With cult cocktail bar Callooh Callay hitting its decade milestone, founder Richard Wynne caught up with Imbibe to discuss drinks lists with a difference, learning from past failings and his plans to expand the business
When Lewis Carroll penned the nonsense poem ‘Jabberwocky’ around 1870, he couldn’t have known that his made-up lexicon would one day make it into the dictionary, gracing the more loquacious among us with words like ‘chortle’ and ‘galumphing’. Likewise, when Richard Wynne drew from Carroll’s poem to launch Shoreditch bar Callooh Callay in 2008, he certainly didn’t foresee the impact his venue would have on the international cocktail scene.
Now as Callooh celebrates its 10th birthday – no small feat for any bar – it seems an appropriate time to reflect on how the whimsical wonderland of a drinking den has evolved throughout the past decade.
‘The vision for Callooh has changed over 10 years,’ Wynne tells Imbibe. ‘Originally it was a case of opening up a cool space for cool people that wasn’t a stuffy hotel or a terrible nightclub, because there wasn’t much else – especially in Shoreditch.
‘I wanted to open a place with an east London mentality to hospitality – a relaxed, easy-going, convivial vibe without a dress code that would offer a quality product.’
The menus with the most
This ‘quality product’ ended up taking the form of a quirky, inviting space complete with a room inside a wardrobe and a bar tended by some of London’s best.
It’s gained a reputation for playful menu concepts and innovative cocktails, and this creativity has become Callooh’s signature – though many other bars have followed its example. Its famous colour wheel drinks list even snagged ‘World’s Best Cocktail Menu’ at the 2012 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.
‘We never set out to produce these crazy menus,’ Wynne comments. ‘That’s something that’s evolved massively. The first menu we produced was a simple document, perfectly legible in a book. Then we decided to do it in the style of a newspaper, which led us to a Tube map. We started taking more and more employees on board who were very creative, and the ideas just kept coming.
‘My favourite menu was the sticker album. When you came into Callooh Callay for the first time, you were given a blank sticker album that was yours to keep. Every time you ordered a drink you’d get a sticker. The next time you came in, you’d bring your album and were encouraged to order different drinks to complete it.
That's what a really good menu and bar will do: give you an experience, rather than just a night out with your mates or an excuse to drink
‘We ended up having people coming in after three or four days having completed their sticker album because they were so excited about the prospect of completing the whole thing. Twenty-four drinks over three days – that’s eight drinks a night!
‘It was great for marketing, but also from a drinks perspective. You’d get someone who likes Scotch, but isn't a big vodka fan. They'd be encouraged to try vodka not because someone else says so, but because they wanted to complete their sticker album. It's like going back to being a kid. Like everything we do, it has a real childlike mentality behind it.
‘It wasn’t about going out and getting drunk, it was about a whole experience. That's what a really good menu and bar will do – give you an experience, rather than just a night out with your mates or an excuse to drink.’
Riding the learning curve
But the past 10 years hasn’t been all sticker books and Spirited Awards for Wynne. Owning an independent business has come with its fair share of challenges.
‘Without sounding like too much of a cliché, I’m constantly learning,' he says, 'everything from people management, to how to deal with a bank, to how to deal with the landlord, to negotiating. You learn from setbacks as much as success.
‘When I first opened up Callooh Callay, I didn't have any other responsibilities – no mortgage, no kids. I thought if I failed I'd just go get a job somewhere else. Now I've learned to be more responsible.
‘I had a restaurant down the road that didn't do very well at all, and the failure of that was a huge learning curve for me. It can be scary. It's about making informed decisions on risks, and taking calculated risks by making sure the calculations are down to the decimal point.’
Wynne is already working on his calculations for the future of his cocktail empire. Earlier this year, he brought on Sarah McAnulty and Jon Everid to oversee communications and creative strategy respectively for Callooh and its sister bar Little Bat. He plans to channel this momentum to open even more bars.
‘We’re looking for site number three, which will be cocktail-focused and looking into beer as well,’ he reveals. ‘Whatever we do will be a little quirky, as opposed to a normal high-street bar. We hope to do that in the middle of next year, and then by the end of 2020 hopefully open another two [venues] as well. We've got big plans.’
But he isn’t neglecting Callooh Callay itself either. He says that, at the ripe old age of 10, Callooh is in need of a bit of a refurb, though what this makeover will entail is still up for debate. In the meantime, he wants to take the bar on the road.
‘I’d like to do a UK/European tour,' he says. 'We’ve made plenty of friends over the past 10 years and we’d love to do a pop-up in Rome or Barcelona or Berlin or somewhere. At the moment everything is on the table.’