Grand Union's Adam Marshall has never been afraid to go against the grain. But his latest groundbreaking venture could completely redefine what can be done within the four walls of an on-trade venue. Claire Dodd gets a sneak peek
We're at the dawn of a brave new era. An era where bars can be coffee shops, pubs can be tech hubs for homeworkers, and trendy haircuts and beard-grooming can take place in the pub. Welcome to the age of the multi-venue, where time-strapped consumers are demanding more than just decent food and booze from the on-trade.
One person embracing, nay, running full force at such an era is Grand Union pubs founder Adam Marshall. And he's putting his money where his mouth is to find out what consumers really want.
'I want it to look like the film Metropolis,' says Marshall, pointing to concrete walls where art deco wallpaper will soon hang. He's showing me around what, when we meet in late May, is a building site, but is now the first of a new Grand Union sister brand named Trade Union.
Loose cables hang from the ceiling still, but the different 'zones' of the venue are beginning to take shape.
There really isn't anything quite like what we are doing. Everyone will be running their own business – passionate about what they do
Part Italian restaurant, part cocktail bar, part gin palace, Marshall has spent £900,000 developing the site on Thomas More Square; a residential and office hub sandwiched between St Katharine Docks and the new London Docks residential development. So far so normal.
But the space, described as 'a grown-up playground for discerning Londoners' is anything but. In a reimagining of what a pub could be, Marshall has brought in a number of independent traders to operate their own businesses – again, independently – within the space. Trade Union will take a share of their takings.
In one corner there will be a coffee shop from London-based speciality coffeemaker Vagabond; a florist selling in-season blooms run by Maua London will occupy one window; and by the bar, an in-house barbershop by Drakes of London will provide male grooming.
In addition, Trade Union will also offer mobile office 'hot desking' with Wi-Fi and charging ports, not to mention a pizza counter run by Bushwick Pizza Co that will cater for any hunger pangs. Marshall envisions masterclasses taking place in the venue by the various traders present. All under one roof.
'We're not trying to change the world, we're just trying to do something a bit interesting,' he explains, talking over the noise of drilling and hammering.
'I think that this does define… This could define what people are interested in right now, this lifestyle-led environment,' he adds, in what I soon learn seems to be a characteristic blend of modesty and ambition. 'It's about combining the perfect experience with the products that people want. We have four of the oldest professions here.
'I found the site, and it would have been a Grand Union, but the question arose of how do we de-risk this? It's a big space. So I thought what if we introduced partners, who were passionate about what they did. And I asked myself why not?'
Essentially Marshall was looking to make the huge space viable throughout the daytime as well as the evening, with a range of services that, although all are enjoying a particular renaissance right now, actually never go out of style. He looked to department stores such as Selfridges for inspiration on how to meld the different trades together seamlessly.
'I like the idea of doing something different. We wouldn't have come up with this idea if it had been done before, to the extent that we are doing. We have done quite a bit of research, and across the globe, there really isn't anything quite like what we are doing. Other operators have coffee shops in them, but they run them too, so it's the guy serving you a coffee at lunch who serves a pint in the evening. We're not doing that. Everyone will be running their own business and are passionate about what they do.
'Basically, I think it's always a good thing to keep on pushing the boundaries and this is our small interpretation of doing that.'
Changing the game
1992 Leaves Richmond-upon-Thames Catering College. Becomes an apprentice chef at Rules, in Covent Garden.
1994 Becomes chef de partie at Michelin-starred restaurant La Tante Claire in Chelsea.
1996 In order to get front-of-house experience, takes on a role as trainee ops manager at Jarvis Ramada hotels.
1999 Leaves the UK to take on a role as head chef at Victory, in Cairns, Australia.
2000-1 Runs The Polar West for pub and bar operator C-Side in Brighton, eventually becoming an area manager.
2002 Takes on his first business, Enterprise pub the Rose & Crown, in Highgate, London, with a partner.
2004 Sells shares in the pub, and goes solo to open the Bullet Bar in London's Kentish Town.
2006 Opens first Grand Union site in Camden under a Scottish & Newcastle lease.
2009 Grand Union estate grows to 10 sites.
2010 Opens Farringdon and Paddington sites, taking the estate to 12.
2011 Marshall opens equity talks over possible sale or investment in the company.
2012 Ends equity talks in favour of self-funded expansion.
2013 Luke Johnson takes a 50% stake in Grand Union.
2014 Plans announced for 20 new sites over next three years.
2016 Opens Trade Union in Wapping.
Sitting talking to Marshall, two things become clear as a result of both observing his slightly uncomfortable body language, and his habit of making lofty statements followed by more modest ones.
Firstly, this is a man on a mission, a man with a vision, and a man that after a decade running Grand Union, and despite what he says when I ask him, still seems to feel he has something to prove. Secondly, this is a man who doesn’t really revel in self reflection. To Marshall, there seems to be only one direction: forwards. Reminiscing is not something he enjoys.
But it's worth recapping how he came to be at the helm of an independent pub company that boasts eight establishments – soon to be nine – dotted across London.
Those with their eyes on the pub trade will be familiar with Grand Union, a brand that describes itself as 'cocktails, burgers, dance and making people happy'. Bursting on to the pub scene in 2006 with a venue in Camden, the seemingly recession-defying business quickly expanded to 10 sites by 2009, and 12 by 2010. Their unconventional approach was bullish, and stood out for going against the grain.
At a time when many pub companies were dismantling any physical evidence that their sites belonged to a chain, and operators were snapping up freeholds, Marshall and then business partner Adam Saword (a friend since school) were busy building a branded empire based entirely on leasehold sites.
'It’s been a long road,' says Marshall. 'Back then everything felt like a disaster,' but we were resilient, we were young, we had nothing to lose and we just kept on going.
'It's only recently that people have decided they want to call their sites all the same name. When we were growing Grand Union, it was bucking the trend. Other operators would come to me, with a sense that what we were doing was not a good thing. Everybody had multiple pubs but they were all called different names, had different food menus and interior design, and maybe I just liked the relatively easy road and [the idea that] if something is working you do more of it. And if it doesn’t work you stop doing it, and damn quickly.'
But the rapid expansion didn't always work. A plan to develop a six-strong food-focused arm in the home counties named Grand Union Grill back in 2008 did not fly.
We're going to make some screw ups but that's all part of the independent feel we will be creating
The first site along the Grand Union canal, north of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, though not a flop, turned out to be too seasonal. Plans to go national were scrapped. And at one time the estate numbered 12 sites, with plans announced as recently as 2014 for 20 new sites over subsequent years. Then, three years ago Saword left to pursue a career in real estate.
Pizza the action
However in mid-2013, entrepreneur Luke Johnson (the man of Pizza Express fame) took a stake in the business.
'He has brought probably fastidious attention to detail and has been able to focus us as a management team even further,' explains Marshall. 'We had a good business from a top-line position, but we weren't as lean as we needed to be. We took the decision that maybe the market had closed up a bit, and leases were expensive.
'So you do something else. We brought in a great EPOS system, looked at our team, turned it into one better positioned for the business and how it was trading, and focused on the margins. We have been very successful in turning a relatively profitable company into something that is "highly intelligent".'
Grand Union's latest results – posted late May – back up such claims. Revenue increased 11.4% to £8.1m for the year ending 26 March 2016, while EBITDA grew 21% to £1.5m. So what’s next? Is there really anything left to prove for Marshall?
'If Trade Union goes well, we will be looking to expand it to two or three sites, but not too many,' he says, again displaying that modest but evident ambition. 'You know, we might make a profit, we may put a little more in than we need to. We're going to make some screw ups but that's all part of the independent feel we will be creating.
'Cocking up is okay, as long as you don't fail or harm anybody. But to be honest, I think this place will be part of people's chosen lifestyle. I mean, why not?'
The pubs code…
'I think being free of tie gives you a lot more flexibility, but we have been very much helped out in the past by dealing with pub companies. They have been very supportive, and continue to be so. It's nice to feel you're being supported by people with the same vested interests as you.'
The National Living Wage…
'It is affecting us. However, before this was announced we had stated that we would be building up to pass the NLW for a basic member of staff anyway. But we wanted to make sure they were fully trained first. All it did was take the wind out of our sails, in terms of our ability to attract good staff.'
Building a business…
'A concept is important, but it is more about how you look after people, the environment, the ambience, the music you play; all of that comes very natural to me. All our second-hand furniture, purchased out of necessity at our Camden pub because we had no money, created an opulent feel and became what we were known for. But also the amazing gardens we have – we call them Pleasure Gardens – have become our signature. We have 11 treehouses in Brixton. In Wandsworth we have maybe 15. I don’t think anybody on the planet has built that many. We like to do things people haven't done before.'