Six Weeks, Six Words
Words by Elliot Ball
Photography by Matthew Hastings
Yes, it's a follow-up article to the one six weeks ago, and no, it doesn't feel like six weeks. I requested the opportunity to write this, as, though the Heads & Hearts piece was seemingly well-received, the nature of it led me to commit a journalistic sin - not having a specific point.
The heads bit had some examples, the hearts kinda had some, loosely, but in writing about vagueries I ended up being a bit... vague.
So, by way of apology, here's a list of really practical stuff I've learned about running a hospitality business in the UK during what has started as definitely the less roaring of the two twenties in the last century. I'll probably include some ethical stuff because I've had a glass of wine, but will generally try to keep it as hardline and helpful as possible.
And before we continue, it's the nature of articles like this to extol the benefits of the author's approach - such is advice. Please be aware that I don't make any claims to CTC having it on lock for cocktail deliveries - we're still figuring that out. I don't pretend to be the highest roller there, by any means - this is simply about sharing observations and learnings.
No access to a photographer during quarantine? Problematic; visuals are essential to marketing. Matthew Hastings, who's a hero, video-chatted me through lining up the shot then quickly edited it.
Words sought-after: Furlough. Words undervalued: No
Particularly in the era of Post-Truth, life is full of false-dichotomies - you're either with us or against us, etc. So let's talk yes and no. It's really been quite a while since adding time as a variable to basically everything has become commonplace, and yet we readily forget that. Perhaps it's mostly relevant to important choices; those that activate our emotions, experiences which basically only exist in the present tense - but there are very few true 'yes/no's and 'now/never's.
Especially with limited resources, this can lead to tragic decisions - 'yes' might initiate developments, but it also means a 'no' to alternatives, known and unknown. Spend all your money on developing a product/brand and you've killed a lot of other possibilities, or choose that venue to open, meaning you lack the funds and time to open any of those you view in coming years.
Thus we're talking about opportunity. A lot of this reads blatantly - I knew that, Elliot, you're being about as insightful as the sassy neons in mock dive bars - but that's also the sense we lose in times of crisis. To be more specific, let's go to my utter car crash of a spam folder on the info@ address for Cocktail Trading Co. Once I've removed all the SEO stuff, phishing scams and invitations for webcam shows (glad at least some industries are booming in isolation), next come the 'opportunities'. For 'collaboration', usually - perhaps the only term that has been more thoroughly violated in recent years than 'humbled'.
So within my spam folder (and also beyond it), there are oodles of people offering really bad deals. An old adage goes that one of the most costly habits is being poor, and such destitution isn't just a state of bank account, but mind. There are plenty of operators desperate to stay trading in one shape or form, but losing a lot in commissions, or damaging your following due to crappy delivery partners, means that saying 'yes' to the wrong people also might mean saying 'no' to a lot of future opportunities. Or, y'know, your landlord.
Basically, don't let the opportunists get the better of you - I'm sure there are entrepreneurs who launch an expensive platform because it provides the best service/experience, but my experience is that most charge a lot because either they don't know completely what they're doing, or they're just trying to make money fast, and obviously screw both those two. If someone offers you a platform through which you have to do little to achieve good sales, then they're gonna charge commission hard.
Skills sought-after: Baking. Skills-undervalued: Flexibility
Let's fast-forward to the end of this ridiculous screenwriter-strike of an episode in hospitality. It's not going to be an apocalyptic landscape, with jiggers strewn across the barren planes of Shoreditch like corpses and mimes flairing as they sob at surprising volume. It's going to be an extension of any crisis - some won't make it. Some will, begrudging their losses. Some, however, will make a killing. Not Bezos, I mean.
So one of the cocktail delivery services, say, hits the bigtime and becomes the LBA household name that we all like to complain about when their drinks are actually Tasty AF (and there's the insta handle). Do you think it'll be a bartender that founded it? A chef? Improbable - this is a venture capitalist dream - more likely an entrepreneur. Hopefully they'll hire someone who knows what they're doing for the drinks themselves, but from there, it'll be the wholesale separate skill of business development and marketing. There'll be an important divide between product and sales.
I'd advocate sending out reusable plastic Nic & Noras with delivery drinks but they're actually more expensive than the glass version.
Quick interlude - on humbleness - part of why I loathe self-promoting usage of this term is because it denies its finest purpose. When someone sees the actions of those around them as misinformed, careless or stupid, they subscribe to chaos, from which little can be learned. Alternatively, if everything that confuses us is met with a shortened 'this doesn't make sense to me, but I'm sure you're not stupid, so I'll attempt to understand', then great learnings result - that is the true benefit of humbleness. Still, a flipside to this is that we all have a habit of sticking to working formulae, sometimes plugging them even harder in a situation unreceptive to them, like turning up the volume on a comedy at which no one's laughing.
I'm seeing intelligent people make delivery drinks to order, when there are so few benefits there, and a plethora of limitations. Let's not go into the usual acids//fresh//batching debates and just recognise that having your product signed off and ready to go is absolutely key to operation on a decent scale. Applying previously-held beliefs and honed skills to new problems is an essential part of working well, but when we uproot and replant that particular vine, sometimes it doesn't like the new soil and sometimes it'll straight-up phylloxera that idea.
We obsess with freshness, authenticity and style at quality bars, but have we really considered how much these actually mean to customers at home? Or how they can be met differently? In the previous article, I mentioned good packaging and branding, and how that can replace the flair of service. Delivery drinks encounter enormous challenges that I feel many aren't taking seriously, and the reason I'm recommending looking at it from a fresh perspective is because when something is new, you have to look at it as a consumer, no justifications.
At home, everyone has stupid glassware, in Sports Direct proportions. So your Manhattan serve is going to fill about a fifth of the glass, or, as literally anyone would see it, leave it mostly empty. Equally, you know what's a rubbish drink? A martini made with incredible products but zero dilution (with the illogical but delightful exception of Duke's, of course), so selling people a bottle of martini and allowing them to stir it on freezer ice @ -15/20 degrees should probably be covered in the Geneva Convention.
Beyond all this, drinks change in the bottle. We still don't completely understand it, and we may be surprised to taste our drinks as consumers - Old Fashioneds in particular really flatten - I made ten with various levels of seasoning and left them in the fridge overnight. The one that we ran with absolutely was not the one we'd make for service. This is certainly one of the lesser challenges in delivery drinks, but heads should remain out of sand throughout - customers have a diminished experience when they get deliveries - not our fault, but definitely our responsibility.
CTC's drinks come with a little bag of monkey nuts to jokingly enhance the brand (but also help with perceived generosity), and a note thanking them but also playfully talking about serve-sizes in bars/home, nestled casually between a dad-joke and a link to our spotify. The costs of implementation are minimal, and, so far, insulate us from aggro. Meanwhile, the drinks themselves are generally carbonated - while you can still get a reasonable cash margin from big bottles of boozy drinks, for smaller ones, I believe it's about the only way to offer customers a good serve size without hugely increased costs to either party.
Carbonating booze makes it more readily-perceived, and most consumers have no reason to understand ABV in mixed drinks. Beyond that, if someone is drinking fancy cocktails solely to get pissed, that's a reckless waste of money - the off-licenses are still open, and the details are there on the label - no one's being misled. Equally, you may want some space in that margin - otherwise sticking 30% atop your price to cover Deliveroo's commission is token 'i'll be fine' logic - customers don't see this, they just get niggling feels of being ripped off.
Finally, while we do have uncarbonated, short-and-strong's available, they've been 'remastered' for the bottle - it's a different medium, so needs new consideration. An understanding of the past and application of this to the future is 'expertise' when you're right, but when you're wrong, it has more negative titles, and not just in the field of business. Speaking of the future...
Principles sought-after: Positivity. Principles undervalued: Openness
Consider: Until this is over, we, as individuals, won't know what, or how much, we've lost. I won't bend your ear on opportunity and reaching for the rainbow, but here's a bridger between the previous point and this one - the Cocktail Delivery Co. is heading towards being a thing more formally.
I've got no shortage of time, so have been able to really punch out the compliance, ops, etc. I've got an excel sheet that could make Da Vinci consider cubism and a prep line that would've aroused suspicion amid the McCarthy Trials. Obviously I've partly just been doing this for me, but why the hell not? Why do anything half-arsed right now?
More than that, I've got the costs of sales, commissions, bottle, design and labelling overheads all on said sheet, so a weekly sales input tells me the takings, separate overheads, outcome earnings and operation-wide GP. A month ago, I'd have said this was pointless because it's simply slowing CTC's descent. But now I know how many drinks I'd need to sell weekly to cover 2 members of staff (as a separate business, that's all it would need to run the whole thing), and maybe to afford a space too small for a conventional bar (at London rates) but with an A4 and off-license. Or just the basement of some pub from which delivery can take place.
So over the coming weeks, with every sale (or lack thereof, even!), I'll be gathering the data to pitch for an operation that doesn't come with the unbelievable overheads that a quality London bar has. This isn't optimism - that's just maintaining a positive outlook - context is the key difference.
What I'm doing here is actual meaningful development (hopefully) - and I believe that's a possibility for a lot of the things we're using to distract ourselves, so long as we're not desperately developing quick ideas at the cost of better ones. The success stories that emerge from this storm will be for ideas with scalability and consumer appeal - so yes, the barspoon came out and did its work, but it's now back in the well while the business guy does his best with the product. Separate roles.
Finally, seeing as I've now finished my wine, I might as well round this off with something broader - in needing to demonstrate actually doing stuff so that I could justify the above points, I've basically had to commit a series of brags. I've analysed these and decided that said brags are fairly small and necessary for the purpose of the article - they have passed a personal test; a sense of justification.
This justification, however, is being warped daily for all of us. Let's talk gym selfies - can you imagine stepping back in time to when it wasn't just a thing you expected to wade through on insta? Like if I just put up a photo of myself looking fit and tried to pass it off as a positive message of empowerment / advertising physical or mental wellbeing, advise others, etc? But without loads of other people having normalised it first?
No, it would mostly come across as narcissistic. Though it's been normalised to that point that we participate in it without considering this, I still believe gym selfie culture has something dark and pained at its core, something bypassed because it's already normal, and confusingly something which many who participate don't share, because it's now said norm.
This is another kind of pandemic, not one anywhere near as immediately devastating as what we're facing now, but with serious cultural implications nonetheless. And personally, I don't think that lots of people doing the same crappy thing get to blame culture, as if it's not us as individuals perpetuating it. A culture that embraces misogyny, for example, may indeed be a culture, but also a big group of dicks.
Ultimately, when we as a culture embrace such behaviour, we (often unwittingly) demonstrate an increasing interest in self-promotion and a decreasing one in consideration of our actions - spending all day looking at horribly attractive bodies on insta has been thoroughly-documented as a negative influence on our self-esteem. But we keep pos(t)ing.
Our industry, as the social petri dish it is, leads the charge on many of these behaviours. As was mentioned in that fabulous article in the NY Times about Prune, barriers seem to be going up between small businesses - fronts about sales in particular. While I understand (if loathe) the marketing appeal of 'EVERYONE'S BUYING CTC'S COCKTAILS, THEY'RE SUCH A HIT, ORDER NOW, LIMITED STOCK, YOU'RE EITHER WITH US OR AGAINST US, JOIN THE MIXOLOGY REVOLUTION', I'm sick to death of people who are in the same damn boat lying and saying everything's great when it's not.
Having to angle your business so that just the pretty bits show, always with the right timing and lighting, and suggest that everything is always this good... is the gym selfie. Though with exceptions, I believe it alters the mindset, self-worth and behaviour of others without even promoting one's own wellbeing but addiction. It's human, but not humanitarian.
This is actually just a photo of the tap water at Murder Inc., but easily the prettiest shot on the day. Contents: Liquid water, solid water. #1IngredientMixology
While it's great to encourage expression of personal pride, we must be careful not to commoditise virtues - in the same way that telling everyone how great you are is often evidence to self-worth issues, crafting the image of openness, positivity and optimism may reduce the willingness to discuss frailty and create (and accept) support.
And thus I end this article in an annoyingly similar way to the previous - conflicted. I think it's important to be positive about our actions during this time, but must be willing to embrace the power of 'no'. I'm pained by the wasted expertise of talented operators, but we have to consider the dangers of misapplying old wisdom to a novel problem. I don't want to tell people they can't show themselves off at their best, but I think it's contributing to a vastly broader issue, relevant now and always.
...And, like last time, I've a wine hangover at 4pm on a Monday.
Co-Founder, Cocktail Trading Co.
If you are a bar owner and would like to contribute to Bar Entrepreneur Frontline please email me at Simon@DiffordsGuide.com. Thanks to support from Havana Club all published contributions will be paid for, with a matching amount donated to The Drinks Trust charity (formerly The Benevolent), or a local hospitality charity of your choice.