A lot of people daydream about it, but some have actually done it. Tom Sandham talks to five bartenders about what it’s like to up sticks and start a bar abroad
Spring was wet. Summer was a washout. Autumn wasn’t much better. And now it’s winter. Last year
was full of grey clouds that, like the sagging bags under the eyes of idiot-box X Factor contestants, were ready to empty at a moment’s notice.
Bad weather is a godsend for bars, particularly in the bid to entice customers into warm snugs over Christmas. But the New Year is slow and during the bleak mid-winter, when time is passed by flicking peanuts at empty glasses, some will dream the Tom Cruise dream: opening a bar abroad – ‘Aruba, Jamaica ooh I wanna take ya. Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama, Key Largo, Montego…’ and so on.
Some have done more than dream though – they ran out of peanuts and instead flicked the Vs at the inclemency of the Great British weather, left on a jet plane, and set up shop by a sunny shore. There are others, less afraid of the weather but equally determined to find a new challenge, who have opened bars in New York, and even Paris.
Here are five of their stories.
THE BEACH BAR
What: Hidden Bar
Who: Chris Edwardes
Why: Edwardes and his wife Amanda Blanch sold their businesses in Brighton and then went to open a bar for someone in Ibiza. While there, they realised they wanted to stay and do their own thing…
‘We discovered the site whilst walking the dog on our favourite beach last Christmas. We noticed a magical overgrown garden behind a high fence, with what appeared to be a crazy golf course.
The first hurdle was finding out who owned it – then it was a case of patience. It took two months of investigation, then another three months to negotiate an agreeable contract. After that, the challenges were budgetary. We had to turn a jungle into a viable business with virtually no money and a very limited amount of time. It took a great deal of help from friends and family.
It wasn’t easy to achieve. I was getting up at 8.30am, sweeping the golf holes and terrace, cleaning the toilets, opening the bar, then at lunchtime I became cocktail bartender, waiter, runner, barback and kitchen porter. There is a price to pay for paradise…
But neither of us can imagine a bar anywhere in the world that comes close to being more perfect. There’s a three-room shack that’s our home, an octagonal wooden bar, a retro 18-hole crazy golf course (well 17, as for some reason there is no hole 16), a giant chess set, a vintage ten-pin bowling alley, table football, table tennis and a football goal. It feels slightly surreal waking up every day to this magical, charming, quirky garden – a bit like stepping into Alice’s Wonderland.’
Serving: Cocktails, high tea with cocktail-inspired cupcakes and British tapas.
THE CARRIBEAN CRIB
What: The Cliff Lounge
Who: Julien ‘Papa Jules’ Gualdoni
Why: Gualdoni had left Mahiki in London and was travelling to Barbados with Mahiki Rum. He met the owner of the award-winning Cliff restaurant who asked him to convert the upstairs lounge into a bar.
‘I moved here because I needed to be somewhere tropical and living the island life: where the sun shines every day, the sea is turquoise blue and warm and is a big part of your life.
The move was exciting but challenging and risky. As a rule, people like to stay in their comfort zone, but you sometimes need to spice up life to get closer to true happiness. The hardest part was to give up all I had (selling the house, quitting my job) without any solid plan, but it’s when you have nothing to hold you back that opportunities pop up. If you are free to go anywhere, you can pick and choose.
Barbados became a real opportunity a few weeks after I quit London. I was already going there and was planning to visit The Cliff. I knew the owner and he asked me if I wanted to do something with the lounge bar: It took us a few months to get the papers in order,
but here we are.
‘The market in Barbados is where we were in the UK 10 years ago – we don’t have a huge choice of spirits and ingredients. There is a drinking culture – particularly rum-based drinks – but not so much a trend towards elaborate cocktails. Being a bartender still isn’t considered a real profession yet, unlike in the UK, and training sessions are hard to come by. I help wherever I can to get the bar community together, so Barbados as an island will be able to offer quality drinks to foreign visitors.’
Serving: Lots of local produce in drinks – coconut water, tamarind, soursop, mango and local rum. ‘I do have a lot of Americans drinking classics, while Europeans tend to go more for the flavour combinations.’
A PARISIAN PROJECT
What: Bar Le Coq
Who: Tony Conigliaro, with Marcis Dzelzainis, Thierry Daniel and Eric Fossard
Why: Having enjoyed success in London with 69 Colebrooke Row and ZTH, Conigliaro wanted to open a Parisian bar, designed to capture some of the glamour of the 1970s when Yves St Laurent, Jane Birkin and Marianne Faithfull were stars of the city.
‘We love Paris, it has a great bar scene and when you come here you realise there are plenty of
new ingredients to play with. Also, our partners Thierry Daniel and Eric Fossard live there.
The obvious challenges anyone has when coming to a new city is learning how the system works and understanding the bureaucracy of licencing laws. Obviously, business matters are conducted in French, and so the biggest challenge will be improving my French language skills. But we were fortunate to have French people in our team, so this wasn’t the barrier it might be for others. Eric and Thierry have years of experience working in the drinks industry – they run Liquid Liquid, a communication agency, specialising in liquid events. They also run the Paris Bar Show, so are well equipped to take this on, and obviously if you’re opening a bar abroad, it helps to have a local on board when dealing with the administrative challenges.
What has surprised me most about the move here is how dynamic Paris is right now. The city feels like London did years ago. New things are happening there and it feels vibrant and fresh. We want to be a part of that and hopefully the bar’s 1970s feel will bring something new to Paris and the bar scene globally.’
Serving: Drinks that incorporate Conigliaro’s insights into science and flavour and also reflect elements of French drinks: perfume, and literary traditions. They’re apparently ‘infused with the vrai esprit Parisien’.
THE BIG APPLE BAR
What: The Dead Rabbit
Who: Sean Muldoon with Jack McGarry
Where: New York
Why: Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry had achieved worldwide recognition with the bar at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast, but found the opportunities to go further were limited – so they set sail for the centre of the cocktail world.
‘There is a cocktail culture over here that exists amongst bartenders and consumers and that I fail to see anywhere else. My thoughts are that you can be the best anywhere else in the world, but you’re not truly the best in the world until you come here and do it.
The biggest challenge has been learning how everything over here works. I was told this would likely take six months to happen… it has taken two years. Finding the right site, choosing the right partners – and generally having to develop a level of patience that I never thought was possible.
‘We wanted something specific: a mid-19th century-style Irish/New York drinking saloon that was particular to the area and era of the city. Housed in a landmark building dating to 1828, it combines a ground-floor neighbourhood taproom serving craft beer, bottled punch and Irish whiskey, with a refined first-floor cocktail parlour that will offer 72 cocktails inspired by the period, as well as sharing punches.
‘Even though the process of opening a bar has been long and fraught with difficulty at times, the people here have accepted us as their own. We feel we are representing New York by doing this.’
Serving: ‘Vodka and tequila are the two biggest-selling spirit categories over here and we don’t have any drinks made with either on our upstairs menu. On our menu, in order to be truly representative of the era, the drinks are brown spirit- and fortified wine-led.’
What: Bar 1805
Who: Charles Vexenat
Why: Vexenat had been travelling with work and discovered an opportunity for a pop-up bar in Ibiza, so took the chance to open a site.
‘I actually found it very easy to set up a company in Spain – I was offered the opportunity to rent a site that was 80% ready to go. It was a short-term lease, we could run it for 180.5 days only – hence the name – but I could see what was possible there and knew it would get great international exposure.
Ibiza is an appropriate place to open a bar because it has a great history with crafting herbal spirits and liqueurs like absinthe or the local hierbas, so it fitted in with my areas of interest.
The biggest challenge was to take the site and open a pop-up bar in just 10 days, with a look and feel we were happy with. The red tape wasn’t an issue, we had all the EU regulations in order. But there were other challenges – we were due to open the bar on the 6 April and only signed the lease for the site the day before. Then, on the same day, we had a huge hailstorm, which resulted in the bar flooding – not ideal one day before opening. The other bar owners in town told us it was a sign of good luck for the season!
‘I was surprised by people’s enthusiasm for the absinthe drip and cocktails, especially the Green Beast (an absinthe and lime punch) – the absinthe fountain was a total magnet. It was one of the many successes of the project and I’m keen to do more. I’m going to carry on travelling the world and making cocktails for different clients, but the show must go on for Bar 1805. We are currently looking
for another site in Ibiza for 2013.’
Serving: Absinthe in everything.