Rhys Oldfield made the news last year when he and partners Steve Locke and Leigh Miller sold their Be at One cocktail bar chain to an equity fund for a pretty penny. Launched in 1997 from Battersea, a London area rarely considered as prime cocktail real estate, by three ex-TGI Friday’s bartenders, Be at One went through its ups-and-downs (as any business) and is ultimately a fascinating success story in a field where virtually no chains — with their very strict demands for consistency and strong brand identity — have emerged since the TGI Friday’s and Hard Rock Café heydays.
Things could have turned out different. When they opened the first Be at One in 1998, Rhys and his partners had no masterplan — they didn’t initially see themselves running a handful of bars, let alone thirty-four. It started as the typical story of career hospitality professionals who decide it’s time they launch their own business. « We had no plan. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. When we found our location, we couldn’t afford it. Banks wouldn’t give us a loan. So we all went and took car loans. With that money and our credit cards, we paid for the lease. We did all the work on the bar ourselves ».
Thankfully for the guys’ credit worthiness, Be at One took off like a house on fire. « It got busier and busier. It confirmed what we thought — it was about people wanting to have a good time », Rhys says. « We were bringing the TGI Friday’s drinks into a neighbourhood bar and that was a big difference. » While not central, the Battersea location actually helped. « There are a lot of areas in London outside the centre that are busy, and our first location had a demographic that was good for the bar. We were very fortunate ». A lesson a lot of budding entrepreneurs may want to learn — many are obsessed with scoring prime locations but they logically come at a premium. Building success on a budget is possible if you open yourself to other, often geographical, possibilities.
After a year of making good money in Battersea, opportunity came knocking in the shape of a space in Wandsworth, where they opened the second Be at One. In insight, a mistake: « The success of the first one came easy and we assumed therefore that it was easy. It was the wrong location, it was too big, we had a kitchen, we had chefs. We thought people would just come to us. We made all the wrong decisions from day one. Within three months we realised it wasn’t going to work. It took us nearly two years to get rid of it. We really lost all the money we had made in Battersea. » Scalded by such an experience, most would have stopped — at least for a while — from expanding. Not so with Rhys and co. « We learned what worked ». Armed with that knowledge, they opened a third spot before selling the second. « The first bar was going so well. We didn’t think it was a fluke and we had nothing to lose — one bar was making money, the other one was losing money. What were we going to do? We were not going to quit… »
Once the failure of location two was overcome, they knew a formula, the identity that would shape the growth of Be at One. Obviously, it wasn’t their only rough patch. For example, in our conversation, Rhys remarkably mentions the opening of their Covent Garden location, in their fourth year as « a real struggle ». It was their first central London bar. « We thought ‘we’ve made it, we’re here’. But ‘here’, people didn’t know us, we had to start again. Covent Garden is a great spot but just because you’re here doesn’t mean you’ll be a success. We had to work at it. We were being a bit complacent. We had to build the business one client at a time ».
A landmark moment for Be at One was year nine, according to Rhys: « By then, we had three really good sites and three OK sites but they were all making money and it enabled us to start working on the business as opposed to in the business — at that point we were still working 5 nights a week. It was still hands to mouth ». But however well you’re running your business, outside factors tend to put the spanner in your projects. 2009 — the financial crisis — was one such moment. Not so much in terms of the money they were making — « You know the English, drinking is a pastime so we never suffered in the recession », he quips. Where they suffered, though, was in their dealings with banks: « It became much harder to borrow money » and fund expansion. « We wanted to crack on so we talked with private equity funds and in October 2011, we sold a third of the company. That’s when the Be at One everybody knows took off ».
This enabled them to be more ambitious and expand outside of London. It also paved the way to what happened last year — by the time they sold out, there were thirty-four Be at Ones. Once again, it wasn’t smooth sailing — one of the first decision they took after taking the fund’s money proved to be a mistake quite similar to the one they made with their second venue. « We asked ourselves — ‘have we learned anything’? », Rhys recalls. Obviously, they did. « We went from being a little deal one to a big deal one pretty quickly. What made the difference is that we managed to get all the right people. Yes, we’re a cocktail bar but we’re in a people business ».
The deal that Rhys and his partner made when they sold Be at One may be seen, in the future, as an inflexion point. The cocktail renaissance was built upon drinks program. The critics levied at the historical chains is that show took precedence over drinks quality. The new wave of bars took their cocktails very seriously indeed and their attitude to service were obviously not ideal for empire building. So when the first successful bar entrepreneurs of this new generation decided to expand, they did it not by opening new branches but by opening new concepts. Building a chain requires, as Rhys puts it « industrial training ». You need standards, procedures and consistency throughout not just one bar but a whole chain. « It’s difficult and expensive », says Rhys, adding that this might be one of the reasons very few people are following their model. But now that cocktails have become more common place (now that the war is won, as one American pioneer recently told us), bar owners have been putting the fun back into cocktails. Be at One has shown this could be done under a chain model, with high standards of quality. We may see quite a few more attempts to replicate their success in the coming years.