When Rasmus Lomborg and his wife Adeline Shepherd left the United Kingdom for Copenhagen, where they planned to open a bar, Rasmus had things crystal clear: « I had this very romanticised idea of a cocktail bar where I’d spend a lot of time with my wife, where I could sit a the bar with a cup of coffee and read the newspaper on a quiet day and it would suit me fine. » The Dane had spent a decade in busy, high-volume establishments all over the UK. It was time to rest. « Obviously that’s not what happened », he is however quick to add. Not really: since 2007, they have launched three bars — Ruby, Lidkoeb and Brønnum. He has learned so much on the way that he was asked to judge the first edition of the Havana Club Bar Entrepreneur Awards — but how did he get there?
Initially, Rasmus was trying to be a chef. His studies led him to a placement in Edinburgh in 1997. « On the weekends, I’d work in cocktail bars to make some money ». The work and the atmosphere appealed and soon enough, chef school was forgotten. He ended up at Henry J. Beans, better known as Henry’s. Part of an American chain, it was one of two bars in town to make cocktails. « It was loads of fun. It was packed even on a Wednesday night, four deep at the bar. But making fabulous cocktails was way down the list of priorities », Rasmus recalls. Still, it was an excellent school where to learn about systems and service. « This is not an education you were going to get in Edinburgh’s old men pubs », he says. And indeed, many of the kids who’d end up launching the city’s fantastic bar scene got their start there.
It’s also at Henry’s that Rasmus met a very talented young bartender — Adeline. But while she went to work with local pioneer Jason Scott on more advanced cocktail programs, Rasmus turned to the operational side of things. First, he was headhunted by a local operator to open three venues. « At Henry’s, I was stuck behind the bar with a very strong concept and everything taken care of. All of a sudden, I had to deal with all the problems ». He took to it: over the next few years, he moved up and down the UK, opening new places or sorting out venues that were doing poorly. Through the latter type of jobs, he learned a valuable lesson: « In a failing place, it’s never the drinks program that’s wrong. When they open a bar, people want to have an amazing cocktail list. It’s always the things that have been ignored while they were making that list that create problems. Culture, staff supervision or development… Any issue comes through in the service, that’s where it goes wrong. Coming into a failing bar is really difficult. There’s a lot of pride, you’re stepping on people toes… », he says. There are rewards for so much hard work, though: « Once you have done it a few times, it’s an invaluable experience. Opening your own place, doing what you want to do the way you want to, it becomes very easy. You know, opening a new bar is not that difficult. It’s just hard work. It comes down to the hours you put in ».
When it was time to put the hours into opening their own bar, Rasmus and Adeline decided to do it in Copenhagen, in Rasmus’ homeland. Ruby’s place as one of the founding bars of the European renaissance could lead us to believe Denmark was a cocktail wasteland. Rasmus is quick to dispel that notion and mentions K Bar and Gilt as places where you could get excellent drinks back in 2007. So what did they bring to the plate? « Ruby was about taking the next step — in our service and our cocktails. One thing we noticed in Copenhagen is that people were not really sticking to the specs. Who was making your drink mattered a lot. My chain background made me see the importance of consistency. We make our bartenders stick to specs, even when it comes to classics. To some extent, to this day people still think we take the creativity out of bartenders… » But clients love it: « Quality didn’t depend on who was making the drink. We were seen as reliable ».
Ruby was not an overnight success, though. « I had left Copenhagen ten years before. I didn’t have friends, we had no supporting network. Initially, no one came. Literally. » Little by little, regulars from the bars both Rasmus and Adeline had worked at while they were looking for a location turned up and brought their friends. The small group grew organically, and created a community. « When you open a bar, you have an idea of what you’d like your core clientele to be like, but you can’t decide. And that core group is so important for the direction of the bar », Rasmus observes. Luckily, the group that started gathering at Ruby was diverse, from all walks of life. And then… « 3 months in, we had our first busy night. Completely out of the blue. The Friday before, we had 15 clients. And that Friday, hundreds of people turned up. They just poured in. I had to become a doorman that night! »
Since then, the Copenhagen scene has grown exponentially. Rasmus credits Noma’s influence: the restaurant’s fame attracted foodies and kicked-off gastro-tourism. « Before Noma, Michelin-starred restaurant here were offering French cuisine. Their focus on local ingredients had a massive impact and it helped us a lot on the way ». Rasmus and Adeline contributed to the food and beverage boom with two additional bars. What happened to the man who just wanted to read the papers at his bar? « I get restless. I’m not good with routine. When a bar is up and running, the only thing that changes is the drinks program — and that’s Adeline’s side of the business. I also find building a concept very interesting and I love to see how people take to it… »
Lidkoeb followed Ruby. Then, it was Brønnum’s turn. Whether more are added to the list is a pretty open (and loaded) question at the moment: Adeline and Rasmus have recently sold 80% of their bars to a Finnish company. They still run the three venues but, unsurprisingly, they are thinking hard about their next move. « I remember being in London, seeing someone sell three bars and thinking it was such a shame. But I was 24 at the time and the guy selling was the age I am now. I’ve never done anything else in my life. There’s a part of me that’s thinking — I’m not 50 yet but I’m getting there and if I want to allow a second chapter in my life then maybe this is the time. An offer like that opens that door. It is there, we can walk through it if we want to. » Whatever decision they take, it seems fair to assume this is not the last we hear of Restless Rasmus.
photo (c) Doron Gild