Opinion: Bartenders are leaving the capital

Michael Butt

28 June 2016

That sound you can hear? It’s bartenders leaving the capital, says Michael Butt

Is London broken? I’m sure that you’ve already read a number of ‘articles’ (otherwise known as clickbait) asking the very same question, but as reading the latter paragraphs of this column doesn’t influence ad revenue it is probably worth examining the issue from our perspective.

I’m not talking about the narrowing gap between a hospitality worker’s take-home pay and their rental outgoings, although this is worthy of another re-enforcing ‘serious face’ column. Rather, I am talking about commercial rents, which, from where I’m sitting, are becoming an increasingly large problem.

It is part of the accepted venture capitalist-funded roll-out model for bar, restaurant and retail chains to have loss-leading venues as part of their estate, with swathes of previously independent, prime central London filled with flagships for fashion retail and Pret.

Understanding the value of these venues in terms of marketing consciousness is easy, but it doesn’t change the fact that, because landlords are able to achieve sky-high rent for them, it is now utterly impossible to open a profitable, independent, liquor-focused establishment in the centre of the city.

As city-centre sites get snapped up by the latest hedge fund-owned casual dining concepts, so London starts to lose its sheen as a destination for tourists. It used to be only the Aberdeen Steakhouses that friends needed to be reminded to avoid; butnow, beyond the pockets of individuality that remain, much of the brilliance that is usually only provided in owner-operator-controlled businesses has been lost.

London’s streets are paved not with gold but rather Morley’s chicken boxes

The evidence of this is most aptly demonstrated within a couple of miles of Trafalgar Square. The area I’m referring to is called West London, and I imagine that, during many cocktail safaris, the appointed Mufasa will point and tell drinkers never to go there.

The red-trouser brigade has almost entirely missed out on the cocktail revolution, abandoning all effort as soon as they could drink a blue Cosmo out of Berlusconi’s head, and ignoring the great selection of venues that require a little more in the way of eastbound travel.

London living exacerbates the strangely introverted nature of the bar industry. The hours are long and awkward, and, along with transport and residential scatter, this means the London bartender tends to be swallowed up in ‘the scene’.

This insularity in an idea-generating population has led to Crufts-like levels of creative inbreeding. Forced to live on top of each other, there’s petty squabbling over silly issues and pointless minutiae – they’re like battery hens that need to have their beaks clipped.

Are we to be upset about this? To rail, Johnson-like, about being tired of life? Not a bit of it. The aforementioned clickbait will no doubt proselytise about how, if you abandon the Big Smoke, you can live 15 minutes from work, buy a house, enjoy the benefits of a thriving city centre – with almost a complete absence of clip-joint steakhouses – and probably have a garden.

In other words, have a real life...

With teams of second-generation brand ambassadors travelling the country delivering high-quality information to groups of young bartenders who actually turn up to events; and the streaming of talks, competitions and seminars to audiences wherever there’s internet, there is no need to follow Dick Whittington, only to find that London’s streets are paved not with gold but Morley’s chicken boxes. Bartender development can happen at home.

Change is coming: bartenders are leaving – heading back to Bath and Bristol, Leicester and Leeds, as well as, more traditionally, Brisbane and Bratislava, Leipzig and Lisbon, taking with them the very best bits of London’s combined bar knowledge, ready to create wonderful, individual and independent venues in the fertile and uncrowded parts of
our green and pleasant land. Bacchus be praised.


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