closure. "I am so proud to be part of an industry that has absolutely stuck together during this manic crisis, even when governments have been left rudderless and leaderless, the hospitality trade has been inventive, artistic, loving and generous," he says.
Like so many in hospitality, Lewis fell into bartending to keep him afloat during his studies. The venue turned out to be Manchester's award-winning cocktail lounge, the Living Room. "I had no idea what I was walking into at all," he says. "I had no idea that bar had been voted best bar in Manchester six years in a row, a celebrity hot spot."
After graduating in drama, Lewis pursued acting for a time. "I got two different roles in Emmerdale, but I was effectively being auditioned for a permanent part in Coronation Street. I was offered the role, a permanent part, and I just thought, that is not what I want to do with my life," he says.
Following an appearance in a two-hander Tennessee Williams play, Lewis left his acting career behind and put his heart into hospitality.
From the ground up
A hardened entrepreneur, Lewis commends a six-year partnership. "I had a business partner up until the end of 2018," he explains. "It would be kind of impossible to talk about me without talking about him because there's so much cross over."
Lewis met Nate Brown while working at Manchester's Living Room. The pair had their sights on something bigger, had both moved south to London, and in 2012, co-founded consultancy company, The London Bar Consultants.
Their first venture was the basement cocktail bar the City of London Distillery (AKA C.O.L.D. bar) that also housed a gin distillery. "We did it on 13k," Lewis says. "It just happened to be a really wonderful marriage of something we were passionate about and what the public was getting enthusiastic about."
In 2014, when C.O.L.D. bar was taken off their hands by the landlord, the pair opened Merchant House, a bar specialising in rum and gin. "It was me and Nate, we got it going, we were there with the regulars, and building up regular trade," Lewis says. "That's essential, I think when you open a new bar as an independent operator with no money. I'll never forget it was my iPod dock on the bar top, my wife's piano in the corner, my uncle's seats, and Nate's writing desk."
The bar has since evolved. "Gone are the days where it's me and Nate behind the bar there, and you go in and get a high five, and we recognise you, it's like actually, that isn't a sign of a good bar to me. Nate, in particular, was quite vocal about it," Lewis says.
For Lewis, it's the links to knowledge and learning that shapes the business. "Merchant House has always been a bar that's been about education," he explains. "It's not about making money. It's about doing something a bit more important than that."
Lewis was compelled to build a bar that endures time, trends and even himself. "We were thinking of expanding with Merchant House as a brand, and that's when I made the decision, actually, I want Merchant House to be something that's there in 50 years' time, something that's well beyond me, and my personality and my reputation," he says.
Indeed, education is at the heart of the business, from its carefully-selected drink offering, to staff training. "The way we train staff is to approach the broader category, as an understanding of fermentation, distillation, barrel ageing, and the chemistry and the science of how you make these products," Lewis explains. "You then throw in the history and the cultural aspects of why they're made that way. And that's what drives me."
Come 2016, Lewis and Nate opened a second Merchant House, complete with greenery, dusty pink walls and a focus on whisky. "It was artistic but not commercial," Lewis says. "For about two or three years we just pushed on with it, and it meant we were losing money."
Balancing two bars and a consultancy company took a toll. "It put a lot of pressure on us, and we decided to part ways at the end of 2018, so we could remain friends," Lewis explains.
As the sole visionary behind the bars, Lewis reinvented his second site in 2019, renaming the bar Black Parrot, moved the whisky collection over to Merchant House, and championed a different spirit. "Black Parrot is about the Caribbean and celebrating the Caribbean," he says.
Lewis filled Black Parrot's backbar with well-known rum, bottles from auctions and treasures found on his travels. "I've chosen each and every one of these bottles. Some people that come into the bar, they're like: 'What you've tasted all of these.' I'm like: 'I've done more than taste them, I taste them regularly, I know them.' To someone in the drinks industry that's not so surprising," he says.
"There's very few people, even in the rum industry, that taste how diverse it is," Lewis notes. "That's why we get a lot of rum geeks coming here."
Lewis is keen to share his knowledge further than the reaches of his bar. "I've started doing little write-ups of rum bottles," he says. "I have no ambitions to be a writer, but I feel like I've got an awful lot of knowledge, and I want to share that. I don't feel like it's something for keeping to yourself."
"I'm trying to create a database specifically for my team," Lewis continues. "It's totally accessible for anyone else in the industry, in particular, to go on to it and learn about these amazing bottles that actually very few people know about."
For a bar owner who values education, Lewis is driven by making a mark rather than making profit. "We will try and get our vintage products out there at extremely affordable rates," he says. "You can come in here and drink Havana three year old from the 1970s in a Daiquiri for £12.50."
His passion for crafting memorable experiences inspired an exciting space for intimate events. "The Brig is a private bar over at Merchant House," Lewis explains. "It's £65 per person, and it's up to four people. You get your own bartender. You play your own music and anything you want to drink."
Guests can get behind the bar, engage with the bartender or simply sit back and enjoy the space. "It's been the most exciting bar I've opened because you give people permission to relax, and you give them that memorable experience," Lewis says.
A turbulent year
"Covid-19 has hit everyone really hard, and being a relatively small business with large business rates, I got little to no support from the government and am yet to see any relief at all from my landlords," Lewis says.
While this year has been a tremendous struggle, Lewis applauds the industry. "I have never felt prouder to be a bartender, to be a barback, to be a waiter, to be a host, to be part of an industry that recognises that we are stronger together and due to the diversity within it, we have the potential to do a lot of good work with the time we have," he says.
Yet, Lewis cannot deny the challenges his bars have faced. "We got hit slightly earlier than most, due to the fact that in the City of London, people were very quick to not commute to their offices back in March," he says. "I had a week or two of no one coming into the bars and I knew we had a much bigger problem on our hands."
And, while he is driven to share great spirits with his clientele, Lewis refused to offer home delivery cocktails. "To me, it just represents bad value for money," Lewis says. "My guests don't pay for cocktails, they pay for memorable experiences, they pay for engaging conversation and music and the million and one other tiny details that we can offer through hospitality in our venues."
"Unfortunately I had to make the call to let about half my team go," Lewis explains. "I still haven't been able to open up as the city of still circa 70-80% down on footfall as of July and August, I could see the writing on the wall in regards to reopening (or not) and I decided that it would be better for my team to be given as much notice as possible."
"It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in business, and I'm still not happy about it, as I feel that it has been utterly out of my control," he adds.
Despite the devastation, this year has been lifechanging for Lewis. "Everyone feels like the world ended this spring," he says. "My life absolutely flipped upside down this year for very different reasons. I am a very lucky person to say that I am father of a wonderful, healthy little girl, that only knows lockdown."
"I had to wait in the car park for 12 hours with my wife going through labour on her own," Lewis adds.
Happily, Lewis was there for the birth, and goes into the future with a changed mindset. "Having a baby during this mad time has given me a new drive to really set a good example and to simply be able to provide too. With so much uncertainty out there, I have at times felt like a caveman in survival mode," he says.
Back in business
"I did a lot of soul searching and reminded myself of what really motivates me and what I consider my passion," Lewis says. "That is fundamentally education and creating world-class, memorable experiences. So I set about attempting to do exactly that."
Lewis combined those passions in new territory. "I have launched a new online company called Liberated Liquid," he says. "I didn't want to be another bar desperately trying to keep up sales of cocktails at a time where it felt like there were some bigger fish to fry in relation to a world health crisis."
Lewis has handcrafted flights of 10 bottles, available to purchase as 10 x 10ml, 10 x 20ml or 10 x 30ml sets. They come complete with cards describing the basics of fermentation, distillation and maturation, plus tasting notes.
"I think Liberated Liquid can fall into two main areas really, and hence I have split my website up into educational flights, and 'fun' flights," Lewis explains.
People can buy rare and unique samples for reasonable prices. "This is all about educating people in a fun, memorable and premium way," Lewis says. "I am offering the chance to taste a £1,000 bottle of something rare that would never be opened by mortals like us (they are just investment pieces for the already rich)."
And, for a pioneer like Lewis, his philosophy remains rooted in education. "If you're not pushing forwards with the wind in your sails, then you will just get tossed around the sea and end up lost," he says. "It doesn't matter which path you choose, but choose a path, keep your head up, learn as you go and help others along with you."