London calling: raising the British bar

London calling: raising the British bar

Ben Reed

Earlier this year I was invited out to O.C. to speak on the state of the high end of the London bar scene at the Cheers Beverage Conference. I have to say that, despite feeling very proud at seeing recognition for the industry that I and others in London have worked so hard building up, I did feel I was perhaps there representing my country erroneously. Yes, at the (tiny) top end of the scale, bars in London, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh and Glasgow were leading the way with inventive cocktails, great service and even greater enthusiasm, but it’s the gaps left in the mid- to bottom-end of the table that were letting us down.

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Let me expand on this; as I’ve mentioned in the past (apologies to those of you who attended the conference) if you walk into most bars

(not pubs) on any street in the UK, the only thing you’d feel safe ordering if you possessed any level of discernment would be a beer of some shape, size or temperature. If it was a spirit and mixer you were after, the venue would invariably use substandard glassware (dirty, government stamped and very tacky), cheap mixer, a couple of cubes of bad ice and, if you’re very lucky, a slightly browning garnish. I guess it’s lucky that American tourists tend to prefer the taste of our beer to our spirits or cocktails.

Such is the rate of change in the UK at the moment however that now the mid level bars such as Living Room, Revolution, and Pitcher and Piano are devoting more and more time towards providing the same sort of training that would traditionally only be offered to the top end of the market place, the so-called style bars.

With the industry in a state of moral panic and strategic flux–24 hr. licensing is still being heavily debated, trial smoking bans are being implemented across the country, binge drinking amongst young women seems to be growing and cider’s making a comeback (!)–the mainstream operation seems quietly to be getting its house in order.

After talking to Tristram Hillier, marketing and academy manager for Pitcher and Piano, a 30-unit UK wide bar chain that aspires to “make premium mainstream,” many of my suppositions were instantly reinforced. No only do they, like other brands, promote ambassadors in each site for cocktail, spirit and wine excellence (trained by spirit brands and training companies alike); they also implement a management development program to disincline any of those who feel they have outgrown the company from leaving. (This is a common problem in the UK: within the fraternity of very self-motivated bartenders, transience and a tendency to explore the “next best thing” is rife unless time, training and potential career options are invested in and explored.)

Significantly, from a consumer perspective, Hillier notes that as his back bar range has grown, albeit organically, so has his consumers’ understanding of different brands of spirit and their willingness to drink cocktails has increased as the bartenders feel more confident promoting them.

This is a significant step for British bars; back in the day where pubs were your lot, you would be subject to a choice of six staples: a domestically produced vodka, a gin (usually Gordon’s), rum (Lamb’s), Bell’s or Teacher’s Scotch Whisky and Courvoisier Cognac. You’d seldom find tequila, although often lots of Dubonnet. This is the reason why the Brits tend to order generically–we’ve just never had this much choice.

Slightly further down the hierarchy, large scale brands like Walkabout (you guessed it, an Aussie sports bar) and Bar Risa are being supported by drinks companies (notably the joint Bacardi-Brown Forman venture and Coke CCE) to provide training, and cocktail menu design packages. These tend to be carried out by experienced operators and trainers (in this case it was my firm, IPB). These packages are supported by auditing companies that provide before and after quantitative and qualitative reports, with multiple mystery visits. By the last reckoning, cocktail sales were up in both sites (owned by Regent Inns) by approximately 700 percent and service levels were improving as well.

These operators aren’t ignoring their moral obligations either, within each of these training days, two hours are set aside to train responsible bartending (an in-depth look at alcohol, how it’s made, how the body processes it and the laws that govern its sale and consumption). With a wary eye on the crackdown by the government on happy hours and two for one offers, it’s probably a sensible gesture (although can we ever really control intoxication when we’re cramming 300 to 400 people into a late night bar?).

The UK Marriott Hotel chain is taking a global initiative, too, and as a brand that employs many part-time as well as fulltime staff, it’s a brave investment. Although internal training is no doubt rigorous, they appreciate the need to keep abreast of developments within other F & B outlets and are working exclusively with IPB on an incentive to put all their bar staff through a one day service and skills course, with two staffers from each site sitting on our four day professional bartending course (day one being a British Industry of Innkeeping (BII) accredited course–the first practical course of its kind in this country).

The course offers greater emphasis on being a salesperson of alcohol (drinks), the service aspect, knowing your product and the responsibility of your job. It is this where IPB has noticed a lack of emphasis; product knowledge and cocktail making skills are improving rapidly.

At the Bacardi-sponsored Capital Cocktail Competition, High Street bars were competing alongside style bars and doing rather well. Unfortunately it’s those sales skills that often seem to be lacking in all but the top establishments. Point of sale is greatly invested in to redress that imbalance with the head office belief that “If the staff aren’t selling, we’ll do it for them.”

The British bar has generally become better at selling itself, its marketing and branding is more intelligent, the food, music, drinks and decor are always evolving and improving, and yet we’re still working on the final piece of the puzzle, that thing you guys seem to do so well, service and sales (but not necessarily of cider).

Ben Reed is an author of many cocktail books and a director of ipbartenders ltd, the largest bartending consultancy company in the UK. He can be contacted at www.ipbartenders.com.

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