Words by Will Foster
Many years ago, as a restaurant manager, running a small but perfectly-formed fish restaurant on the North Norfolk Coast, my then-boss gave me some advice that I have lived by ever since: Never open a bar or restaurant to make money. They don't. Do it because you love what you do, because you love food and/or drink, because you love people and, most important of all, because you love playing host. If you do make money, it's a pleasant side effect.
At the beginning of August 2006, I found myself in possession of the keys to a unit in Shoreditch the size of a one-car garage and a lease for ten years for which I was (and remain) personal guarantor. I had a very loose concept - a vague Latin-American theme a la Sandinista!, in Leeds - where I had worked in a former life - with cocktails that used fresh ingredients where possible, a music policy similar to that of Mojo but, above all, a place with absolutely no pretention, no "mixology" and no dress code. Where everyone is welcome provided that they are willing to be friendly and talk to anyone and everyone who is drinking alongside them.
The cocktail knowledge came from "Shaky" Pete Jeary, who quit his job at Notting Hill's the Lonsdale to come and help me open Casita, and Andrew "Sven" van Blerk, who moved down from Leeds to live on my sofa and work for next to nothing at this tiny little hole in the wall in what was, at the time, a rather scummy area of town. With their help we soon became known as the industry bar, populated by bartenders and brand ambassadors and serving well-made classics with the odd-occasional home-grown cocktail thrown in.
Eight years later, Shoreditch is one of the most fashionable areas in London for good-quality cocktail bars, often compared to New York's trendy Lower East Side or Williamsburg, and I am very blessed to be able to say that Casita is still going strong. It hasn't always been plain sailing - we have had more than our fair share of dramas - court battles with the neighbour over noise pollution, infestations of various unwelcome visitors and the like - but we have come through it all and of that I am somewhat proud.
In my opinion, running a bar is not rocket science (or brain surgery) yet so many people seem to get it wrong. Cocktail bars are plagued by arrogant bartenders, obsessed more with winning accolades within the industry and patting each other on the back than doing what they were put on this earth to do - be welcoming and make their customers drinks that they will enjoy (or, in some cases, that they have asked for!). Don't get me wrong - I think it is admirable to chase glory and recognition in whatever field you choose to earn a crust, however in many cases in the hospitality industry it comes at the price of alienating the clientele.
So what are the most important things to consider when creating a venue that stands the test of time?
Concept? The problem with choosing a concept is that bars are very much like drinks themselves - people have their own personal tastes and what appeals to someone will repel others. The music you play may not be to everyone's taste, but kept at a volume at which you can hear the person next to you speak, it isn't that important (this is not always the case and one has to gauge one's crowd each night).
Drinks offering? This can certainly affect the type of punter you attract. Get a reputation for making, say, the world's best Martini and they'll be queuing out of the door. Certainly, you want to stock your bar with the right brands for the joint. Old Rip van winkle would look as out of place behind the bar at the Slug & Lettuce as Jim Beam would at the Artesian.
However, neither of these two factors should affect the longevity of the bar itself.
What matters is personality. Put yourself on the other side of the bar. Forget your craving for a superbly-executed Sazerac or perfectly-crafted Old Fashioned and try and remember what it was you enjoyed about going out before you got all snobby about drinks (come on, admit it, we all are these days).
For me, I remember how special it felt for our group to get made a fuss over by the bartender. The chat. The free shot every now and then that made you feel like his/her best friend - that rather warm feeling that someone that cool with all that cool liquor that he/she can make into all those cool drinks has taken time to take an interest in your and your friends' lives. It turned an otherwise par-for-the-course night out into something a bit more exciting and special. And it made you want to go back.
In other words, it is the people that make your bar stand the test of time. Your choice of bartender is crucial. Too arrogant to talk to anyone who isn't "fit as biscuits" and you will have an empty bar. Too socially inept to be able to have good chat or know when to listen or even start a conversation with a stranger and you will have an empty bar. Too "up themselves" to make a drink to the specifications asked for by the customer and you will have an empty bar. Anyone can learn to make a drink well - having a gregarious, accommodating and amicable nature is something you can't teach.
Cheerful, friendly bartenders who can listen to their customers and dispense great chat, advice and entertainment to absolutely anyone who graces your fine establishment with their presence is the key. Once you have the right people, the punters will follow, and they'll be the punters you want. You will end up with a solid core of happy regulars. People who care about your bar almost as much as you do. They become more than just paying customers and end up as friends, whose problems you genuinely care about and whose good time you genuinely get a kick out of providing. In return, you will listen to them about little things that could do with updating or changing about your bar that you probably wouldn't notice yourself. I have become so fond of so many of my regulars that at least ten of them attended my wedding.
And this group of regulars, your bread and butter, will evolve with your bar. Over the past eight years people have come and go, the groups have grown and split and now "own" different nights at Casita. They have become an anchor for the place, ensuring the bar has a reason to be open. As a result, when others arrive for the first time to our little cocktail shed, the atmosphere is always extremely convivial, friendly and relaxed and your fellow drinkers are as eager to welcome you as the staff.
You want to have a bar that lasts? Don't obsess about GP. Drop the snobbery, drop the exclusivity, and embrace what this industry, the hospitality industry, is all about. Be the host.
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