The Pleasure Garden concept might be over 300 years old, but its London reinvention is a very 21st century phenomenon. Kate Pass finds out how the Soulshakers team plan to go about making drinks for 35,000 guests
It’s been a busy year for the Soulshakers boys – they’ve revamped the drinks offering at Goodman restaurants, created an innovative cocktail list for sister venue Burger and Lobster, knocked out another two venues with the team behind Meatliquor and masterminded a number of innovative brand exercises – including the Sailor Jerry pop-up bar and music venue, Hotel Street – and that’s just the half of it.
Now though, it’s time for Soulshakers’ biggest challenge yet: London Pleasure Gardens – a 20-acre site in London’s Docklands, set to be open for three years, with a programme of visiting festivals (including Bloc, which is held on a decommissioned German warship) and a licence to sell alcohol to up to 35,000 people, 24 hours a day across 10 or 12 bars.
All of those bars will come under Soulshakers’ remit and the team is hiring 60% of the workforce from the local area. They’re drawing on a pool of people with no experience behind the stick, and shaping them into the cocktail genii of tomorrow. So, it’s just a little project then?
Sitting on the astroturf-covered roof terrace of their east London office, The Marie Lloyd pub, Soulshakers co-founder Michael Butt describes the forthcoming Pleasure Gardens as ‘harking back to Glastonbury 20 years ago, so something a little more rustic. A bit counter-culture.’ His colleague Martyn Riley – who has worked with Soulshakers for 10 years but only recently joined the team full-time to handle the project – continues: ‘When you look back at the whole history and concept of London Pleasure Gardens, it reads as a totally modern-day idea, rather than something from the 1700s. Hopefully there won’t be any opium, though…’
The project is, after all, based on a historical English phenomenon which flourished between 1660 and 1860, when pleasure gardens were dotted all around London and beyond. They were the places to see and be seen, playing host to the most exciting musical and theatrical acts of the day – one of the capital’s pleasure gardens witnessed Mozart’s English debut. Their popularity was documented by Dickens and Pepys. They served as a place where the enjoyment of nature and culture ceased to be mutually exclusive, in the same way that the London Pleasure Gardens aims to do for modern audiences.
It was through Soulshakers’ strong festival connection that it became involved with the London Pleasure Gardens in the first place. The concept was dreamt up by the team behind Glastonbury’s famous Shangri-La, which describes itself as ‘a futuristic and dystopian wonderland created by over 1,500 crew and artists… a Blade Runner-inspired urban film-set’ (really, it does).
The venue is primarily arts-based, rather than being F&B-oriented, and Butt explains: ‘We’re involved in the practical side of designing the bars, but not artistically. On past projects we’ve been told, “This is what you’re going to get.” But here there’s concern on both sides to accommodate each other. We might want the budget to help our bartenders do their job easily; whilst they might want to make the bar look…’ ‘Like the Millennium Falcon has just landed!’ interjects Riley. ‘Yes, with drinks served by Wookiees!’ Butt continues. ‘There always needs to be a balance, as we can’t spend all of the money on what goes on behind the bar.’
‘And they can’t spend all the money on the Millennium Falcon.’ Riley nods. ‘It would be easy for that situation to devolve into an argument, but it just doesn’t. It’s why we work so well together: we understand how each other works.’
This understanding between the two sides is a recurring theme, and Butt describes it as the main reason for the partnership. ‘We’ve worked with the London Pleasure Gardens team at Glastonbury for the past 10 years, and been good to them – our ways of working tie-in together nicely. They were reluctant to jump into bed with a huge company to manage the bars here, as they a) felt they’d get a bit steamrollered and b) it would become all about the money.
‘We’re not on a grand quest for money,’ Butt continues. ‘Yes it’s important, but it isn’t and shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. They’re trying to put together something great, and I think they
thought we’d be safe to work with.’
What is more unexpected, given the trouble so many venues have with their local authority, is that the pair are full of praise for Newham Council. ‘It has been very forward-thinking in its approach; helping to finance the project, for a start. Other London councils are a totally different kettle of fish and would never have been as receptive or as supportive as we have found Newham to be,’ says Butt.
‘The mayor has set out his stall and said that we need to employ 30% of our staff from the Newham area, so I’m working on that at the moment with a quite brilliant local government agency called Workplace,’ adds Riley.
‘The best thing about this agency is that all of its candidates are actively seeking work. It’s not like the job centre. They are pro-active people who really want to work. The initial screening has a 90% success rate as far as placements go. Having customer-facing experience is great, so is having hospitality experience, but it’s really all about a can-do attitude and having basic common sense. Those are things that we can work with. Experience isn’t the most important factor.’
Although the figure sits at 30% across the site, Soulshakers plans to recruit 50-60% of its opening workforce from the local area, with a view to promoting quickly and upping the figure to 90% by this time next year. They are also set on paying staff the London Living Wage of £8.30 p/h. Obviously, training will be a big part of the deal and Butt is categorical on what will be the first thing that his new charges learn: ‘The first thing we’ll teach them is the all-importance of the guest, before they learn anything about actually mixing a drink or pulling a pint.
‘The emphasis on service is going to be really important as I sometimes see, even with really high-end bartenders, that it can fall by the wayside – when putting on some kind of kabuki show takes precedence over actually serving a customer the drink they’ve ordered. More than once, I’ve almost felt seasick, just watching someone dance around behind the bar – putting all of their energy into unnecessary flourishes rather than chatting to the guest and mixing them a great drink.
‘It sometimes feels like there’s a clog in the artery of bartending,’ Butt continues. ‘There are so many well-known, brilliant bartenders at the top of the pile, and it means that progressing through the ranks can seem daunting, With this project, the mission is to bring fresh talent into the industry, to train the team thoroughly and give these guys a chance to go a long way.’
It becomes clear that the recruits will be given a solid grounding in all areas of bartending when Riley begins to discuss the drinks that will be on offer. ‘There will be bars where you can get a good pint and a mixed offer; a bar which will knock out six or seven really good cocktails, in a cup format or a jug format; there will be frozen Daiquiris from slushy machines, and there will be places to pick up a quick few cans as well. When the north-west area of the site opens there will be a higher percentage of cocktails on offer, as well as some fine wines.’
The main bar, named Blank Canvas, has a capability to sell 10,000 pints an hour, while the whole site will be producing one tonne of ice every day, so the staff will have the high-volume side of service nailed pretty quickly, too.
Butt describes the ultimate aim of the exercise as creating a fleet of super-slick Soulshakers-style bartenders: ‘At the end of this project, I want our staff to say, “Right, I’m off to get a job in a cocktail bar, and I’m going to give Michael Butt as a reference.” I want them to know enough about making the customer happy, to be more of a sales person than just an order-taker, and to take with them some really great product knowledge across all of the categories.
‘We want these guys to be fully-fledged bartenders by the end of the project, and more than that, to be good bartenders. That’s the goal, and what’s more, it’s probably – in our eyes at least, the most exciting part of the whole project.’
London Pleasure Gardens, in a nutshell
- LPG possesses a 24-hour licence for up to 35,000 – not that the intention is to use it. Initially, at least, the venue will be hired out for events, rather than open as a stand-alone venture.
- There will be an on-site hotel, with each room an airstream caravan on stilts of varying heights.
- Plans are in motion to launch a floating cocktail bar and soul-food shack, as well as an oyster and champagne bar.
- There will be regular film screenings, with the video projected onto the side of an old mill.
- There are three main bar/club venues at LPG: the 1,000-capacity Dome; the 2,800-capacity Hub ‘dance arena’ and the main bar, Blank Canvas, which can host up to 27,000 revellers.
- There is a busy schedule of events, being held at London Pleasure Gardens, throughout the summer.