Not so long ago, (cocktail) bar entrepreneurs were expanding their businesses by opening new concepts. For the people at the heart of the cocktail renaissance, the cocktail chain didn’t represent an ideal. This is changing, with The Dead Rabbit only the latest bar set to try and replicate the experience the mothership offers in a new location. And many more are bound to follow. To understand the mechanics (it’s a very difficult balancing act), they’d be well inspired to take a leaf out of JJ Goodman’s book. The finalists of the first Havana Club Bar Entrepreneur Awards launched his first London Cocktail Club in Covent Garden in 2008. He now runs 12 places under that brand.
« No one’s ever going to retire on one cocktail bar. There’s not enough money in it », JJ tells us when we ask him how that came to be. « When you open your first bar and it’s the first time you’ve been in debt — in THAT amount of debt — it’s really scary. You’re kind of like a racehorse. You put the blinkers on and all you want to do is win win win to get yourself out of trouble. One day you get out of trouble but no one tells the horse — the horse keeps running. Because falling back into that position one day is petrifying. So you end up with a second business because, you know… and then you end up with a third… » And then twelve, plus the numerous other ventures JJ is involved with.
For JJ, everything started as it usually does — in his teens, washing glasses at the pub or the club. And then, working at the bar owned by his basketball coach, he’d sometimes get asked to make a cocktail. « I fell in love with making something to order, with my hands », he now recalls. « You had front of house service and creativity. It was good. » Over the following years, he developed his skills at a variety of venues — some small, some big; some established, some up and coming and, probably, some on the way down. Not all of them were known for their outstanding craft cocktail programs, and that’s something JJ actually values. « The independent cocktail businesses have been most reactive to trends and innovation. That tends to be very attractive for young bartenders but at some point you will have to learn management and there’s no better way of doing that than working for a larger business », he says. « I really recommend people to work both with independent businesses — they are very reactive — and with big, established businesses — they have condensed what they do from years and years of experience, they know exactly how it works. I learned very different skills from all of them. »
This stood him in good stead when he opened his first bar with business partner James Hopkins. « At its very core, London Cocktail Club is a style of bartending. It’s about brillant, beautiful, creative cocktails delivered in a high energy, high speed environment. It’s a mix between a party bar and a mixology lounge », he explains. In 2009, JJ entered the BBC’s The Restaurant program, which enabled him to take extremely experimented partners on board. They helped with expanding the brand. The vision was to keep the ethos without ever getting stale. « We’re quite eclectic and I didn’t want to change the core values of who we are, but when it came to the design of the spaces I thought it’d be fun to change — no one likes to go the five same bars in one night but somehow the design changed that », he explains. Some drinks are created to suit the space, and some bars might have a stronger gin or rum focus, for example. « It’s fun to do a chain without feeling boring and repetitive — it’s always new, fresh and exciting », JJ adds.
Of course it wasn’t always smooth sailing. « No one is ever ready to open a bar. There’s inevitably things you learn as a bar owner that can’t be taught. » But although each story is different, there are things JJ believes to be crucial. « If anybody is looking to become a bar owner, they need to look outside of the world of drinks. They need to adopt leadership as early as possible, taking responsibility. » As an example, he refers to the finalists at the Havana Club Bar Entrepreneur Awards: « It’s a list of incredibly responsible people in their own way. I would assume that leadership and management are things they started excelling at extremely early in their career. »
With 120 employees now, it’s probably not a stretch to say that there might be a couple of future entrepreneurs working for London Cocktail Club at the moment. Fostering emerging talents is something JJ sees as crucial. Over the last couple of years, he has worked closely with The Prince’s Trust and other charities to help out young people from underprivileged background find a career path. And he insists that the cocktail industry needs to push and work with educational institutions for better training. « Spirits are growing so cocktails will inevitably keep growing. A lot of pubs and restaurants have failed to keep up with the evolution of the cocktail industry. The demand is there but they’re struggling to fill that gap because you need to find qualified people ». Those businesses might be helped by another of JJ’s ventures — the Craft Cocktail Co. bottled cocktail lines. But ultimately, the future of the cocktail industry — and indeed of the London Cocktail Club — depends on people falling in love with the act of making drinks, just like JJ did about twenty years ago in Worcester.