Elaine Clarke was just 23 when she was approached in 1991 to run a new bar opening up in Liverpool city centre. She had been working in bars and restaurants since school and, at the time, was already general manager of Café Tabac in Bold Street. The new venture was Baa Bar which opened over two floors in a converted warehouse off Concert Square in Fleet Street, developed by bar entrepreneur Tom Bloxham and designer Jonathan Falkingham, both of developer Urban Splash. Twenty-one years later, the bar is still going strong, part of a group of seven Baa Bars plus a handful of other venues.
Elaine, who has been managing director and a shareholder since 1992, says the founders never expected the business to develop in the way that it did. “Baa Bar was going to be just one to begin with. There was no game plan for a chain of bars. We just grew organically, grabbing opportunities as they came up.”
Baa Bar was the first bar in an area that otherwise was home to only pubs and clubs, but that has all changed as Liverpool has been transformed through urban regeneration. It was also the first bar in the north-west to gain a 2am licence and, as more bars and restaurants have opened up in the city centre, Elaine says business is better now than 21 years ago.
Still not seeing Baa Bar as a “brand”, the team opened their second site, Modo, in Concert Square in 1997. Expansion gathered pace in 2000 when the second Baa Bar opened, in Manchester’s Deansgate Locks, followed two years later by a Baa Bar in Sackville Street (pictured) in Manchester’s gay village. Another Baa Bar opened in Wigan in 2004 – the group’s only site that has since been sold on – and in the same year, they launched both gastropub The Ox Noble in Manchester’s Castlefield area and, back in Liverpool city centre, indie bar Bumper – a destination for live music.
Manchester welcomed its third Baa Bar in 2008, in the student area of Fallowfield, with another Baa Bar opening the following year in Myrtle Street on the fringe of Liverpool’s student quarter. Two years ago, the group moved beyond the north-west for the first time to open Baa Bar in the Hockley area of Nottingham, but in April this year they were back on home turf to open their third Baa Bar in Liverpool, this time in Victoria Street, close to the city’s commercial district. “We now have five bars in Liverpool all within about 200 yards of each other,” Elaine points out. Eleven years ago, in a separate venture, she also bought Café Tabac where she had started working at 14.
While the group’s previous sites were designed with Jonathan Falkingham, Miles Falkingham of Union North and design studio Burn Everything, the latest Baa Bar involved Neil Dawson of Snook Architects. It shares features with the other sites such as light walls and illuminated tables but with “an underground basement edge”. Elaine says the concept has continued to evolve along the “80/20” rule: “We use the best bits of the other sites and try to add 20 per cent to each new one.”
Not only Liverpool but the industry has changed considerably over the past 21 years. Elaine praises developments such as the smoking ban, the Security Industry Authority’s door staff licensing and ID initiatives Challenge 21 and Clubscan for raising standards in the trade. Baa Bar has also been in the forefront of innovation such as the introduction of shooters in 1996. “We have been able to stay strong because we invest a quarter of our profits back into the sites,” Elaine adds. “You have to do that to keep it fresh.”
The management team has also changed, with Jonathan now focused on being chief executive of Urban Splash and Tom Bloxham now just a shareholder after 16 years as chairman. Richard O’Sullivan – the founder of the Millie’s Cookies chain and chairman of Boost Juice bars – has been chairman for the past six years, working with Elaine (pictured), finance director Andrew Blackburn and marketing and brand manager Iain Hoskins, who leads on drinks development. The company has just appointed its first operations director, Barry Aspinall, formerly of Rileys sports bars, as part of a restructuring to prepare the company for more expansion. They want to add 10 more Baa Bars over the next four years, initially looking in Leeds and Sheffield, funded out of their own cash reserves and “with a little help from the bank”, Elaine says. “We are looking for existing operations where we can see a real opportunity.”