Excellent adventure

Mark Ludmon meets the team behind London’s Adventure Bars

Many bartenders dream of running their own bar but, by their mid-20s,Toby Jackson, Tom Kidd and Kieron Botting had already achieved this.After taking on a bar in south London seven years ago, they now head the four-strong group ofAdventure Bars, including one in London’s West End. “We wanted to own a bar from the moment we all worked in a bar together,” Tom says.

Toby and Tom had been friends since school and got to know Kieron when they worked together at The Disney Store in Crawley.All three ended up working atTGI Friday’s in Crawley, although Tom – who worked in pubs since the age of 15 – became a roaming trainer for the company. One by one, they left but, before long,
they were back working together at bar group Be At One, set up by three ex-TGI Friday’s bartenders. Kieron was the last to join having spent time working at Simon King’s MJU Bar at the Millennium Hotel in Knightsbridge.

Tom left Be At One to run Suburban Bar in Wimbledon and then, in 2005, went to help entrepreneurs Niki Flipse and Bryan Lloyd to run a new venue,Adventure Bar, in Battersea, south London. He was soon followed by Kieron and then Toby, and they developed it into a successful good-time locals’ bar with great cocktails.

In return for a share of the business, they worked with Niki and Bryan to sort out the struggling bar, doubling turnover within six months,and opened a second Adventure Bar in Balham, also in south London.To finance their investment, they borrowed money from their families and remortgaged. “We were only 23 years old with no money and no past experience of running a business so it was difficult,”Tom recalls.“But once we had two bars, we wanted three.As your comfort zone becomes bigger, your ambitions seem to grow at the same time.”

In 2008, they opened an Adventure Bar in East Dulwich in south-east London, which, Tom says, was “a defining moment” in their development into a sizeable business.“It started pulling us away from working in the bars on a day-to-day basis.” At the end of 2010, the business extended out of the suburbs into London’s West End with the opening of Adventure Bar in the former site of Bok Bar in Covent Garden.“Overnight, we doubled our turnover and the size of our team and quadrupled our profitability,” Tom says.

Since then, the management team, including Bryan but now without Niki, has been consolidating the business.Tom says this has meant “sweating the assets” – finding growth within the business rather than seeking new sites.“At times like these, when banks are less generous with their funds, expansion is not the safest bet.” This has meant looking at ways of increasing spend per head and introducing key performance indicators (KPIs).“It was a big shift with Covent Garden,” Kieron adds. “Until then, it had just been about increasing turnover through the number of sites.”

Last year, they brought in brand design agency Mystery to establish a clear identity for Adventure Bar and understand its positioning.“We always knew what the product was about but wanted to make it clearer to our guests,”Tom explains.“It was what we thought it was, but it has given us more confidence to experiment with what we can do.”

As well as investing in in-house training, they have put effort into finding out about their customers so they can  communicate with them more effectively. “We realised our product value wasn’t just in the cocktails but in the experience and service,” Kieron says.“Previously, we discounted as the sole way of attracting customers but now it’s about how we add value to the guest’s experience.” They are looking at introducing food for the first time, currently working with outside partners to test different menus such as pizza. Other initiatives include promoting the 300-capacity Covent Garden bar for events, especially in the daytime when the bar is closed.Their future plans include refurbishing the Battersea bar, again with designer Sophie Finch who worked on Covent Garden.

The management team now has more defined roles – Toby handles marketing, Kieron heads human resources and operations, and Tom looks after finance, strategy and “random stuff”, although he points out “we are all still involved in the creative process”.He adds:“We are bartenders who have evolved into business owners which has been a journey.There’s no handbook on how to do it. But we’ve been surprised at just how many people out there have been willing to advise and help us along the way.”

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