Tom Kidd, founder and managing director of London’s Adventure Bar cocktail chain, is embarrassed to tell me what his favourite cocktail is. It’s the humble Woo Woo, made with vodka, cranberry, and peach schnapps.
“People get really snobby about them, because they’re the first drink you make as a bartender as they’re so easy, but everyone secretly loves them,” he reveals.
“I have to say the Woo Woo’s my favourite, even though everyone is going to f*cking kill me about that because it’s the least bartendery, least mixology-type drink.”
But don’t let his cocktail preferences fool you – this is a man who knows the bar scene, and has managed to make a success in one of the capital’s most cutthroat sectors.
Kidd founded Adventure Bar in 2005 in his mid-twenties with three others, who personally funded the startup, rather than turning to private investment. It was, it’s fair to say, somewhat of a challenge.
“One of the four partners, he already had a Chinese restaurant that he was turning into a bar, so we went to work with him and got in through that. I went from bartending to running a bar.
“Being 23 years old, you don’t really know anything. We went from just making drinks and looking for a job we couldn’t get sacked from, to having all these responsibilities. We’d managed bars a bit, but not the financial side of it – it’s just a whole different world.”
The company now operates several cocktail bars around London and has plans for more, but growing was not easy. Around five years ago, the firm had grown its volume, but wasn’t making much money.
“We’d spent quite a long time chasing turnover and not focusing on the bottom line as much as we should have done,” Kidd admits.
“We didn’t have a strategy for rollouts, just looking at sites and opening them. We didn’t know what our business model was, or have a plan beyond wanting to open more bars, which was a bit naive at the time.”
Shaken, not stirred
To fix this, Kidd and his partners reached out for help from The Directors’ Centre, a consultancy specialising in business strategy, whose managing director Robert Craven helped Adventure Bar reorganise its structure and introduce a boardroom process so the team could work together more effectively.
“We brought Robert in, and he helped us work out what we really wanted from things – personally and professionally – what kind of business it is we wanted to run, what we wanted to be known for, what we wanted to do really.”
They changed their business model – instead of trying to roll out the Adventure Bar as a chain, with each one being the same, the company instead moved to creating one-off, bespoke bars that appealed to the local area and its demographic as strong destinations.
An example of this new approach was seen last year when the company opened two new bars in Waterloo, both inspired by Napoleon.
“There’s a formula around how we deliver our drinks, but there’s no formula around what the menus are going to be. You can see that in Tonight Josephine – a basement bar in Waterloo – which has been massively well received. It’s targeted at millennial women, which is quite unusual for three lads to do. And we’ve got Bar Elba in Waterloo, a rooftop bar overlooking the station which gets extraordinarily busy.”
Dark ’N’ Stormy times
The hospitality and entertainment sector is incredibly competitive, and has its fair share of horror stories, especially in the dining sector: celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has had to close 12 branches of his Italian eatery; Strada has shuttered 10 of its sites; and burger chain Byron has said it may need to close up to 20 of its restaurants across the country.
But the Adventure Bar has been lucky – or well-placed – in its segment of the industry, according to Kidd.
“The fast casual dining casualties are in a different segment to us. We’ve run a nice, lean model and we haven’t expanded too quickly. That’s the advantage of not going down the private investment route: you can control the rate of growth, and grow the way you want to.”
Tech on the rocks
Practically all sectors are affected by technology in some way.
The ubiquity of smartphones and apps is even affecting the hospitality industry: think of Wetherspoons and its app that lets you order food and drink directly to your table, or Drinki, which advertises nearby bars to users and tried to entice them inside with a free beverage.
Kidd studied software design at university and describes himself as tech-friendly. That said, he is less than convinced by the hype.
“What we do, fundamentally, is create spaces for people to have nights out, and we monetise it through selling drinks. I don’t see tech being a significant part of what we do,” he says.
“I know there are other operators who will say they have apps that drive things, or the data is useful for marketing, but I feel like it’s a red herring.”
Kidd argues that bar operators should concentrate on their product to create positive word-of-mouth, rather than spending huge amounts of money on advertising or email marketing.
“You look at some of the best word-of-mouth bars, like Frank’s Cafe in Peckham – they don’t do anything. They do nearly a quarter of a million pounds a week turnover and they’re not even doing any advertising. That’s my opinion – I’m not sure all my partners will agree,” he adds.
Far from last orders
Now that the company is in its thirteenth year, I ask Kidd for any lessons he wished he could give his 23-year-old self, and other entrepreneurs more generally.
“Leave your ego at the door, make sure you have a reason for everything, and always know how much money you’re making at any time,” he says.
“If you keep your eye on those, you’ll do alright.”
With plans to refurbish and relaunch their Covent Garden site, and open a seventh branch this year, it’s far from last orders for the Adventure Bar.