From Edinburgh to Exeter, hordes of bartenders have been roaming the land in search of guest spots where they can show off their skills. In part one of two, Alice Lascelles looks at what makes a successful bar takeover
Takeovers have been the talk of the town this year, as bars from Manhattan to Shanghai throw open their doors to welcome roving bar talent. While some bars like Gōng at the Shard and the Bloomsbury Club Bar have become fixtures on the world circuit by hosting regular takeovers from the likes of Employees Only’s Steve Schneider, Le Lion’s Joerg Meyer and Sydney’s The Baxter Inn, others, like The Clumsies of Athens, have made a name for themselves by being almost perpetually on tour.
In 2016 alone The Clumsies brought their charismatic brand of bartending to more than 40 cities around the world, building an international fanbase and helping to put themselves on the radar of the industry’s top judging panels.
So what’s the secret to organising a successful takeover? I asked some experts for their top tips. Apparently it all starts with eating a good breakfast...
Choose the right bar to work with
If you’re a goth bar specialising in £2 tequila shots then a collab with The Savoy probably isn’t going to work (although I’d like to see someone try). Equally, there’s little point in doing a takeover with a bar that’s identical to yours – you want a bit of contrast.
The Bloomsbury Club Bar at London’s Bloomsbury Hotel has hosted takeovers by The Clumsies of Athens, New York’s BlackTail and Sydney’s The Baxter Inn, all in the last 18 months. In every case there was some kind of synergy, says head of sales and marketing for F&B, Joshua Craddock.
‘Our bar has a 1920s/30s feel with a slightly literary theme, so we thought BlackTail’s Prohibition-era Cuban theme, and all those associations with Hemingway, would work well for us,’ he says.
You don’t necessarily need pots of cash to get a world-class bar on your turf. The Dead Canary in Cardiff recently tapped up homegrown bartender Cian Phillips, formerly of Nightjar, and got him to do a guest shift during Cardiff Cocktail Week. ‘It was one of the busiest nights we’ve ever had,’ says bartender Richard Gaskell.
If you do this, though, be clear whether they’re doing it as a solo gig or under their own bar’s brand – making free with a bar’s brand without their permission is a big no-no.
‘We get a lot of requests to do takeovers and pop-ups, but money isn’t really an incentive for us,’ says Rebekkah Dooley, director of sales, marketing and events for Dead Rabbit and BlackTail, in New York. ‘We’re much more inclined to say yes to something that represents a good travel opportunity.’
By the end of this year, the Dead Rabbit team will have done more than 15 guests shifts from Edinburgh to Tel Aviv. In August, they topped this off with a 10-day residency at Claridges.
You could also think about doing a bartender exchange. Dead Canary played to the West Country crowd by hosting the team from Red Light in Bristol for a night and then doing a return shift a few weeks later. Liverpool’s hard-partying tequila bar group El Bandito has also made a name for itself in the north of England thanks to a series exchanges with bars in Leeds, Nottingham and Manchester.
‘Takeovers can be good for reaching a new audience but they’re also just a great opportunity for bartenders to exchange knowledge and learn new techniques,’ adds Craddock. ‘We’ve also found them very useful for benchmarking what you’re doing against other great bars around the world.’
Create a budget
Takeovers can be great for generating publicity, but they’re rarely money-spinners, so you’ll need to budget carefully. If you’re the host bar it will probably fall to you to cover the visiting bar team’s travel and accommodation. You might also need to print new menus, buy props to change the feel of your bar, or invest in ingredients.
When BlackTail did their four-night takeover at The Bloomsbury, they were paid the same as they would have made on tips back in New York. However The Clumsies and The Baxter Inn didn’t get paid anything. It’s up to you to negotiate.
One way to cover your costs is to secure some form of sponsorship. According to John Ennis, director of the Graffiti Spirits Group which owns El Bandito, drinks brands are now recognising how useful a takeover can be for reaching new and untapped audiences – so take advantage of that.
‘We’ve had several tequila brands come to us and say, “Would you like to do a takeover in a place people don’t usually drink tequila, and help educate their clientele?”,’ he says. ‘In that kind of situation the host venue gets the free stock and the profit – and hopefully a healthy GP, both bars get publicity, and everyone benefits from the power of three different social media. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.’
Not that all the benefit is online. A really exceptional takeover can generate a big spike in sales. When Dead Rabbit’s beverage director Jillian Vose did a recent guest shift at the Four Seasons Blue Bar in Hong Kong, she is reported to have sold two weeks’ worth of cocktails in just three days.
However you finance it, make sure that everyone involved is crystal-clear about who’s paying for what, so that there aren’t any nasty surprises further down the line. And put it all in writing.
Do your research
‘Ask lots and lots of questions,’ says Dooley. ‘What will the timing be and the duration? What volume is the venue seated and standing? How many customers are you expecting? What kind of drinks do they normally like? How many stations are there behind the bar? Do we get a bar back? Who’s going to take the money? Who’s going to seat people and greet people? Do we need to train your staff to explain our bar’s concept to your customers so that everyone’s on the same page?’
Check every last detail of the bar set-up. Check the size of the glassware, and whether they work in ounces or mls. Are the products you need to make your drinks available (or even legal) in their country? Can they get hold of block ice? And will your favourite ice saw get through customs?
Also check if they have a pouring deal, in which case are you tied to those brands, or can you find a compromise?
It’s essential you get all of these things down on a checklist, which you can then refer to every time you contemplate doing a takeover in the future.
Make a schedule
Once the date is agreed, devise a schedule that everyone can stick to. There might be extra paperwork to do like organising work visas, booking travel and accommodation. You’ll also need a good plan of attack for PR. ‘We won’t do anything outside the US without at least a three months’ lead time,’ says Dooley.
Once you’ve got a timeframe, share it with everyone involved and make sure you check in regularly. At The Bloomsbury, they have weekly meetings in the run-up to a takeover to make sure everything’s on schedule.
And build in some wriggle room. ‘We always like to be there one, two, even three days beforehand so if there’s a problem we can make sure it’s resolved before we serve any customers,’ says Dooley.