Its debut was launched on a shoestring, but today the London Cocktail Club operates 11 sites and has branched out of its eponymous city. JJ Goodman talks to Vincent Wood about being inspired by the greats, giving his employees tools for the future and, most importantly, having a laugh
It’s early afternoon, and the Covent Garden Cocktail Club still crackles with the energy of a thousand wild nights despite being closed and empty. JJ Goodman launched his first site, nestled under the Arts Theatre West End 10 years ago, and it retains a dusky charm – a blend of worn-down furniture and prop-room paraphernalia.
The anniversary party – which coincided with New Year’s Eve – was typically chaotic, leaving the ceiling peppered with holes punched through by revellers. The original London Cocktail Club is the mother dough from which every location since has risen. “It’s about how we capture the atmosphere in that space,” he says. “That’s been one of the hardest things to recreate.”
A decade beforehand, Goodman christened the site in much the same way as his customers had marked its anniversary – by smashing through the masonry. After winning a spree of coveted cocktail prizes – among them the World Cocktail Championships and London Club Awards’ Bartender of the Year – Goodman decided to move into the space with support from his family. It was a scrappy process on a shoestring budget of £60,000; his most recent opening was valued at more than six times that amount.
Fortunately, as his sun rose, it was setting on Paper, the West End’s notorious noughties nightclub and celebrity haunt, which hosted rapper Jay-Z’s birthday party among others. Goodman arrived at the back door with a wad of cash as people raced around to strip the site, and left with a Hoshizaki ice machine, still full of the domed ice cubes more commonly associated with McDonald’s than mixology. “We ended up getting a pallet trolley and the four of us pushed it down Piccadilly. It was ridiculous – taxis were beeping and we were there like a bobsleigh team pushing this thing down the street. We got it back and had to start removing parts of a wall just to get the thing in. I miss all of that, I really, really do.”
A precarious start
Goodman has made a success out of chaos since these early days, a combination of his business savvy, commitment to training and infectious charisma. He now operates 11 sites (10 in the capital, one in Bristol), each with an individual style and approach, but all with the same central theme – creating an all-consuming experience with no pretension and plenty of fun.
It was an approach born out of necessity and hardship as much as Goodman’s style and flair. The Covent Garden Cocktail Club struggled initially, forcing him to lean further on his family – in particular with a substantial loan from his younger sister, which put him under a lot of strain.
“We had a really dodgy first year of trading where, in the month of July, we’d turned over £7,000. My kid sister had to lend me £10,000, which was all she had. So I’m in the hole to my stepdad for £40,000; one of my best friends had invested; my mum had invested; I’d put in all of my money – so that £60,000, it was scraped together. It just wasn’t nice – and I think that really changed how we operated the London Cocktail Club.”
Looking over the edge of the precipice, he decided to move away from the relative safety of Motown music and the Old Fashioneds that were gripping the city’s scene and innovate something visually exciting, pushing the boundaries of emerging trends while also keeping a close eye on overheads.
“There were a lot of cocktails that we wanted to put on our drinks list, but, for example, we couldn’t afford a coffee machine, so we had to learn to make espresso martinis with instant coffee. And as embarrassed as we were about that, we decided we were just going to make a better espresso martini than everybody else.
“Equally there’s nothing worse than throwing fresh fruit into a bin because it’s gone mouldy when you know how much it costs, so we started using jams,” Goodman continues. “We were running to and from Tesco, and while we were there, we would end up buying biscuits to garnish our espresso martinis. Somebody did the maths one day and realised bourbon biscuits come out at 4p a serve, while a lemon wedge is more like 10p. So we went down the shop and started thinking ‘well – what else have they got?’. That’s when Angel Delight started coming in and we ended up playing on really nostalgic flavours – everything had a fucking Haribo in it. We started developing what we were doing that way.”
It was pure Instagram fodder – individual, visual and, above all, fun – but it came before the social media platform really took off. Instead, the motivation was a combination of innovation, cost efficiency and a sense of humour: “If it was funny, it went on the menu.”
Inspiration also came from the world of fine dining. Goodman and business partner James Hopkins came through as the shock winners of BBC Two’s The Restaurant in 2008, a show headed up by Raymond Blanc. The only drink-based offering involved, the prize was a partnership with Blanc on a future project – the two-Michelin-starred chef still sits on the board as a non-executive director.
Goodman, meanwhile, went on a spree of stages, picking up skills and ideas that began to grow into his drinks. A bacon and egg martini went on the menu, inspired by Heston Blumenthal’s bacon and egg ice-cream, and quickly becoming a signature offering that was only recently retired. From London’s pre-star Barrafina – then led byNieves Barragán Mohacho – came a squid ink margarita; and tuilles, which he’d learned to make under Benoit Blin at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, started to appear alongside drinks.
The combination of time, place and inspiration was particularly evident in his ‘oyster bomb’ – a martini glass with an oyster shell, Red Bull jelly, Jägermeister, lemon juice and Tabasco. “It was just funny – like you presented it and it looked like this really cute single oyster serve, but it was a Jäger bomb. That sense of humour just really fell into everything we did.”
The blending of comedy with skill goes some way towards getting customers back in, creating an experience that is unique and exciting – which flows into his business model more than passing trade. “I always find it so interesting when so many businesses spend 80% of their energy trying to attract new customers, where, realistically, they should be spending 80% of their budget trying to get existing customers to return.”
More than a novelty
Quickly the brand and its staff picked up a reputation for wild creativity. This extended beyond the drinks and into the experience – each bar has its own off-the-wall feature, from bubble guns to indoor fireworks. The bar offering includes a Magic 8 Ball and a fruit machine that will select your drinks for you. Bottles are tossed by bartenders who are actively encouraged to develop their flairing techniques to competition standard.
“It’s just about creating those perfect moments – with the right crowd, the right song, the right bartenders, the lights swinging and flashing on and off. It’s ecstasy, those moments you can create with the perfect drinks – this chaos that we’ve almost become famous for,” he says. “But actually underlying that, we have one of the best training and education programmes on the planet.”
Goodman’s approach to training carries on from a wave of innovators like Be At One’s Lee Miller and the Maxwell group’s Craig Doyle, who developed on what he describes as “an ex-TGI Fridays mentality of training: if you want to become a master bartender, you have to pass a 500-drink spec test, as well as observational testing.”
Alongside guest speakers and a ‘bar back to bar owner’ ethos of skill growth, LCC operates junior, senior and ‘Jedi’ level bartender training programmes: “When we first started, we weren’t struggling for people who wanted to come and work for us. We were getting people who were coming in with a lot of experience who saw what we were doing and thought ‘these guys are having too much fun – they’re making all the drinks I want to make but they’re just making it look fun’.
“When we had opened our first five sites we had CVs coming out of our ears, and we really wanted to drill down exactly how we did it. We were bringing in people who, with no disrespect, had their own style,” he explains. “We had to say ‘No, we need to convert you over to this, this is your ice cube now, this is your bar spoon, this is how you round build’. There were things that we just got very good at doing, so we started to think about how we could build this philosophy into people coming in from scratch. We found ourselves doing this junior, senior training programme and philosophy really well, and then adding this aspirational element with Jedi bartending, which includes business education.”
Providing entrepreneurial skills is key to the model. While it potentially offers staff a pathway out the door, it goes a long way towards enfranchising and enriching them. “We would have a lot of general managers come in who were working at top-end hotels, but there was a glass ceiling because they were never really going to go onto the floor or push up – and then how do you learn to go and open your own bar? You’ve got to go and work for somebody who owns their own bar, and then work hard and hope they’ll teach you how it’s done. There’s a good 10 bars that have opened up from ex-LCC staff, because they worked in that tight-knit community where we were really on the front foot all the time.”
His training system works for his business, but it’s also part of his ambitions for his corner of the sector. Bartending is gripped by the same skills shortage the rest of the industry faces – but this is exacerbated by the lack of formal qualifications on offer to grow skills. “I think my long-term goal is still to develop education in the bar industry. There are so many apprenticeships and qualifications in cheffing, front of house and hotels, but the bar industry has always kind of been the bad boy of hospitality really.” He adds: “An NVQ in bartending needs to happen, and it needs to happen sooner rather than later.”
Goodman is systems focused – taking on responsibility for his teams’ shortcomings whether he is in the room or not. Now, after 10 years, he’s beginning to feel like the processes he has put in place are effective enough to allow him to focus on other projects.
The London Cocktail Club brand is continuing to look at expansion, with leases signed for a Clapham site on 21 December and Worship Street in East London on 6 November. The brand is also looking outside the titular capital to cities with like-minded customer bases after the success of its Bristol outpost.
Meanwhile Goodman has had time to work on his book, Kitchen Cocktails, Recipes Of The London Cocktail Club – a greatest hits selection with the brand’s sense of style running throughout. “The book itself was a project I got to work on because I’ve not been sat around stressing – the systems have been put in place and it means that we don’t have to hold on to it quite so tightly as we have done for so many years.”
But Goodman refuses to take all the credit. He explains: “We put a lot of faith in our people. I think that by putting faith in people, they take on much bigger ownership as well. I think when you’re managing something too tightly, it really suppresses creativity internally. So learning to let go was a really tough part of my personal development and then, of course, the more you let go, the happier you are.”
Along with the success have come offers of brand consultancy and TV work, as well as the chance to get back to basics – to the love and passion that grew from an idea into an empire. “It’s just been about bartending again.”
London Cocktail Club
Founders JJ Goodman and James Hopkins
Managing director Michelle Hall
Non-executive chairman Lance Moir
Non-executive directors Raymond Blanc and Sarah Willingham
Locations Bristol; London: Bethnal Green, Covent Garden, Goodge Street, Liverpool Street, Monument, Old Street, Oxford Circus, Shaftesbury Avenue, Shoreditch
LCC’s craziest concoctions throughout the ages
Bathtub Lagoon: Grey Goose and Grey Goose Le Citron, blue curaçao, absinthe, lemon, Double Dutch cucumber tonic and watermelon soda, served in a bath tub with rubber duckies
Choctails & Dreams: Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, Nutella, Tia Maria, vanilla and squirty cream, served in a mug
Bacon & Egg Martini: bacon-infused Jack Daniel’s, maple syrup, orange bitters, egg whites and a Haribo fried egg
Crack Baby: a shot of vodka, passion fruit and vanilla, served in a syringe
Coco Pop Latte: Absolut Vanilla vodka, Baileys, Coco Pops milk and chocolate sauce