Trailer at Ten: a guide to bartending Happiness
Words by Ian Cameron
It takes a special kind of bar to survive ten years in the cut-throat business of bars - a place where fashions come and go with alarming frequency as a public hungry for novelty, change and surprise constantly demands change.
That Notting Hill tiki bar Trailer Happiness has reached ten years of age is in no small part thanks to the loyal industry following it has cultivated, but visit it today and you'll still see new customers who are finding their way to the underground den for the first time.
In the past Trailer gave new life to tiki before the movement truly took root with the likes of Mahiki. Today the drinks have evolved away from, and back to, tiki, and the brand is arguably stronger than ever, about to pop-up with a residency at the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class lounge at Heathrow.
Its founder, Jonathan Downey, creator of a host of leading London bars including Milk & Honey, The Player, Rotary and Danger of Death, says Trailer Happiness was his favourite bar in the world for a good while in the early to mid-2000s. "What I wanted to do was create a bar that did tiki drinks without the cliches, all the palm trees etc, so I had this idea of opening a bar as if it was the home of some bachelor metrosexual surf dude from California who had an interest in tiki drinks. It was a groovy little basement in a cool area."
He says he didn't set out to deliberately subvert the existing tiki bars of the time. "I didn't care about Trader Vic's - I think I've only ever been there twice and I remember it as a sort of Rainforest Café of tiki, and I never visited the only other tiki bar in London at the time, which was in Kennington. But I had been researching 1950s bar culture - its post-war optimism, its opulence, and I'd watched the film Blue Hawaii with Elvis.
"There was definitely a lack of 'brave new world' about the bar scene at the time but mostly Trailer was a bit of fun."
Here's what a succession of Trailer's staff remember (just) about the place:
Michael Butt (MB), SoulShakers bar consultants
Angus Winchester (AW), Tanqueray global brand ambassador
Joe Stokoe (JS), consultant at Heads, Hearts & Tails
Tim Stones (TS), Beefeater global brand ambassador
Julien 'Papa Jules' Gualdoni (PJ), The Cliff, Barbados
Rich Hunt (RH) - current co-director Trailer Happiness
When did you work at Trailer, for how long and what was your role?
MB: "Giles and I were hired as consultants to set up Trailer by Jonathan Downey. It was Soulshakers' first consultancy and Jonathan had a clear idea of what he wanted for the bar - a retro-futuristic reimagining of the coolest bachelor pad ever. Initially we had no sinks, the drip rail was permanently blocked and the fridges didn't work. We supervised for four months before moving on."
AW: "It was early 2004 (or was it 2005?). A few months after it had opened, JD had mentioned that the place was opened partly due to an article I had written about tiki in Flvr magazine but it was struggling due to poor management and systems. I had just been kicked out of IP Bartenders and was keen to go back into ops."
JS: "I worked at Trailer in the hazy summer of 2004 - March-December to be exact. I was transferred from Milk & Honey as head bartender and moved up to GM when Angus moved on. Too young to be a GM!"
TS: "I was there from September 2006 to February 2009 as head bartender/assistant manager/general dogsbody."
PJ: "It was six or seven years ago, I was managing the place."
RH: "I was a bartender at Trailer in 2003 and 2004. Today, Sly Augustin and I are the directors, and Paul McFadyan and a few others also have stakes: we became owners on 27th of June 2012. It really is a collection of people who have bought their favourite bar -perhaps not the most ruthless of business operations, but a labour of love, everybody's favourite non-profit organisation."
Why has Trailer been so important and why has it lasted so long?
AW: "It was the first new bar to talk tiki, plus it had some awesome bartenders - even the opening bar-back was Leo Degroff! Once we sorted out the systems it rocked."
JS: "It was like walking into someone's living room which just happened to have an amazing rum collection and cocktail list. Add awesome tunes and friendly staff that loved the place more than anyone else and you have a pretty special offering."
MB: "The cocktails were tasty but people returned because each member of the team had good chat and cared about delivering good product. As the place developed, new ideas grew to fill in the gaps, but the idea that great bartenders could work in a small basement in the backwater of Portobello was what really cemented its success."
TS: "Before Trailer, if you wanted a tiki drink there was pretty much just Trader Vic's in Mayfair which was prohibitively expensive, or South London Pacific in Kennington which was a little off the beaten track. They were both traditional tiki bars: Trailer never took anything too seriously - except for rum - and it reminded people that drinking was fun."
PJ: "Trailer has been always a fun place to be . I always liked the music, the style and the drinks."
RH: "Trailer has that all-important 'je ne sais quoi'. It quite simply got the blend of ingredients just right: ambiance, music, great drinks and genuinely hospitable service where everyone (staff and guests alike) was there to have fun. And it managed to maintain these standards for a long period of time."
Describe a typical night or your fondest memory
AW: "Nights were hectic. Most nights we just packed them in and sent them home happy which is the sign of a great bar. And for most of the time we did it with no ice machine or running water on the bar itself."
TS: A typical Saturday night would go like this:
15.00 Meet staff members at the Portobello Star for a pre-shift pint and pork pie.
16.30 Begin set-up. Wonder why the float had not been counted from the night before. Remember that we had got drunk and I had forgotten to do it.
19.00 Try to fit bookings for 50 people into a space designed for 10.
20.00 Try and keep up with the waitresses' dispense tickets.
21.00 Monitor the GM's drinking.
21.30 Tell James Wynn-Williams that he 'makes drinks like old people fuck'.
23.30. Close bar. Run to the Portobello Star for a pint and a shot.
00.00 Return to bar. Explain whereabouts for the past 30 minutes. Apologise. Drink shots of rum. Ask last of customers to leave.
00.15 Survey carnage.
JS: "My fondest memory was one particular Carnival Sunday. It was a particularly nice day so we decided to create Trailer al fresco. All the furniture got moved outside in the same order it would have been inside and we had waitress service. It lasted a few hours until a policeman told us to move back in."
RH: "My fondest memory was definitely the night that we were all sat at the bar in the evening after signing the last of the paperwork and we got the email through: we owned our favourite bar! We had saved Trailer Happiness."
MB: "For me Trailer's always been about the people. I am still friends with all the bar-backs and floor-staff who ever worked with me there. Most of the time the trading levels allowed each guest to be treated royally and creativity ran riot, then for about six hours a week on Friday and Saturday we got raped, no lube in sight, in a tiny sweat box - but in those moments we truly felt alive."
PJ: "Trailer is where I met my wife."
What is your strangest memory of Trailer?
AW: "Generally the idea of having flaming volcano bowls and low ceilings made for many frantic runs up to the fire alarm board to stop it going off."
JS: "On my first day as GM it rained like I've never seen in England before. An hour before opening we were six inches underwater and we had to close. We bailed the water out by hand, using mop buckets, bins and volcano bowls, anything we could find. Four hours later, two cases of beer and a few empty bottles of rum we had bailed out everything and had heaters on getting the place dry for the next day's service. It was an amazing team effort."
RH: "Definitely not suitable for print: the words Trailer Happiness and memory are very rarely seen together in the same sentence, you know."
TS: "The time I nearly broke my own nose with a chair while play-fighting after-hours; the time at Carnival that the bar-back woke up to find one of the bartender's testicles resting against his cheek; the time I burnt off all my facial hair in a Woods 100 competition; the time I made Mick Hoult from the Portobello Star throw up after serving him a Pork Scratching Martini."
MB: "During my time there we had two floods, the first due to a burst water main, the second due to a sewage back-up - I distinctly remember the manhole in the kitchen rising up as if levitating on a mass of raw sewage."
PJ: "Serving frozen mushroom drinks that we were buying at the market every Saturday to the guest as a last order and then taking a punch bowl full of this concoction to Lonsdale to continue the party."
What has Trailer taught you a) as a bartender, b) about drinks, c) about life in general?
AW: "a) mise-en-place rules, b) sling glasses rock, c) people like having fun over having serious drinks.
JS: "The main thing Trailer taught me was how to be a friend and a manager at the same time - sometimes you have to distance yourself to get the job done. Treat others how you wish to be treated."
RH: "a) that you always need to be on top form - the bar is a stage and the whole atmosphere of a venue is often dependant on how it plays out behind the bar, b) I learnt a lot about Tiki drinks, of course, but the way Trailer is set up makes is more about blending flavours in a more unorthodox fashion - particularly when rums are concerned, c) that it rarely happens how you plan it."
PJ: "a) I went into a phase of making as much as I could homemade, b) I learned a lot about tiki culture, and c) I made a lot of friends there."
TS: "a) It helped me hone my ability to keep up with dispense tickets and bar orders, flirt with women (badly), drink rum, and hold an extended trash-talk battle with the bartender on the next station - all at the same time, b) drinking too many tiki drinks make you fat, c) that every now and then a bar becomes a focal point for a community of like-minded individuals.
MB: "a) blenders suck, I would have given my right arm for a slush machine, b) tiki drinks are very forgiving, and people LOVE fire, c) that being more closely packed than a rush hour tube train in 40-degree heat does not preclude some of the greatest nights ever."
Did you invent any cocktails there?
MB: "The ones that stick in the mind are the ones that have stood the test of time: Colada Nueva, Atomic Punch, Velvet Voodoo and, of course, the Soul Happiness."
AW: "None but I did put Mr Hoishi's Dry Martini on the tribute list which I still think is an awesome drink."
JS: "My favourite drink was a Colada Nueva. I didn't invent it but it was great for adding elaborate garnishes to. One was a surfboard which was big enough to write your number on. I was single, 22-23 (young, dumb...)..."
TS: "The Colada Pearl, which was invented by accident. When I started I could never remember the specs for the Don's Pearl or the Colada Nueva so any time an order came in for either I would inevitably end up combining the two into some hideous concoction. I never did remember the spec for the Don's Pearl."
Have you visited Trailer lately and how do you feel about the way it has evolved?
AW: "Alas I haven't but I view it with fondness. I love Rich Hunt's work but do hope that they don't let the bartenders take over the asylum too much as that's what caused its problems to start with and then caused it to be sold to the current owners..."
JS: "I still like visiting and always have a fond place in my heart for the place. I love the fact that people who really care about the place took it over and wish them all the best."
TS: "Yeah, I love the way it has evolved. It had been around for a while and needed a bit of a revamp. Sly et al have done a great job. It still maintains the whole Trailer ethos but is fresher and slicker. It's definitely still one of my favourite bars."
MB: "I have always had an affinity with Trailer and have been back throughout the last ten years. My birthday always falls on Carnival week so may last visit was then. It was tinged with sadness as it was the last time I saw Gary Brown alive. He was one of our best employees, was working at Meat Liquor at the time, and although not as famous as Gregor, Henry or Bobby Cockburn deserves to be remembered in the same way as he was also a genuinely brilliant guy and an asset to our industry, he will be sorely missed."
PJ: "I haven t been there for years as I live in the Caribbean now and don't get to London so much. But I always thought Trailer was evolving in its own way: it was never a 100 per cent tiki bar, it was also kitsch, modern dive bar where we could get good drinks."
RH: "We had some great tenth birthday celebrations and the best bit though was seeing so many different people who all care about Trailer Happiness and feel at home at or in the bar. We would love to grow and have got some loose plans. It'll happen naturally though - as Trailer always has..."