Escrito por: Simon Difford
Steve Locke is a founding partner at Be At One, a business he set up 18 years ago with business partners Rhys Oldfield and Leigh Miller. The three met at TGI Fridays in the early 1990s but were working in separate branches before ending up together in the chain’s West End branch in 1994. They lived together, worked together and became good friends and together left Fridays to run their own bar. Today the business partners have a chain of 32 bars and counting.
Steve started work at Fridays in 1992 but five years on he’d become disillusioned with what Fridays was turning into, saying “it used to be an American style cocktail bar with the accompanying cocktails and drinks culture but moved away from that, becoming more focused on the restaurant side. It wasn’t the sort of bar we’d chosen to work at all those years ago, so we decided to give it a go ourselves and try something a little bit different.” So in late 1997 the three left to pursue the dream of opening their own bar.
“When we set up in 1998, we managed to scrape together £60,000 mostly from car loans. We bought a run-down Indian restaurant in Battersea Rise for £33,000 leaving us £27,000 to turn it into a cocktail bar. Over seven weeks we stripped floors, painted it, bought a second hand bar counter from an old pub and created Be At One. That old oak bar counter is still there.
“We didn’t really have any concept for Be At One – other than it would be the sort of bar we’d want to drink in – all about handshakes and names. There was no great marketing strategy or business plan. We didn’t discuss too much about what sort of cocktails would be there, we were just going to serve the sort of cocktails we were used to making at Friday’s for the previous five years. So it was a very instinctive sort of thing we put together.
"We thought we’d create something that people wanted and were proved right – from the moment we opened the doors, we were successful. We spent the £60,000 on setting it up and we made £50,000 back in the first ten months, we’d made our money back and were off. It was a tremendous confidence build to us, it showed that as much as we had a concept we loved, other people loved it as well, and they wanted to come and pay to enjoy it.”
“We wanted the name to represent what the bar was all about – at the time, bars were becoming more stylised. Bars like the Atlantic Bar & Grill were very much about the style and the aesthetic. We wanted to create an environment which was unpretentious, where the guest wouldn’t be intimidated, where people could be relaxed – we set out to host people, like you would host people in your own home. Although it was a cocktail bar with quality cocktails, it offered the hospitality that you’d have in your local pub, where the landlord recognises you, shakes your hand, says hello, puts you at ease as soon as you arrive. We discussed names that would portray this idea of hosting and we talked about it in terms of how the guests would feel – we wanted the guest to ‘be at one’. This phrase just kept on coming up, until it suddenly became obvious that it should be the name of our bar.”
“The second bar we opened was in Wandsworth, about a mile away from the first Battersea Rise site. What we didn’t appreciate with Battersea Rise was what a great location it was. We’d opened in Battersea Rise in the middle of 1998 just as the area was about to take off. We opened in what was a perfect spot through nothing more than luck. We were very fortunate to get the right site, right space at the right time. It was fantastically successful and still is. So what we didn’t appreciate was how important location is, and having the right kind of rent, and who your customer is, and all these kind of different aspects of the business which we didn’t have an understanding of.
"We learnt pretty quickly what those things were about, because the new site was three times the size and five times the rent in not such a good area as we weren’t surrounded by our types of guests – It was a much older demographic who lived around our Wandsworth bar. We didn’t attract as many people, and where our original site cost £12,000 a year rent, this one cost £65,000. We also had a chef working for us in the new site and due to operating the kitchen we operated all day. We’d opened a restaurant bar and let slip all the key factors that made Battersea Rise so successful. We thought we’d evolve into something else, and guess what? It was a real painful experience. We lost a lot of money and got to the stage where all the money Battersea Rise was making we were losing at Wandsworth.
"We had a very painful two years where we were working very hard to not make any money, but we learnt why Battersea Rise had been so successful, why Be At One was so successful – it was about the personalised service, handshakes, names, high quality cocktails, that party environment, and being where our customers are.
"It allowed us to refocus on why Battersea Rise was so successful, and to open another site in Richmond which replicated Battersea Rise. That proved to be just as successful and so suddenly we had two bars making money, and one that wasn’t. Then in September 2001 we managed to sell the loss making Wandsworth bar leaving us with two money making bars. That was a real watershed moment for us and we defined what Be At One was about and why it was successful."
“Back on day one, it was the three of us behind the bar, along with a friend of ours called Fred Donaldson, who we’d worked with at Fridays and who’s still in the industry today. The four of us worked the bar seven days a week. At the end of the shift we’d clean the toilets, wash the place down. We worked the door ourselves and did everything ourselves. We also all lived together in the same flat. We were working 100 hour weeks and we paid ourselves a small amount of money, but that was part of the excitement. It was a tough time, physically and mentally, but it galvanised the team.
"When we opened the second site we started employing people which was another dynamic that took a bit of getting used to. How do you actually manage a team? It’s one thing to working for yourself, paying yourself £150 a week, working 100 hours a week, but you tend to find employees are not so quite like minded!
"Suddenly the dynamic changed, but all the way through we were working behind the bar. So although we were trying to grow the business, for 40 hours a week we were standing behind the bar counter, bartending and that really was how it was for much of the first ten years or so. Then we started to move away from the bar. People would come to work for us as bartenders so we’d have to let them bartend, so we often found ourselves barbacking or front-of-house. In order to develop your team, you find yourself taking a step back. To help these guys be as good as they can be you need to support them and not get in their way too much. I still miss bartending but I think its best we don’t stand behind the stick anymore."
“There have been so many highlights on the way and people often ask me what I would have done differently if I had my time again. I don’t regret a single part of it – even Wandsworth because the lessons we learnt we still apply day in, day out. Getting rid of that site was a highlight, a real watershed moment.
"Opening our first site in Covent Garden in 2004, was a really big thing for us because we were West End bartenders, our business was only six years old, and we managed to get ourselves a bar in the West End. But every new bar that we open is a tremendous moment. I am very involved in the new site acquisitions. I’ll see a site first – and it will be a rundown wine bar, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and I can imagine what it’s going to be like as a Be At One. Then we go through the process of buying it, training the bartenders, opening it up.
"What I say to every team on day one when we’re about to open a new bar, is that a year from now people will have had the time of their lives in the bar. Some people will say it’s the best bar they have ever been to. Some people will meet their future wives, boyfriends or lovers. There will be tears, there will be all kinds of emotions in there. And we try to build an institutional environment which becomes a big part of people’s lives.
"We’ve just had our 18th birthday party and one of the nice things is we’ve seen through social media is people’s memories of 18 years of Be At One. It’s not just about having a drink, Be At One becomes the fabric of people’s social lives. Something that will always be in their memory. It’s quite a touching thing – people have life changing moments in an environment we created out of nothing.”
“The Be At One ethos is about hosting people as you would be hosting people in your home. There are a number of ways we do that, but one of the most important things is our service standard, which is called the ‘five sixty thirty’. Everything we train our bartenders to do fits into that. The five is the 5 second eye contact, so when people come into the bar, they get a 5 second eye contact or hello. They might not necessarily be served in 5 seconds, but you get that ‘be with you in a second’ signal. It relaxes people. Similarly, if you go to someone’s house, the door is open and the host doesn’t say hello to you immediately, you are going to be wondering if you should be there.
"The sixty is the 60 seconds to make a drink. Cocktails can take a very long time to make, but we do a lot of training on using an ergonomic bar set-up and two-handed bartending to make high quality drinks very quickly. So if you go to a Be At One for a drink and only have half-an-hour before dinner or the theatre, you can order a cocktail instead of a beer or G&T as you know it’s going to come quickly.
"The last part, the thirty, is the 30 seconds to get your change back. Again, when you are ready to pay and go, you need to know the process will be quick. It’s about setting the parameters within the guest’s timeframe, not within the bartender’s timeframe. Our ethos is all about the guest, not about the bartender – it’s about the guest having the best time they possibly can.”