How Public went public: GM Jack Wakelin explains

Clinton Cawood

Clinton Cawood

26 July 2019

A small speakeasy in Sheffield is having a big impact throughout the country. GM Jack Wakelin told a packed crowd at Imbibe Live this year how the team have done it

He had a number of tips and stories about how this relatively new entrant on the UK bar scene (it opened November 2017), housed in a former public toilet, continues to reach beyond its local area, and is becoming something of a destination bar in its own right.

Ultimately, there’s no substitute for being a fundamentally good at what you do, which Public clearly is. There’s the sleek interior, speakeasy yet accessible attitude, an interesting yet approachable drinks offering, a sustainable approach throughout – the list goes on. But one of the things that really sets Public apart is its focus on all things local, and this has undoubtedly been a factor in the bar’s growing recognition beyond its four walls.

Keep it local

This focus on locality applies to everything from using local honey to collaborations with neighbouring businesses, all the way to being aware of your local clientele. The section in the menu entitled Public Footpath embodies all of this, summarised as ‘localism in liquid form’.

‘Sheffield is a city of makers before cocktail shakers,’ he explained, before referencing local businesses Bassett’s (yes, of Liquorice Allsorts fame), Thorntons the chocolatier, and more. As a result, a focus on its local clientele is crucial for Public, not only when it comes to catering for this audience, but when presenting their offering in an appropriate way.

‘We feel like telling stories makes it super approachable for the demographic in Sheffield. It can be hard when you don’t have a clientele that understands various ingredients, so it’s nice to have a story that they can relate to,’ Wakelin explained. ‘You might not know about hydrosols, but you can relate to fish and chips, or a Liquorice Allsort.’

One thing we wanted to do was to collaborate with as many local people as we could, to talk about their amazing businesses as well as ours

Jack Wakelin, Public

This approach affects the drinks list on the whole. ‘We want Public to be a speakeasy, but we still want it to be super approachable,’ he said. Even the section of the menu entitled Public Liability – ‘for the booze hounds and barflies’ – consists of drinks that Wakelin describes as ‘nice, easy-going and not too hard-hitting’.

To be truly inclusive, the menu includes a Public Health section consisting of non-alcoholic serves. For one drink, the team create a cordial by fermenting rhubarb for two weeks with salt, hot water and Yorkshire honey, which is then topped with soda.

Look close to home

What follows on from championing local is drawing on the best of your local area, and taking inspiration from it, whether it’s on your doorstep or in the surrounding area. Wakelin spoke of going for dinner at Michelin-starred The Black Swan in Oldstead, where a dish that incorporated chicory root inspired the use of the same ingredient in a cocktail at Public.

Taking that further, Public has worked directly with others in the local area from the outset. ‘One thing we wanted to do was to collaborate with as many local people as we could, to talk about their amazing businesses as well as ours,’ he explained.

As a result, Public’s crockery is all by Sheffield’s Grey Suit Clay, while design is by studio Totally Okay, also local in Sheffield.

Waste not

Another important thread throughout Wakelin’s talk, and something that’s critical to Public, is the idea of minimising waste, embodied in the section ‘Public Awareness – sustainable sipping’. One of the bar’s drinks Bread and Buried, incorporates unused sourdough, for example.

This approach will become even more important with the bar’s next menu, which is already in progress, and will focus on closed-loop drinks. One example Wakelin gave was boiling melted ice and adding various teas to create kombuchas for use in cocktails.

Meanwhile, closer ties with the kitchen are helping Public to reduce waste too, providing ingredients for sorbets for example. Conversely, the kitchen uses spent citrus from the bar to make a burnt oil for use in the food.

Ticking all of these boxes, from local collabs to sustainable drinking, it’s no surprise that this small cocktail bar is making waves beyond its local area in Sheffield.

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