Against All Odds: Rosie Stimpson

26 Jun. 2019
The perfect amalgamation of artistic and business vision

If you like drinks and spend a fair amount of time in bars, chances are that at one point you thought ‘I could do this, I could set up the ideal bar, the perfect place’. It’s a common dream, which partly explains why so many new spots open during a recession, as people who have been laid off decide to finally open THAT bar with their savings. It’s usually a pretty bad idea: much as reading a lot doesn’t make you a writer, drinking a lot doesn’t turn you into a drinksmith or a bar operator. And so most of those places come and go — fast. 

Although their mighty Nightjar opened in the middle of a recession, Rosie Stimpson and husband Edmund Weil were not recent redundant looking for a way out. The seeds of their first bar were planted when Rosie and Edmund, studying in Dublin, attended a fantastic cabaret / jazz show « in the dingiest pub you could have ever imagined », recalls Rosie, who’s also a singer. « I turned to Edmund and I said ‘Can you imagine if we saw this in the setting that it was made for?’. He went ‘Oh, yeah, that would be amazing’ ». The idea was set aside as both took on ‘normal jobs’. « After a few years, we were like ‘we don’t really like this, let’s try the bar idea’ ». So they gave up their jobs, took some debt on and started working on what would become Nightjar. Most industry consultants would have seen warning signs: a romantic project, people bored with their professional lives, no hospitality experience and very little money of their own. 

And yet… « Nine years on, we own three bars. They're all have been listed in the top 50 bars in the world and two of them — Swift and Oriole —  have won Best New Bar at Tales of the Cocktail ». So how can we explain this success? There are at least three factors, according to Rosie. The first is about developing a business sense — since they have no silent partners or big financial backers, they had to launch all bars on their own, with mounting debts. It’s essentially a sink-or-swim situation and Rosie proved, over the years, that she could swim as well as she can sing. « No one wants to be saddled with debts, but we are. We paid for Nightjar by ourselves, basically, then we had to take a mortgage on our house for Oriole. But we think the ideas we have come up with are unique enough that they will pay themselves off in the end — and if you’ve got lots of debt to pay off it makes you very business-focused and it helps you become a good business person ».

Second is knowing your weaknesses and picking the right people. Although Edmund did spend some time working in bars prior to the opening of Nightjar, they’re not bartenders. « One of our greatest skills I think has been to hire the right people », says Rosie. And indeed, with Marian Beke leading Nightjar and Luca Cinalli masterminding the drinks program at Oriole, who could argue… « Through their hard work we were able to create more bars, so we owe them a great debt », she adds. « We set a culture of openness and trust to support creativity. Our bars are the amalgamation of lots of people’s visions ». This support, of course, wouldn’t have worked without striking some sort of balance, « managing the artistic vision and the business vision », as Rosie puts it.

This is all good but doesn’t mean much unless you find your public. And that’s the third factor of Rosie and Edmund’s success. « The real interest for us was people and opening a bar that people wanted to come to. The fact that people keep coming back to these three bars every night is our greatest achievement. And it continues to be my main interest: how people behave, how to manage them effectively, how they like to have fun. That’s our focus. » This involves going against the grain, sometimes: when they opened Nightjar, Rosie was told patrons shouldn’t pay for the music, that it wouldn’t work. They paid and it did work, creating a new style of bar, harking back to some of the great cocktail venues of the 20’s and 30’s.

Evolution is also part of the business plan. Swift, the latest venue, saw them take on board partners for the first time. « We opened two very labour intensive bars and we also had two children in that time so we realised that we would have to find a new way of working, basically », Rosie explains. « We were nurturing this idea, inspired by a visit to Boadas in Barcelona in 2012 and historical bars where you could just nip out and have a quick drink and then run off again ». For this very much classic and scaleable bar, they joined forces with Bobby Hiddleston and Mia Johansson. « In terms of supporting creativity and having a trusting culture, this partnership has been the best expression of that, because we gave them the idea and they ran with it. »

At the core of what they do, Rosie says you’ll find « innovation and longevity. We want to be at the cutting edge but also to create a bar that’s going to last for a long time ». With Nightjar recently celebrating its ninth anniversary, they seem to be on the right path. And with three very successful bars, it seems it’s only a matter of time until we see a fourth one. Unless, that is, they focus on sharing their knowledge with budding bar entrepreneurs. « We’ll probably be focusing on consultancy, trying to help people to get there because our bars are our vision but there’s plenty of scope for other people and we’d like to try and use our skills to help them achieve that », Rosie concludes. Having shown, against all odds, a very deft hand at « managing the artistic vision and the business vision » within their own places, they certain have many valuable lessons to share.

François Monti