Into the Woods by Jason Caddy
It was touch and go as to whether Michael Woods and I would ever meet to do this interview. After two failed attempts it was third time lucky in fact, but he had a 24-carat reason – he’s just had a baby boy called Jett Harris Woods. Mum Sonya and baby are doing just fine, and Michael, 38, is taking to being a first-time father like water off a rubber duck, all the while remaining on top of his two pub businesses, albeit through bleary eyes.
He set aside an hour of his time to meet with me in his newest Glasgow acquisition, The Amsterdam, aka The Dam, formerly The Brunswick Bar on the street of the same name to chew the cud about how he’s shaped his businesses thus far. He’s the director of
MTW Leisure Ltd., the company behind The Dam, and The Winged Ox Ltd. which is of course concerned with his very first outlet, St Luke’s and The Winged Ox, on Bain Street, just off the city’s Gallowgate in the Calton, which opened in 2016. Between the two businesses he employs 40 staff.
Michael comes from a construction background and St Luke’s and The Winged Ox was his very first crack at the trade whip, which immediately begged the question: How did he make the leap and with no experience in this industry?
He said, “I landed in the trade by accident. My brother Anthony and I purchased the building without knowing what to do with it. We had a feeling that it would make a good music venue so we invited all the big music promoters in Scotland along to a party as a test run to see if they rated it as a potential music venue. They loved it, so we thought let’s do it.”
He continued, “Becoming an operator was, therefore, a baptism of fire because I had absolutely no industry experience and so I surrounded myself with a fantastic team. I also got loads of good advice from friends in the trade, like Colin Barr.”
Earlier this year a little bird told him that the former Brunswick Bar was looking for an operator to take on the lease, so he answered the call.
Said Michael, “The Brunswick Hotel next door had been purchased by Khurshied Alam and his son, Imran, from Michael Johnson and Stephen Flannery and is now an entirely separate business to the bar. It was Imran that gave me the nod about the lease at Brunswick Bar being up for grabs. It’s a place that has always been close to my heart because it’s my local, plus I drank in it for many years during the times when Stephen and Michael made this one of the coolest bars in Glasgow. I took on the lease in a heartbeat without even thinking about it.”
Of all the themes in all the world, I wanted to know why Michael decided to go with ‘Amsterdam’ as the inspiration for this bar, because it’s such a departure from what it used to be, which is perhaps reason enough of course. And he really has gone to town with it. The basement space, named The Red Light District, has now been completely turned over to live music and remains pretty much unaltered to how it was before, save for a ceiling plastered in live music posters showcasing its sister venue’s triumphs. Upstairs, however, is now a shrine to the city, with wall-mounted bikes, pictures of Rembrandt and a huge statement chandelier made from Grolsch bottles being just a few big nods to this party city.
He explained, “My wife is Canadian and I drank in a bar there called The Amsterdam in a place called Whistler. That’s where I met Sonya – she was running the bar and did so for 15 years. She’s never worked with me in our venues, although this is a family business of
course, so she has leant her expertise to The Dam. ”
He continued, “I also have family in Holland and visit maybe three or four times a year. I love the vibe of the bars over there. They are relaxed but offer good food, and my bar has loads of tongue-in-cheek references to all of this.”
Michael was keen to emphasise that The Dam is still very much a work in progress. He said, “The place is still very much evolving and I have loads more touches that I want to make to it. We’ve just installed new bi-folding doors that open out onto the pavement at the front of the bar, and we’re also going to be adding canopies for winter to give it that European café culture feel, which I absolutely love and want to promote in Glasgow. I’m also in talks with a spray painter to do a collage on the wall just next to the kitchen servery.”
Training is also a subject that’s close to his heart. He explained, “We have our own in-house training program. Each new recruit gets a booklet outlining all the company values and then we put them through an intensive training process. This includes product awareness training
at breweries and distilleries.”
Dutch citizens are being urged to follow a plant based diet as the government aims to become a world leader in sustainability by 2023, but is Michael embracing the whole vegan explosion in The Dam, or St Luke’s for that matter? “Not really,” he said. “If they want that they can go to a vegan restaurant. There are plenty of them around. People come to my venues for the burgers, amongst other things, so I’ve no desire to follow the herd on this one.”
I had to compliment him on the burgers at The Dam. They’re something else. Likewise the boneless chicken wings at St Luke’s and The winged Ox. “I got the idea for them from Hooters in NYC (it was a stag do!) because they were the best chicken wings that I’d ever tasted,” he said.
I asked Michael if there were any other operators that he ranked as highly as Stephen and Michael, say, as well as for his view on how licensees are finding with the current business climate. He said, “I admire everyone in this business. It’s tough at the moment and I honesty don’t think that people realise just how hard it is to makes ends meet, what with rates, rising tax bills, drink prices going up and up etc. I feel that it is unfair to pass all of this onto the customer, especially with everybody competing for customer loyalty more than ever. Rates have got to be the biggest killer for all licensees though.
“It seems to me that you need to give people a reason to come out more and more other than your basic offering. If St Luke’s and the Winged Ox were just a bar it would struggle massively. We have 200 gigs this year and 40 weddings confirmed for this year.”
And speaking of St Luke’s and The Winged Ox, I asked Michael how that all came about, and in light of Norrie Innes’ new bar, 226 Gallowgate, and Andy Gemmell opening a bar over the road called The Gate, next to Bar 67, if he sees himself as a bit of a trendsetter by encouraging other operators to take a chance on this area. He said, “100 per cent. I was the first person to set up shop here and as far as I know, nobody else was prepared to take the leap.
“It wasn’t the venue alone that I was sold on. It was also the area. I’ve got an affinity with Glasgow’s east end. My grandfather was from Garngad (Royston) and my dad ran a plumbing business round the corner from St. Luke’s for years, so it was a kind of natural
progression in many ways.”
And it’s been such a success story considering this was his first foray into the trade. He said, “It all started in 2014. The building was a Church of Scotland daycare centre, and before that a working church, and we got some investment from Glasgow Heritage Trust and Glasgow City council to the tune of £300k, plus a loan from Tennent’s. I sat on the whole project for a while before we came up with the business plan to make it a music venue. With total project
costs of £1.8m, it was a massive gamble that payed off.”
So what’s the deal with the name? “Luke is one of the four evangelists and each one has a winged animal and it so happens that St Luke has a winged ox,” he explained.
The whole project was three years in the making and the attention to detail was something that Michael continued to bang the drum for throughout. He said, “We worked with the architect Tom Hamilton, all the stonework was replaced, a whole new roof added, and each of the stained glass windows were repaired, costing £90k each. They date back to 1870. He said that they were the best that he’d ever worked on and the details like the gold leaf are just phenomenal up close.”
On top of everything else Michael has a Hungarian Vizsla that he obviously adores. Sadly his former dog Sonny has passed away but his memory lives on in the dog menu at St Luke’s. Said Michael, “Sonny’s Suppers is named in his honour and I was, I believe, the first person to offer a dog menu in Glasgow.”
He’s also the proud owner of a piano that Einstein played during a visit to Glasgow University (who knew?).
Michael and Sonya were married at St. Luke’s last year in a ceremony that was unashamedly their own because it was alive with live music and they did things the “wrong way around, reception first, wedding second.”
New baby permitting, he’s mainly focussed on his newest acquisition right now. “I live near to The Dam and I’m here every day. I’m quite hands-on and help out behind the bar occasionally, but there’s no need for me to do more than that. We pay more than the minimum wage and this has helped us attract good staff. It works. It can be hard to find good chefs and everybody knows that it’s a tough environment to work in. I have a great one right now in the shape of Jay Ward,” said Michael.
Will we be seeing a third venue from Michael anytime soon? “I’m not really thinking about it. I’ve got enough on my plate at the moment, plus I don’t like to put myself under pressure, but if I did do something I guarantee that it would be a completely different from my other two venues.”
He used to golf, but still manages to indulge his passion for snowboarding when he’s not working. I left him to the rest of his day that involved two more meetings, fatherly duties and walking the dog.