Licensee Interview: The Beer Kitchen Dynamo
David Hall is one of the most experienced operators in the Scottish hospitality industry, although generally it could be said that he likes to fly under the radar! However, at the rate he is developing the Innis & Gunn pub division, that is already changing. As Managing Director, he has helped the group expand its Beer Kitchen concept into four cities in two years! The business is a joint venture between Innis & Gunn and G1, but it is very much David’s baby and he has negotiated equity and a shareholding in the business too.
He explains, “Dougal Sharp and I have been friends since we were young. Although we didn’t go to school together we had a common group of friends. In 2008, I had looked at a business of my own, which fell through at the 11th hour. In hindsight, this was a good thing because it was right at the start of the recession. Dougal knew about this, and he kept in touch. Then a few years ago he followed up, and we got the ball rolling. I knew I could deliver something fresh. Since I knew Dougal, I dealt with the Financial Director over the financial negotiations. It makes a massive difference having a share in it.”
However, it was while living in Aberdeen, as a young man, that he first fell in love with the hospitality business. He tells me, “I lived in Aberdeen and my first holiday job was doing the dishes at the Tor-Na-Coille Hotel in Banchory, then I worked a summer as a waiter and went behind the bar at 18 at the Albyn and then Dizzy’s. It was 1990 and my boss was Tracy Lefevre she taught me to work hard and party harderand showed me what fun the trade could be. I loved it. So I decided to do a hospitality degree at Robert Gordon and got a part-time job with Ricky Simpson. He was opening Aberdeen’s first American-styled cocktail bar Charlie’s (he had called it Charlie Browns, but had to change it!). Charlie’s was a great success and I just loved the buzz of the place. We had some great fun.”
David moved on from Charlie’s to work for the Pierre Victoire franchise in the city, which gave him more responsibility and which saw him learn about management. Then it was time for a step-change and he took off travelling. First stop was Vancouver Island in Canada where he embraced the country’s service culture and cocktails, before taking off to Australia.
He says, “I worked at The Beechwood, a trendy bar/ restaurant, that had not long opened on Bondi Beach. I was a waiter, I was supposed to be backpacking, but the owners asked me to open Liberty Lunch, an oyster bar and live music venue. It was an amazing experience and I was enjoying it so much that I stayed on longer than I expected to. I got to know a lot of bartenders and could get into just about any bar or club in Sydney – it was great and I even considered staying there because I fell in love with the city. But I finally decided to join the rest of my friends and we all travelled on to New Zealand, before returning to Aberdeen.”
It was at this point that David made what was to be a life-changing decision. “I thought what will I do now? I knew that I liked working in style bars and thought who is the best company in Scotland to work for? At that time, everyone was talking about Montpeliers, who were in the process of opening Indigo Yard so I applied for a job there. The job I actually got was as Deputy Manager at Montpeliers and my General Manager was Peter Wilson. It was a lucky break because he protected me from myself. I still had the travel bug, but he kept me on the straight and narrow. He was just great and we remain friends to this day.”
From Montpeliers, David moved to Indigo Yard, before leaving the company for a year to join Big Beat. But he only stayed a year there before returning to the Montpeliers fold where he stayed until two and a half years ago. Says David, “I came back help open Rick’s, then moved onto Opal Lounge and then Tigerlily. They were all massive projects particularly Tigerlily. Working for David Wither ingrained in me how important systems, procedures and standards are. He taught me always to strive to be as good as you can, and not to be complacent. In hospitality, you can take your foot off the gas but when you do, standards drop.” He continues, “Obviously over the years, I’ve also taken on board other influences, but the great thing about working for Montpeliers, apart from the people that I met, was that it also taught me the importance of balance. To weigh up the commercial versus quality angle. If you overdo the controls, you can take away from service and if you get too tight, you can take away from the quality. For instance, here at the Beer Kitchen, we use Shaw’s Butchers, they are a family owned company that provides quality meat – it is excellent, but we have to make the price work for us.”
All the Beer Kitchen properties are leasehold. David expands, “Everything we do is a lease. (All of the bars are located in G1 owned properties.) We need the cash at the moment to grow the business, and if we put money into property that would not happen for us. That’s not our model at the moment. The great thing about the G1 involvement is that without them we could not have grown at the rate we have, and we get their back of house support.”
The first Beer Kitchen opened in Edinburgh two years ago. Guy Morgan of Morgan McDonnell provided the slick design while Diarmid Scott, Innis & Gunn’s in house Designer came up with the logos and overall branding. Explains David, “We spent ages choosing everything from the furniture to the cutlery. David Wither once said to me if you get the first one right, it sets you on the right path. So we spent a lot of time on the brand guidelines, and in all our units we have tried to stay true to them. The menus are not exactly the same, but the chefs do meet and share ideas.”
There are now three more Beer Kitchens across Scotland in Glasgow, St Andrews and Dundee and David travels between them. He tells me, “It’s great because I get to meet so many different people. That’s one of the things that I love about the job. We have over 100 staff now – full-time and part-time. It’s difficult recruiting good staff for the launches but we have open days – it cuts the length of time down when it comes to recruiting. What we are looking for are people who care. In my view, 90% of the industry is about caring, and 10% is about knowledge. Caring about customers is a fundamental skill. You can have great cooking, a great bar, great beer and food but if it is getting served by someone who doesn’t care, it takes away from the experience. I think we have a really good team here. I don’t mind if people make mistakes, although I like them to let me know and that they learn from them. There is nothing worse than someone calling you about something and you know nothing about it. I would prefer to know and then if we get a call, I can say, yes I know, we are handling it.”
And handling it he certainly is. Mind you with kids at 5, 3 and 1, his wife Tessa too is to be applauded. Tessa, says David, has been brilliant. “She looks after the kids, and doesn’t ever ask when I’m going to be home or complain. She knows this is important for us all.”
So with Glasgow already going like a fair, (the Glasgow launch has been the busiest yet) what’s next on the agenda? David finishes, “We are trying to find another site in Edinburgh or Glasgow in the city centre and we have plans to move South – perhaps Manchester. And with that, he sneaked a glance at his mobile phone and his till app which tells him how all his units are performing and smiled!