With an output of two million drinks per year across 40 bar outlets – and no signs of dwindling – Street Feast is clearly keeping up with London’s increasingly demanding clientele. Millie Milliken spoke to its Wine and Drinks Bosses, Aaron Jolley and Kevin Armstrong, to talk building a bar, education and the future of the industry
The concept of cocktails in car parks (and beer and wine for that matter) is not a new one. That’s thanks to hospitality behemoth Street Feast, whose arrival onto the food and drink scene in 2012 disrupted how consumers view the traditional dining- and drinking-out format – less starter, main, dessert, more mix and match. It also brought with it a new way of drinking, with those in search of the latest craft beer sated in the same space as those more at home with a Coravin.
Backed by London Union, Street Feast has some of the industry’s most revered names behind it, from Yottam Ottolenghi and Nigella Lawson, to Giles Coren and Soho House’s Nick Jones. And its founder, Jonathan Downey, put his trust in two of London’s most seasoned experts to make sure all 40 of his bar outlets reflect and mould the city’s drinking needs: Aaron Jolley (the Wine Boss) and Kevin Armstrong (the Drinks Boss).
Setting the bar
‘I’ve been with Street Feast since the beginning,’ Jolley tells me over a glass of Moobuzz Pinot Noir (Monterey County, 2013) at Winerama in Old Street. With over 15 years’ experience under his belt, having worked in some of London’s most reputable restaurants (including Simon Rogan’s Roganic) he was unsurprisingly a key part in the development of the numerous wine bar concepts within Street Feast.
‘It was so refreshing to come and see good living in a car park. I had started a company called Winyl [curating good wines with music] so I was acting a bit like a supplier initially.’ On taking over the wine programme, Jolley was staunch on predominantly using two main suppliers: Berry Bros and Rudd (for fine wines and luxury champagnes, ‘plus access to some of their reserve menus’) and Roberson, which has its own urban winery in SW6.
Of course, wine isn’t the main pour for Street Feast. Enter Armstrong. Responsible for deciding what drinks the bars serve, where and how they serve them, his 20-plus years of experience as a bartender and owner (most notably of Satan’s Whiskers) goes some way to explain how Street Feast can offer such a thorough spread of drinking experience as well as flawless service.
It’s not 'us v them' anymore. That culture is, thankfully, dying
‘40% of everything we sell is beer, 15% is wine. Most of the other bars are spirit led,’ he breaks down for me. ‘To cater for people’s needs we've made sure to have a phenomenal craft beer selection [especially in German Sex Dungeon], which is on par with [the calibre] of our gin outlets.’
As well as catering for growing consumer tastes, Armstrong has the added challenge of delivering anything from large amounts of draught beer to Negronis on tap. ‘When you’re working with high volume, it’s important to deliver top class beer and cocktails in the same bar.’
Armstrong’s summer drinks trends for 2019
Let there be lager
‘Before the craft beer movement, lager reigned champion and we’re betting on a renaissance this year. In a sea of... flavours such as doughnut pale ale and mint chocolate stout, it will be a welcome relief... I’d recommend Amos, a beautifully balanced Czech pilsner from north London micro-brewery Bohem and the Frontier lager from Fuller’s.’
‘Tequila’s smokier sister, mezcal, is finally getting her moment, and we’re okay with it. This smoky, complex agave-based spirit... creates the perfect base for cocktails whether it’s an easy drinking fruit-based tipple or a heady mash up with whiskey. For a refreshing summer beverage recreate Giant Robot’s House Margarita – muddle cucumber and shake with mezcal, simple syrup and lemon juice.’
Bitter is better
'Distinctly sophisticated and warming, bitter spirits such as Martini Bitter, Fernet Branca and of course Aperol, will again feature heavily across menus this year. Bartenders are working magic with bitter spirits, balancing them with a little sweetness... to make them more accessible. For an easy drinking foray into bitter, try the Italian Greyhound cocktail at Dinerama – a mix of Star of Bombay, pink grapefruit, Martini Bitter and lemon.’
Education, education, education
Education – on both sides of the bar – is also having an ever-increasing impact on the drinks industry. Jolley has seen a sizeable change when it comes to knowledge around wine. ‘There’s definitely more knowledge with wine. We can put Picpoul on the menu now and people know what it is because there is more access.’
It’s not just wine varieties that are evolving on the menus either. The Dinerama menu includes a section called ‘Plus Size’ for 1.5l bottles, showcasing the growing interest in larger formats. Under the counter menus and ‘Vin Cave’ sections are also on offer – not something you normally see in casual-dining venues.
The relationship between the customer and the bartender is also changing. ‘It’s not “us vs them” anymore. That culture is, thankfully, dying. We’re casual elegance. There’s a democratisation in what we do.’
All staff across the venues are trained to WSET level two, and there’s an open learning environment with access to regular tastings, trips and training: ‘We’re incubating the next generation of bartenders,’ says Jolley proudly.
Armstrong is adamant that they’ve had a proactive rather than reactive effect on their customers tastes too. ‘We’ve been advocates of single spirit bars for years,’ he says in recognition of the public’s growing interests in more and more variants of singular spirits. Hawker Houses’s Bar Contra puts rum and tequila head-to-head while its Gin Kitchen allows guests to make their own G&Ts. Meanwhile, Dinerama’s Funken Pumper champions vodka Redbulls (yes, really).
The future is…
On my visit, Boris-gate was a mere possibility. But the other ‘B’ word did not go amiss. Has Brexit and its uncertainties had an impact of business? ‘We have a very heft proportion of European staff,’ Armstrong tells me. ‘Intrinsically, it hadn’t changed what we do.’
For Jolley, it’s more supplier-side where the impact might be more obvious. ‘We deal a lot with France in terms of what we drink today. Brexit is sending a very negative message in the community – it’s certainly created an atmosphere.’
What about the rest of London? The capital’s bar landscape is ever-changing and Armstrong has been in the thick of it for a good 20 years. ‘There are far too many gratuitous bars opening in London,’ he says slightly guardedly. ‘If a new bar opens, I’ll always visit it twice. I can’t remember the last time I had a good night out [in London],’ he says, sighting Manchester as his preferred city for a night on the town.
And what about the new generation of drinkers? ‘People drink at home a lot more now. Supermarkets are dictating what people drink so much now – it really frustrates me.’