In a year that saw the closures of a number of big-name bars, JJ Goodman launched the 10th outpost of his prolific London Cocktail Club (LCC) chain in the very same space that once housed the beloved Worship Street Whistling Shop. He took his empire outside of London for the first time, opening a bar in Bristol. He published a book...
As 2019 picks up speed, Goodman plans to open another LCC in Clapham in the spring, with an eye to other UK cities, too. How is LCC flourishing in the midst of challenging times for the bar industry? Imbibe sat down with Goodman to find out
JJ Goodman has big plans – not only for his 10-strong London Cocktail Club chain, but for the bar industry as a whole.
Since founding LCC 10 years ago, Goodman and his business partner James Hopkins have developed a formula for success: unpretentious hospitality, quaffable cocktails (possibly garnished with Haribo and biscuits), and a party-ready atmosphere.
This formula is in full swing as Imbibe meets with Goodman on a Friday night at his underground Covent Garden bar, the original location of the LCC empire. He greets everyone with a bear hug and immediately takes cocktail requests over the thumping music.
He shows off a roulette machine that helps guests choose the ingredients for a Martini. He offers a Magic 8 Ball made specifically for LCC that fates the shaker to body shots, Cock-Sucking Cowboy cocktails and other dubious-sounding beverages. It’s clear that Goodman knows how to craft a good night out.
But beyond the bells and whistles and Flaming Sambucas, the core of his approach is straightforward.
‘The more people we can encourage into cocktail culture, the better for cocktail bars,’ he says. Above all, Goodman seems to have an undeniable commitment to accessibility. And these are interesting times for a man who’s made accessibility his calling card.
With Brexit looming and the hospitality workforce facing great strain, he sees the ‘A’ word as more crucial than ever – in cocktails, from a consumer perspective, and in education, from a bartender perspective. He believes it's what has helped LCC to thrive, and it has the potential to transform the bartending profession nationally by bringing in more talent.
Drink what you know
Accessibility at LCC starts with the menu. ‘Accessibility [in terms of flavour profile] is incredibly important in our cocktails,’ says Goodman. ‘I strongly believe that, in every menu that we write, 50% of our drinks should be extremely accessible. That could be a Mojito, French Martini or a Clover Club.’
Goodman doesn’t feel that innovation and accessibility are mutually exclusive. ‘Our innovation style comes from twisting classics. We've not limited ourselves creatively, [but] we list our creative drinks at the back [of our menu].
Of course, crafting an accessible cocktail offering isn’t all about the menu development. The trade’s tastes, he believes, are outside of accessibility, and bartenders need to accommodate the palates of a broader demographic.
‘As bartenders we work with alcohol and citrus all the time, so our palates are used to dry, heavy, bitter beverages,’ explains Goodman. ‘When bartenders are making a Daiquiri consistently, you'll find them going a little more acidic and a little dryer [than guests want]. You have to come in and go, “You need more dilution” and “You need to pull back on your citrus”.
‘We want people to say, “This is the best Mojito I've had, but while I'm here let me try something new too.” Then we have that consistent culture of bringing people back.’
Goodman credits the chain’s impressive cocktail sales to this mix of accessibility and consistency – he reports that LCC has an 85% sales mix of cocktails to other drinks. ‘Most cocktail bars have a sales mix of between 50% and 60% max, everything else is wine and beer. The accessibility element is increasing cocktail sales for us.’
Education for the trade
While many venues may not boast the sales mix of LCC, cocktails are, indeed, on the rise nationally. An estimated 8.7m consumers drink cocktails outside the home, and on-trade cocktail sales jumped 7.5% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2018 (CGA). Numbers like these are promising for the future of cocktails – but as approachable flavour profiles make cocktails more popular, the glaring need for well-trained bartenders becomes apparent.
‘Inevitably if there's a larger awareness of mixed drinks or cocktails, we're going to continue to see the cocktail industry grow. We need bartenders to be able to make that happen,’ Goodman urges.
‘Big hotels and restaurants are now scrambling for talent to be able to fill the needs of their guests. [The industry] simply will not have the ability to produce the drinks that the consumer is demanding within the next 12 months. The education system doesn't have the facility for training [how to make] mixed drinks or bartending.’
To this end, Goodman has undertaken a number of education-focused projects, with the goal of setting up a government-funded programme for bartender training. He’s been in talks with Prince’s Trust, working on their Get Hired recruitment schemes, and collaborating with other charity partners. Ultimately, he’s calling for a two-tiered approach comprised of a more general apprenticeship programme, as well as a diploma-level certification, covering topics such as classic cocktails, spirits production, customer service and beyond.
'I'm obsessed with the idea of someone walking through the door with no experience, and there being a pathway that they can go down to learn how to get the keys to their first premises, learning everything from how to polish a glass to how to forecast an R01.'
And just as important as putting these programmes in place, is ensuring that they’re available to everyone who needs them.
‘If you're going to do an apprenticeship it would be elitist if it wasn't designed to work in every bar in the country. If the government could take on that philosophy, then everyone in the industry would be able to get access to that personal career progression.’
A government programme hasn’t yet become official. However, true to his calling card, Goodman has already rolled out a revamped e-learning training programme at LCC in the hope that it can work on a larger scale.
‘We're slowly working on making [our internal programme] fit inside the [requirements for a government-sponsored] apprenticeship programme,’ Goodman explains. ‘So if the time came to make our training programme nationally available, it could happen.’
Such a plan certainly dovetails nicely with LCC's plans for expansion. But he knows that, to truly make an impact, any education programme must reach further than the well-equipped bars of LCC.
'The real test is dropping the training programme into somewhere the culture doesn't exist and having them adopt it,' says Goodman. 'There should be an umbrella of information available to everybody.'