Depending on the country they’re based in, it’s funny how you can find patterns in the way bar entrepreneurs speak about their businesses. In the United States, they will tell tales of hard work and business acumen. In the United Kingdom they will no doubt have stumbled unknowingly into a golden opportunity or took a spur of the moment decision based on utter necessity only for it to turn out to actually be your major asset. Truth probably is that it’s a mix of both things that help explain why a successful business is, in fact, successful. Callooh Callay’s Richard Wynne is a case in point.
As many before him, Richard decided to open his own business after years working for others with some modicum of success. « I asked for a pay rise and they told me ‘we’ll look at it in six months time’. At that point, I was like ‘I’m completely under appreciated, I can definitely do this on my own’ », he recalled at the first Havana Club Bar Entrepreneur Awards, where he was a finalist. « This was March 2008 and I quit ». And after a few months spent looking at potential places, he found one in Shoreditch. Business plan in hand, he went to see the banks and pretty quickly was given the go-ahead. « In September, I committed myself to 24 years of pretty reasonable rent. I started working on my drinks program, on equipment, and then in late October, in one day, the whole financial system, as we knew it back then, collapsed ». The promised loan disappeared and Richard had to get creative, « really creative ».
The thing is that bars actually tend to do well during downturns. Banks didn’t seem to care, so Richard had to turn to other sources and pray. Luckily, his good work with his previous employers meant something and his wholesaler incredibly agreed to extend credit and lend him some money on top of that. « I’m forever grateful », Richard told us. But even with this money in hand, things remained difficult: most of the sum earmarked for refurbishing the place was gone. « We had to get creative », he underlined again. « There was an old music school closing down, giving away cassette tapes so we used that instead of tiling the bathroom. I found a shop selling discounted Christmas wrapping paper so we papered the walls with Christmas wrapping paper. We actually won Best Interior Design at the 2009 Theme Magazine Awards! ». Necessity really is the mother of invention.
Callooh Callay opened with what Richard calls « a fantastic team » and soon made its mark. They were basically the first to offer a great cocktail program in what is now cocktail central — Shoreditch. And they made International waves, crashing into the World’s 50 Best Bars and receiving an award at Tales of the Cocktail. And yet, everything could have gone away. « There’s a fine line between over-confidence and arrogance. I decided to open a restaurant, called Beard to Tail », Richard told us. « I don’t know how people do it. 18 hours day. I didn’t get paid a penny. After two years of jeopardising everything — my bar, my home, my relationship — I said enough is enough. It was a real learning experience — how not to do things, how not to run a business ».
So Richard regrouped and focused on what he knew he was doing right. « I always tell my guys — especially the managers — that there are three rules we have to play by: environment, service, products. And it’s always in that order. It doesn’t really matter how great your drinks are: if your lighting is terrible, your music is shocking, no one is going to come back ». With this in mind Richard launched a new spot in 2016. Little Bat, in Islington, is « a neighbourhood bar, with regulars coming three or four times a week because they really appreciate this very good, intense level of hospitality ».
Meanwhile Callooh Callay has remained relevant, no mean feat in an ever shifting cocktail environment. More awards where won and the bar just celebrated its tenth anniversary. It remains as busy as it was in the early years. And now, a few years after the failure of Beard to Tail, Richard’s businesses are in great shape and he is now in position to look at a third site, which will feature cocktails of course but will be more of a pub operation « with a much bigger food focus ». A great occasion to lay the Beard to Tail demons to rest, maybe. And to apply the many lessons learned on the way. For let’s not kid ourselves: maybe the wholesaler’s generosity back in 2008 was a gigantic stroke of luck, but whether it’s by picking cassettes to tile your bathroom or through sheer hard work, you really make your own luck.