Trailer Happiness at 15: Imbibe talks to Sly Augustin

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Location: England, UK

Fifteen years is the equivalent of a glacial period in the world of bars; not many businesses make it that far. But Trailer Happiness, the small tiki basement in Notting Hill, is turning this landmark age this week.

To celebrate, we’ve come to the venue to sit underneath its murals and drink rum cocktails, while catching up with owner Sly Augustin about the journey so far. Not that he’s always owned it – this is the tale of how a regular customer fell in love with a bar and decided to save it.

‘Trailer Happiness has been passed around like an old maid!’ he says with a laugh. ‘First it was Canvas bar, and I met and had drinks with the guy who built it. He was an investment guy. He built everything that’s here and he sunk a fortune into it. The door handles are still the Cs of Canvas, and the floor was white and the seats were cream leather.’

Canvas failed, and it was a certain Jonathan Downey who took it over and decided the site would make an excellent tiki bar, which he renamed Trailer Happiness.

‘He thought this would make a great tiki bar, when tiki was completely out of vogue,’ Augustin recalls. ‘In the UK you had Trader Vic and that was it. It was genius, because that element of escapism, sociability and warmth that’s associated with tiki sparked a resurgence of tiki in the UK, and that reflected back to the US. I don’t want to say that Trailer Happiness is solely responsible for this, but it’s had a big impact.

‘And now you look around, and tiki sensibilities are in all bars, whether it’s Dandelyan or Artesian, they’ve all got a bit in there.’

Downey gave the bar to his colleague Rick Weakley, and after a number of years, the bar was almost sold off to a coffee chain in 2012.

Through all these owners, Augustin was drinking at the bar. ‘Trailer Happiness treated me like absolute royalty whenever I came in,’ he says. ‘That was the real value in this place, and that was why I didn’t hesitate to sink all my life savings into this place.’

The tiki dream team

With a background in events and graphic design, Augustin perhaps wasn’t the best placed to keep the bar afloat. Thankfully, he teamed up with industry veterans Paul McFadyen and Rich Hunt.

‘I knew Paul because he was someone I would just see at Trailer’ Augustin explains. ‘I knew that he was close and part of the family unit. He found out that I might have the financial resources to buy it, and he came to me with a business plan and introduced me to Rich Hunt, who was also interested in getting involved.

‘It was like a shotgun wedding, nine days later we signed the documents.’

The last six years have been a steep learning curve from Augustin, who has had to deal with all manner of calamities, including a car driving into the side of their building.

‘My initial dream was to be this investor guy who got to enjoy the fruits of his labour, entertain and host people and make loads of money, because we all know that bars make millions of pounds!’ he says with a laugh.

‘It’s weird, because as a consumer, you get to enjoy the magic you don’t need to question how the trick is performed. That was a learning curve, that these tricks don’t magically appear. The actual mechanics behind everything was quite interesting, but the amount of cash you’d have to spend in order to make cash just in ingredients was really impressive. That’s not even taking rents and rates into account. You have to understand plumbing, electrics and rent. It now feels pretty basic, but at that point it was so overwhelming.’

What kept him going was the support from a number of people in the industry.

‘I remember Marc Plumridge [of Bacardi]giving us some old stock that he had lying around, and it was a small gesture, but for us in that moment, it was the difference,’ he recalls. ‘We weren’t quite up to speed yet, and we’d invested heavily in a business that needed a lot of love. You need to have a certain amount of “shit that’s broken” cash, and that was something I wasn’t aware of.

‘Jake Burger was also an absolutely massive support, not just in terms of providing physical things, but from a mental perspective too.’

Raising the bar for inclusivity

Fortunately, there have been plenty of highs to counteract the lows. From the opening night, when Augustin managed to ride his bike into a parked car’s wing mirror after the celebrations, to Trailer being named the Best High Volume Cocktail Bar at the Spirited Awards.

‘I think my bar is the best bar in the world, so I’d expect to win any award that we’re up for,’ he states. ‘But obviously there’s a part of you that thinks maybe not. We’re a small independent bar and, since 2012, this bar has existed out of my pockets.

‘If something needs to be fixed and the money isn’t in the account, there’s no one to go to. So from that point it’s easy to suffer from a little bit of an inferiority complex, and when I see people spending money on menu development… I’d have to spend that money refurbing my bar.’

But what Trailer lacks in funds to plough back into the business, it makes up for in its alumni. ‘Most of the guys that have worked here have gone on to do incredible things. If you were to trace the family tree of Trailer Happiness, it would spread across the world,’ Augustin enthuses.

‘Really I’m a custodian. My job is to keep Trailer Happiness safe and alive. This is where you grow great bartenders, the history of this place is magnificent, and the love that people have for this bar is incredible. This bar has been massively important to the industry.’

For Augustin, it’s the aim of creating a bar that’s open to all and firmly rooted in the Notting Hill community that keeps him going.

‘My community is absolutely everyone. There are people with a lot of money and those without very much, but they’re all treated the same,’ he explains.

‘The mere fact that we don’t outprice people and don’t have a VIP section is a terrible business model. I could probably make twice as much money if I did that. I had a meeting with an investment guy, and he said “I could make this bar so much money. We’d have queues down the street. We’d focus on champagne.”

‘That’s shit, and it’s not a 15-year business model. They’d maybe queue for the new hot place, and then after a while they’d go elsewhere.

‘That’s the choice we made, where we sacrifice profit for inclusivity. I believe, in the long run, there’ll be some reward for it. The only reason that I’m here and talking to you now is because Trailer Happiness is 100% inclusive. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have been a regular and bought it. I could never make a rational decision about this bar, because I love it too much.’

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Laura Foster

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