So long Piccadilly: The guys leaving London

23 May 2017

Soaring prices and a diminished quality of life mean that a growing number of bartenders are choosing to leave the capital to set up their own venues. Isabella Sullivan talks to some who’ve made the switch

Danny Murphy, Liverpool
Formerly of: Met Bar, Como Hotel
Now owns: Berry & Rye, Jenny’s, Some Place, Aloha and Furnival’s Well (pictured on the right) in Liverpool

‘London isn’t the only city with a lot of things going on…’

‘I grew up in Liverpool and spent most of my formative years training there, but took the opportunity to move to London when I had it. I worked as head bartender of the Met Bar, and I had no plans to move back up north, but then I had a chance to open up my own bar.

‘A guy who worked for Bacardi asked me to be his partner. It was easier to move back to open my own place and carry on my career. I have knowledge of Liverpool and an understanding of the people and the place.

Furnival's Well
Furnival's Well

‘When opening a business, one of the aims is to find somewhere competitive from a rental perspective, to make operational costs lower. It was also easier to find a quirky smaller venue, as Liverpool has a lot of big bars and chains.

‘When we moved back up, a lot was happening. Liverpool had just been crowned European capital of culture and there was a real injection of life into the city – London isn’t the only city with a lot of things going on! There was a growth in tourism and the economy and a shift in the ways bars were opening.

‘I came back to the city with different eyes in January 2010, and we opened Aloha in April. There were less snazzy, showy venues and ones with more soul. Post-2008, there was a growth in independent places. Before that, there was no way that a shabby east London-style venue would work here, but now you can have elements of shabbiness and get away with it.

‘Before moving to London, bartenders would say to me, “You’ll love it down there”. It was made out to be a place where everything’s amazing, and I think that was proved wrong. They weren’t that far ahead of Liverpool. Things move forward a lot quicker [in the capital], but that’s about it.

‘When I moved back up to Liverpool guys were drinking cocktails and not getting rinsed; classic cocktails and fresh ingredients were overtaking mixers and Mojitos. The culture was developing and we were helping it develop, it was exciting.’

So hot in Liverpool right now...
1. Gin: Thanks in no small part to a gin named after the city.
2. Craft Beer: Is big. Craft cider isn’t quite there yet, but thankfully it’s past the Magners phase.
3. Ethical: Low intervention and biodynamic wines are now popping up on bar and restaurant lists. 

Neil Donachie
Formerly of: The American Bar at The Savoy
Now owns: Shilling in Newcastle

‘You can live a good quality of life for near enough minimum wage…’

‘I’m originally from Durham, but moved to Newcastle for university and started working in bars there. People are starting to take notice of Newcastle. It has one of the largest densities of students in the country, one of the biggest nightlife scenes, and people have a higher disposable income because rent is so much cheaper and house prices are very low.

‘I knew I couldn’t come back here and open anything too conceptual, but that isn’t what I wanted to do anyway. There’s always room in Newcastle for a new high-volume bar. We’re a volume-based city – lots of beers, lots of cocktails.

‘What was important was to open a place where people could have fun, get a drink as good as they could in London, and quickly, but not be intimidated in any way. With Shilling, we wanted to be one of the first bars to open in the city that was up to industry level, with London service and style.

‘My quality of life is much higher. I now rent a two-bedroom flat, 20 minutes’ walk from the bar I work in, for the same price as a room 40 minutes from the American Bar at The Savoy when I lived in London. There’s real pressure financially for bartenders in London, and that pressure isn’t experienced here. You can live a good quality
of life for near enough minimum wage.

‘In London I worked over 50 hours quite consistently. People here do 40 hours, or less. There’s more time to do things for yourself, and it’s a nicer environment to live in. I do miss the professional drive in London, but that’s about it. Home ownership also becomes a much more tangible thing to achieve.

‘I see my friends a lot more, I feel more relaxed. I prefer the situation I am in now, I wouldn’t have the financial ability to do this in London, and the level of competition would also scare me. I do miss bartending in London, but this is where I wanted to go from there.’

So hot in Newcastle right now...
1. Local craft beer: This is big in Newcastle right now, people are experimenting with beers they wouldn’t normally have access to, due to a rise in craft beer bars.
2. Coffee: Craft local coffee is also taking a front seat. There is more care going into what people are drinking,
whether it’s soft or alcoholic.
3. Gin & prosecco: In terms of drinks categories, gin and prosecco are really dominating the Geordie market.

Louis Xavier Lewis-Smith

Formerly of: Milk & Honey, Hendrick’s brand ambassador
Now owns: The Dark Horse, Bath

‘We thought finding a good team might be a challenge, but that turned out to absolutely not be the case…’

‘To me, London is smelly and aggressive. I think unless you’re a millionaire it’s a pretty poor quality of life. I’m from Pembrokeshire originally, but lived in Bristol for around 10 years before moving to London.

‘I did have some great times there, met some of my best friends and it was great for my career. But in terms of lifestyle, it’s not for me. I get much more from life down here. Beautiful countryside, clean air, people who are very warm and friendly.

‘The only challenge we thought might come up with opening a venue in Bath was finding a great team, as there is a smaller pool of passionate bartenders. But that turned out to be absolutely not the case. We have an amazing team.

‘It’s all about the things that make up the whole. I have a log fire, I live on a river, it’s peaceful and relaxing, it’s like country life but it still has the benefits of the city. There’s still vibrancy and things to do, it’s the best of both worlds.

‘The Bath scene is evolving, it’s quite a small town and in terms of bars it hasn’t yet had its revolution, but it’s coming... We’re starting to see more ambassadors and reps coming down to visit us at The Dark Horse and more interest from the industry. The seeds are planted and it’s starting to bear fruit.

‘One of the things I set out to do with The Dark Horse was to create a space for grown-ups, as it’s a town with a big student and hen party culture – and a bar like ours was something the bar scene in Bath was really lacking.

‘Bath is rising now, and I think within the next 12-18 months we’ll see more venues opening and the evolution of the town. I hope we’ve played our part in kick-starting this evolution.’

So hot in Bath right now...
1. Craft beer: The South-West is big on brewing. All the beers and ciders at The Dark Horse are brewed in The South-West, or if you want to go uber-craft head to Hunter & Sons or The Brewhouse.
2. Whisk(e)y: With the opening of The Hideout and its revamped whisky list (it took four months to write), scotch and bourbon are big. They sell more than gin or vodka.
3. Local sourcing: Lewis-Smith hopes more bars will follow his lead on sourcing. ‘We have so many incredible producers on our doorstep here, it’s one of the best places on the planet for tasty fresh produce.’ Watch this space?

James Andrews

Formally of: Square Mile Coffee Roasters
Now owns: Champion Bottles & Taps in Heaton, Newcastle

‘As a small business we had more chance of setting up and surviving outside of London…’

‘My initial reason for moving to London was to get experience. I lived in Newcastle after university from 2009 to 2013, then moved down. I joined coffee roasters Square Mile and helped with the opening of a new café, which was a collaboration with the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch.

‘We had wanted to open a place while I was in London, but decided to put it on hold until I was back as my wife Ellen and I were buying a flat together. She’s from Newcastle and has a good career here, so we decided the best plan was for me to move back here and then we could get the shop up and running. I moved back to Newcastle in August 2015.

‘We were able to start up on a lot less money, and there was a lower risk with setting up the business. Moving away from the big city was also better for our salaries, our living costs have drastically gone down. We’re both older now, over 30, so this lifestyle suits us better, it makes what we do a more sustainable career.

‘We only opened in January. It was all about finding the right location. We thought Heaton would be a great place. The city is a welcoming and smaller community, everyone is really friendly. What we realised about Newcastle is that it is a great scene for craft beer. Everyone is really passionate and it’s a lot more rewarding to work in this environment; people appreciate it more.

‘We love sourcing harder to find beers that wouldn’t normally be found up north, and bringing them to people who wouldn’t get to try them. It’s a real buzz.

‘I do prefer life in Heaton to London. London feels too big, I can nip out for a drink here and run into mates, or make last-minute plans. It’s a lot more social, I’m able to do more things without trekking 40 minutes or so, when I was so short on time in the day.’

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