Five years ago, bar consultants were barely a twinkle in the eye of the bar industry - now look at them, says Bethan Ryder.
In 1996, life was relatively simple; there was the owner/operator, the manager and the staff. Then the destination and style bar arrived, the cocktail renaissance ignited, and a whole new glamorous bar culture was born.
Now it seems that no hotel or restaurant is worth a second glance, let alone a visit, without a cool bar on the side. Opening a stand-alone bar has become something of a challenge. With so many of them in London and trendy bars in every provincial city, you've got to have something "va va vroom" special to seduce the increasingly sophisticated consumer.
Enter the bar consultant - the independent specialist offering expert advice to operators, hoteliers and restaurateurs - for a fee.
One of London's high-profile bar consultancies is Alchemist, formed by a trio of young ex-bartenders - Jaspar Eyears, Cairbry Hill and Ben Reed - whose CVs all include stints at the Met Bar, and whose clients include Thistle hotels, Yates's and Nocturne.
Another is the Gorgeous Group, comprising ex-bartending duo Robbie Bargh and Jason Fendick. Their biggest success to date has been developing "independent" bar concepts for Hilton hotels - namely Zeta and, most recently, Rockwell. Bargh is the concept and marketing man while Fendick focuses on the systems, cocktail philosophy and training. They have recently been troubleshooting for Bass in Amsterdam.
R&B Solutions is a business triumvirate comprising Dick Bradsell, Jenifer Griffin-Howells and Jamie Wynne-Griffiths - think cocktail maverick, business brain and legal man-cum-wine connoisseur. Their past projects include Mint, Alan Yau's Hakkasan - which Gorgeous took on when R&B's three-month contract expired and its Monte's contract began - Corney & Barrow and the new private bar adjoining Jamie Oliver's restaurant at Monte's.
These companies are employed by operators primarily for their knowledge and expertise but also in a bid for credibility. Corporate operators are aware that the market has changed and that it's the independent operator and innovative bartender who have led that revolution in terms of creativity. It is this hands-on, "streetwise" experience that operators keen to succeed in the competitive cocktail, style bar niche are seeking from bar consultants.
Andreas Jersabeck, general manager of the Hilton's new boutique hotel, the Trafalgar, explains why the London Park Lane Hilton chose to hire consultants: "We wanted to attract local clientele and not just residents," he says. "The bar scene is becoming so specialised and sophisticated that, in order to compete with places like the Atlantic, you can't get away with just another hotel bar."
When it came to the operational aspect of the bar, whose new interior was designed by New York's Tony Chi, Gorgeous was hired. As Jersabeck explains: "They're exactly what we needed. They're close to what's happening in the market, they're close to the customers, they had local knowledge and a following in terms of staff, clientele and connections to the press, which was perfect for trying something different."
There is no doubt that, for many of these companies, the "breath of publicity" - to quote Dick Bradsell - is an additional attraction. When companies such as Hilton, Thistle and Yates's are looking to reposition or refresh an existing brand, or establish a new concept outside London, they are only too aware of the press connections that these media-friendly consultancies bring to the job.
When Thistle Hotels wanted to reinvent two sites as independent bar ventures attached to its hotels, food and beverage director Stefan Breg remembered hearing of Alchemist through its success with setting up award-winning cocktail bar Che.
Alchemist was hired chiefly for its operational knowledge. Thistle was spending £250,000 on each project and wanted to ensure that it employed experts who were focused solely on bars and management, rather than being distracted by the hotel business. However, there were additional benefits, acording to Breg. "We were aiming to create a contemporary bar," he says. "Alchemist added value on the operational and PR aspects. We were able to tell local media in Newcastle and Brighton that we'd created the best cocktail bar in town." He concludes that Alchemist gave Thistle "market differentiation" - both Gengis in Newcastle and Water in Brighton have tripled their revenue and now attract locals and hotel guests alike.
It's a similar story with Wine Lodge operator Yates's - employing ex-Met bartender and The Times "style" columnist Ben Reed of Alchemist certainly got it press coverage. During a 70-day contract, Reed is to devise a cocktail menu and advise on basic bar standards and training. As he says: "They already had a minimal cocktail capability but they were aware they weren't keeping up with trends." It's his intention to enable Yates's to be self-sufficient with regard to training programmes by the end of the contract.
There are other reasons for calling in the experts. Bargh of Gorgeous says that it's often about troubleshooting when a bar is underperforming. Bradsell of R&B Solutions agrees, saying: "What clients actually want is more money." Sarah Heward, managing director of Corney & Barrow wine bars, employed R&B, on a one-off project basis with an agreed fixed fee, specifically to assess the company's London West End site and produce a report. It was Griffin-Howells's commercial approach and local knowledge that was in demand - Heward often consults specialists and she says that the experience of working with R&B helped her "think outside the box".
Whether launching or refreshing a bar, aside from staffing, cocktail knowledge and training, consultants can also source products, negotiate a better purchasing deal and improve a bar's relationship with drink suppliers. Thistle's Breg says of Alchemist: "They enhanced our relationship with our suppliers. Spirit companies can be somewhat detached from the hotel sector and we didn't see them much before."
Wynne-Griffiths of R&B assembles wine lists and "cherry picks" the best wines from several suppliers to ensure a more interesting list than using a single supplier would allow. He also trains the staff, which is essential for Monte's, which has a 220-bin list but is too modern and relaxed to employ the services of a sommelier. Wynne-Griffiths explains: "Instead of one expert waiter, everyone is clued up. We teach them which wines to sell to suit a particular customer request, or to accompany particular food."
So is it all good? Consultants can set up your new bar, manage your staff team and provide training manuals for future use. They can concoct cocktail lists, troubleshoot on sales, enhance your relationship with suppliers and negotiate the best deals for you. High-profile consultants will also introduce your bar to the style press, and by their very association you may attract a fair dose of movers and shakers. However, don't let them run the show while you count the profits in blissful ignorance - make sure you're prepared for when they move on, and that they've enabled you to stand on your own two feet.
As Heward says: "Consultants can be helpful. Like computers, they can be very, very good. Equally, if you don't put the right information in to begin with, they can be pretty terrible." And there is a danger that, once a contract has expired, the expert advice and hard work can fall by the wayside. In an industry with a high staff turnover, newly trained staff may leave to work elsewhere. There is also the danger that the advice will be ignored or forgotten by the permanent management or staff once the consultants move on.
As Breg says: "At Thistle, we brought in a turnkey solution. Our challenge is to maintain the people and the product quality and consistency that they were delivering - and you could argue that's a greater challenge."
It's all very well listening and learning from the experts, but unless their advice is put into practice, it can be a waste of the consultants' time and the operator's money.
So you think you need a bar consultant?
1 Do your research, investigate the company's past projects and check that it has the right level and kind of experience to bring to your bar.
2 Speak to former clients to check whether they've delivered their brief.
3 Find out how many clients they have at the same time as you. Will they be able to devote enough time to your project?
4 Are any of their clients your direct competitors?
5 Clarify your aims and objectives as an operator - you need to be clear about what you want them to deliver.
6 Establish what they are going to leave with you when their contract expires - ie a business report, marketing strategy, cocktail list or training manuals.
7 Are the staff they source the right kind of people for your venue? Will they stay on once the consultancy period is over?
8 If they attract a following of a certain type of clientele, make sure it's right for your venue.
9 If you're a new operator with minimum knowledge, try to bring in the consultants at the design stage - bad ergonomics behind the bar can cause many problems.
10 Ask them if they still work behind a bar. Are they in touch with the hands-on aspects of the business?
11 If training or troubleshooting, they should work behind your bar to acquaint themselves with staff, and spot any problems.
12 Ensure that they have strong interpersonal skills and will interact well with your permanent staff. By bringing in outsiders, you can risk undermining existing staff and management.
13 Recognise that bar consultants can be good but they're no guarantee of a successful bar. You should be confident that your concept will work.
Words of wisdom to new bar operators from the consultants
Dick Bradsell: "Don't expect to make lots of money. Know your figures and know the business."
Jason Fendick: "Make sure you get the right people to do the right job."
Robbie Bargh: "Don't be arrogant enough to assume what the market wants. Hold focus groups, do your research. Be conscious of your competition."
Ben Reed: "Know your clientele."
Alchemist Management Services
Jaspar Eyears, Cairbry Hill and Ben Reed
020 7434 9818
R&B Solutions UK Jenifer Griffin-Howells, Dick Bradsell and Jamie Wynne-Griffiths
020 7378 1899
The Gorgeous Group Robbie Bargh and Jason Fendick