It was three years ago when things started changing at Jones Bar Group when Roxy Ball Room opened in Leeds – a ‘social entertainment venue’ that combined food, drinks and gaming.
For the previous eight years, brothers Matt and Ben Jones had been running an expanding business of totally different concepts across Yorkshire. With as many as eight different venues in different towns needing a focus and a unique approach, the Joneses found themselves stretched geographically and mentally. They had always agreed that once the right concept came along, they would focus their energy into it. Inspired by the social gaming scene in London, they saw a point of difference that would take them beyond other food and drink competition and opened Roxy Ball Room. It was an instant success. Roxy Leisure was born and they started looking for similarly sized sites to turn into Ball Rooms.
“As soon as it opened, Roxy Ball Room was taking double the amount of money compared to our second highest bar,” explains Matt. “We were like: ‘We’ve found it. This is the one’.”
A new company – Roxy Leisure – was set up to differentiate the brand from the rest of the estate. Before that year was out, they had opened Roxy Lanes, a bowling alley and bar within Leeds city centre. By concentrating on one brand, the Joneses found that fit-outs and refurbishments were simpler and cheaper because they had only to recreate what they had already constructed elsewhere.
“We weren’t chasing down printers or designers because everything was already done,” explains Matt. “We looked at each other and thought: ‘God that was easy’. Before we’d always been thinking: ‘What can we do here, how can we make this one different?’ But we’d already done the hard work on Ball Room, so straightaway we went hunting for the next site.”
This streamlining also occurred within the infrastructure of the business, which saw a more targeted and delegated approach. Until recently, the design, the build and the maintenance of all sites – everything was done by the brothers. Hiring an operations manager who understood and implemented the way that they wanted their businesses to be run allowed the Joneses to step away from the day to day stresses and concentrate on the bigger picture. They got professional designers for the sites and cocktail menus, they subcontracted maintenance work and got a bookkeeper to run their accounts. A development chef now works across Roxy Leisure’s estate, as does a cocktail developer.
“The more we focus on Roxy Leisure, the more streamlined it’s getting,” says Ben. “The people who do the drinks and food development can work in the venues. We’re wet-led venues at the end of the day. We don’t need the menu changing every three months.”
The story of Jones Bar Group, which was officially formed in 2007, is one of two entrepreneurial brothers looking to create concepts that would be successful. Starting in 2004 with 166 Bar & Bistro, the pair began acquiring lots of different sites (see box out). To save money, they planned, designed and managed the fit-outs themselves, before reinvesting profits into the next venue, waiting to find the one into which they could funnel all their focus. This was how they learned their trade, taking on board important lessons that would lead them to Roxy Leisure.
“It was a stepping stone for us moving onto the Roxy Leisure business,” explains Matt. “Anyone successful will tell you that you’ve got to have failed to succeed, so you know what you’re looking for. We had sites that didn’t work out and we held on to, some for too long, trying to make them work. We just wanted to open more bars. What we didn’t take into account is that the more you open under different concepts the harder it gets.”
There are now Ball Rooms in Liverpool and Huddersfield, with sites in Manchester and Nottingham due to open in the next three months. All have the same design, same food, same cocktail menus, meaning that expansion is not a question of what kind of bar to open, but will that site convert successfully to a Roxy?
Having two concepts within the brand also allows the company to expand without looking for new cities. Another Lanes in Leeds is on the cards, while they are looking to introduce one in Liverpool, strengthening the brand’s profile overall, not to mention giving the landlords another successful business. And while Huddersfield is not as successful as those in the bigger cities, it was important for the Joneses to keep growth going, and to explore the brand’s viability in market towns.
“It was a relatively small investment, but it holds its own and if it works then it opens the door to loads of people,” says Matt. “What do you do when you’ve exhausted all the big cities? We also felt that if we sat too much on Roxy, then someone else could come along and gazump us.”
Roxy sites are a totally different animal to the rest of the Jones Bar Group. For a start, they are massive – 10,000 sq ft of space which has to be filled. This was done with tables for pool, ping pong and beer pong. However, when considering such large spaces in city centres, surely there is a greater challenge through the huge rents they demand? It would appear not.
“Most of the Jones Bar Group sites have higher rents than the Roxy businesses because what we’re taking here is hard-to-let space,” says Matt. “The challenge we have is finding the space. We’re mainly battling with gyms. We’ve looked at converting offices and department stores at a higher level. It works for the landlords as well because they now have four occupiers. They’re probably getting more rent than they were with just one department store.”
Indeed, operators are working together in larger spaces and developments, carving up the space as they need. In Nottingham, Roxy Leisure has taken on a first floor, joining operations with cocktail bar operator Mojo, which is on the ground floor. In addition, where there is ever any extra space within a Ball Room, the pair have considered expanding their gaming options. At Leeds on the first floor, they have installed a crazy golf course, while concepts like foot pool (pool but played with footballs) and shuffleboard are also on the radar, as they look to improve the offer.
“If we can do it in the space, we’ll give it a go,” says Ben. “We have foozball tables and pinball machines for people to have something to do while they’re waiting for a table.”
The key to Roxy Leisure is the growing importance of experiences within the leisure industry. The amount of cocktail masterclasses in bars shows the importance of creating a compelling reason for people to come to the pub and ensuring that they leave with lasting memories to which they can return and enjoy. The Joneses are trying to achieve social interaction and entertainment around gaming.
“When you walk into the building, it’s an electric atmosphere,” says Matt. “People are in groups, laughing, joking, playing games, cheering. They’re all doing their own thing with their friends. That’s what makes it magical. It’s definitely an extra revenue. It’s what people are looking for. Everyone knows that the industry gets harder and harder every year. It doesn’t surprise me that people are looking at masterclasses and social gaming.”
Roxy Ball Room describes itself as a city centre bar, and as such its demographic is spread wide. A 50/50 balance of men and women is maintained carefully; companies book tables for office parties, but so do students, groups of friends and even first and double dates. While the trade split is 80% wet sales, it is the experience that brings people into the Roxy venues. That desire for an experience is driving plenty of further innovation.
“People’s outlook on life is a lot different now,” says Ben. “People don’t want to booze all the time. They want to go out and get fit. The Olympics kickstarted everyone into this fitness regime. There are three trampoline parks that have opened in Leeds city centre in the last 12 months.”
Matt cites Everyman Cinema’s revolution within the cinema-going experience as another example. By offering more than just a movie, the company has become the place to go to watch films. In his opinion, this form of social entertainment is on the rise and all that is needed is a fresh angle on an existing format.
“Everyman has taken an old product – the cinema – and modernised it into a night out, a reason to go out,” he says. “Putting pool tables in boozers is nothing new – it’s existed for years. The way we’ve put it together though is what’s unique. Social entertainment is definitely on the rise. There are places popping up doing similar things.”
The food and drink offer at Roxy Leisure is the same in each venue, with a focus on sharing and Americana – since, as Ben explains, you rarely game alone! As such, they offer pizzas, sharing platters and cocktails served in jugs and teapots that can cater for a group, while craft beer also plays a hugely important role in sales. As demand has grown, the menu has expanded to include burgers and paninis as well, but the social sharing aspect remains.
As Roxy Leisure continues to grow, the Joneses have accepted that Jones Bar Group will be slowly fazed out. The majority of energy, focus and spend is now with the newer company and while the original sites are like children to them, the brothers expect to be solely a Roxy Leisure business within the year, with the money garnered from selling off Jones Bar Group sites funding further Roxy expansion.
“It would be nice to see some fresh operators in our sites,” says Ben. “There are plenty of operators from Manchester and Liverpool looking to break into Leeds, and their concepts are brilliant. We’re not opposed to that. We’d like to see our sites go to someone who’s going to get that spark again.”
The company is set on long-term gains, and reinvestment in the business is significant. However, with the aim of opening two or three new Roxy sites a year, they know that external investment is required to keep the pace up. And with cities as far away as Cardiff and Bristol in their sights, not to mention London, the next stage of growth will no doubt see further innovation and evolution of the company. For the Joneses, the future looks Roxy.
“It all boils down to finding the right place,” concludes Matt. “We have a list of 10 cities we’d be happy to be in and when the right property – at the right size – comes up, we’ll go for it.”