From raves and clubs, to paydays and pubs – Electric Star Group’s founder talks about running late-night London venues
I’m told that Rob ‘Star’ Hives will meet me for a chat at The Star of Bethnal Green, one of the five pubs that make up his Electric Star Group estate. Bethnal Green Road is sweating with life on the morning of our interview – it’s 27 degrees at 11am in this part of east London, but hustle, bustle and jostling market stalls lead me from Shoreditch High Street station to the site that Star opened up in 2008.
As I peered through the window into a dark and empty pub, I wondered if I’d misread the meeting details. But following a phone call to head office (which I soon discovered was above the pub), I was quickly being ushered up thin stairwells adorned with bric-a-brac and trip hazards, and into rooms with more of the same. Dusty pop-up bars, drinks samples, various people tapping away on laptops. Hives by name, hive by business – it was a swarm of activity.
The gradual reveal of Electric Star’s HQ turns out to be a nice little metaphor for Star and his rise to this stage of his career. From the outside, it seems like an ordinary, five-site operation, but once you peer further into the foundations, an evolved organisation built on heritage and substance starts to present itself.
Star is born
From an early age, this on-trade entrepreneur was hosting parties. We’re not talking about bouncy castles, balloons and birthday cake – we’re talking raves, club nights and organising coaches from his home town Leicester to events at Cream in Liverpool and Miss Moneypenny’s in Birmingham. And this was all before he turned 18. He soon moved to London and managed to find work through Tribal Gathering festival and other late-night venues, but continued putting on parties in pubs, on boats, under railway arches, you name it.
In 2004, Star found himself living in a warehouse at the bottom of east London’s Brick Lane, which happened to have a disused shop attached to it. It was here he started his own branded party called Mulletover. He did a deal with the landlord that allowed him and his team to use the neglected space for these so-called ‘parties’.
“It was totally illegal,” he says. “We’d roll in a massive sound system, a bar, all our mates – 400-500 people through the door. Eventually it was shut down, but we lasted about six months and Mulletover had become quite successful, so we turned it into a brand. It coincided with a change in the licensing laws in 2003, which came into effect in 2005 – that allowed us to get Temporary Event Notices on warehouses, archways and other spaces. We were probably one of the first groups in the country to do that. It was like we were still running illegal parties, but we actually had a licence.”
Funnily enough, something alternative and cool happening in east London was quickly noticed, and it wasn’t long before other organisations started running similar set-ups. For Star, this was the time to turn his knack of bringing people together for late-night events into more of a focused business. He wanted his own venue.
In 2007, he bought the lease for The Pleasure Unit from Wellington Pub Company and set about turning it into The Star of Bethnal Green, where we sit for this interview. He was taking a pub known for its weekend indie nights and ghost town atmospheres during the week, and transforming it into a late-night, DJ-pumping, two-floored, function-roomed, street food-filled, karaoke-equipped local… and all for the first time in a part of London that gentrified popularity hadn’t quite reached yet. It was a risk.
“We were all going out in Shoreditch at the time, but no one was coming this far up to Bethnal Green, so it was quite a gamble,” admits Star. “You could see that the gentrification was slowly spreading towards Hackney, so we bought this in 2007 and got planning permission to open upstairs and put the staircase in.
“I’d never worked in a pub, I’d never pulled a pint. I knew how to set a bar up and how to run one. I knew I could get good DJs, get good bands, and get people through the door, but I didn’t know how to run pubs. I remember when the guy put the lines in for us and I had to ask him to show me how to change a barrel.”
Let’s turn this thing Electric
Star quickly learned lessons from the people he surrounded himself with. Dan Beaumont, who would later go on to launch Dalston Superstore and pizza brand Voodoo Ray’s, was Star’s first manager. Beaumont had to advise his new boss that it probably wasn’t wise to encourage the bar team to get drunk during service. “He brought some discipline into the operation,” laughs Star.
When Beaumont left to do his own thing, Steve Macri joined the business, and with the addition of second site The Star of Kings in King’s Cross, he soon became operations manager of the company. That company was made up of three sites after the duo took on The Star by Hackney Downs. Then four and five through Heathcote and Star, and The Leyton Star. Are you seeing a name pattern emerge here?
There was another pub in the portfolio, but it was more suited to a single-site operation, so Star sold that one to his friend Luke McLoughlin, who turned it into London’s first vegan pub, The Spread Eagle. The little black book of contacts seemingly knows no end.
Star’s funding options have varied. He has saved money; borrowed from friends, family and the banks; worked with venture capitalists (VCs); and, perhaps most successfully, raised capital through crowdfunding. “It was an easy way to get money,” he says. “We had the money in three to four weeks, whereas the banks were taking three to four months to even give us an answer.”
The Electric Star Group is now made up of five pubs and a street food market called Last Days of Shoreditch (although Star is currently searching for a new street food site, as his lease is almost up). While each pub displays clear individuality and isn’t perceived as a branded outlet by customers, there are key operational elements that make these five sites successful and part of the Electric Star family. First and foremost, they are late-night venues that turn into a renowned Star party from around 10pm.
You can always expect DJs and live music at these pubs. He is keen that his pubs come with a function room, as well as a food offer provided by independent street food traders (see box). What’s more, Star has found that offering private karaoke is another clever way of bringing in new customers, as well as securing repeat custom.
“We have karaoke in all of our sites apart from one,” says Star. “We do a lot of advertising on Google and Facebook to push that, and every Friday and Saturday it is booked out. We get a lot of repeat custom because of it.”
For a guy who liked to throw parties and promote club nights, Star has risen through the on-trade ranks relatively quickly. He’s still only 40 years old and has big plans for his Electric business. As well as the five pubs, he also runs two festivals, which clearly scratch the raving itch he no doubt still gets from time to time. He enjoys the festival part of the business, but develops it with caution – there are far more variables that can crush a huge project in one falling swoop with giant outdoor events. He once had to pay a £100,000 police bill in order to make a festival happen – it’s no wonder he prefers the safety of running venues (I can hear thousands of our readers laughing at that one!)
“With the venues, we know what we’re going to take and what costs we’ll have,” he says. “The weather can affect it, but generally we know what we’re going to take every year.”
Over the next three to five years, Star wants to double the number of sites in his solar system, as well as purchasing a couple of the freeholds for the units he is already in.
“We’re looking further out [of east London] at the moment, as we’re finding there is a lot of value further out, but also our demographic is being pushed there because they can’t afford it in zones one and two.
“Ten to 12 sites is the initial target, and I like that, as I’ll still be able to get around the sites and have a hold on the business. I like the local feel of having somewhere that’s more independent and isn’t part of a big group that wants to take over and be everywhere. We’ll probably turn over around £7m by the end of the financial year. A big thing for us at the moment is raising finance as we grow. We’re talking to banks, private equity, VCs, and looking at how our journey from five to 10 is going to look. We want people to know that we’re growing and that we’re changing from a smaller group into something that will be much bigger.”
Star on Street Food in Pubs
“We have street food traders who do the food operation at all of our sites. We started doing that in around 2014. It was Richard Turner [of Hawksmoor] who took me down to Meateasy in New Cross, which was the start of MEATliquor, because I asked him to help me out with the food. He told me to do one product and do it really well. I was doing fish and chips, steak – a typical pub menu. I wasn’t sold, so he took me there and I was like, ‘wow’.
“We did pizzas first of all and created our own concept called Mario’s Pizzas. We sourced great products and named all the pizzas after DJs. They flew out, had a great GP and didn’t need many people in the kitchen, plus it was low wastage. It was the start of our food journey. When my mate Dom [Cools-Lartigue] started Street Feast, I saw all of these new and exciting food traders who want to take a first step towards their own restaurants. So many of them have had residencies in our pub kitchens.”
Star’s take on Hackney Council’s new licensing laws
“In Shoreditch, they want to bring in a 10pm curfew for outside areas. For our street food business, we operate there until 11.30pm and that last hour and a half is really important for our trade. If we were cut back to 10pm, they have to remember that some people don’t go out until 8pm or 9pm. You can’t make it work. For our pubs, which are late-night operating, if you’re celebrating your 30th birthday, you want to be able to stay out that little bit later.
“If you want to run a creative business based around music that attracts our clientele, you need to have late operating hours. That doesn’t mean going until 4am – it’s 1am or 2am at the weekend. I believe if you have an existing licence, you’re unaffected, so they’re not putting a blanket rule on it. But if your licence gets reviewed, they’ll use that as leverage to reduce your hours.
“I was living in south east London in the 90s, and then everything was happening in Hackney. Eventually I moved here for that reason, and I wouldn’t have started these businesses if that hadn’t been happening there. For that then to be taken away… Where will the next generation of creative entrepreneurs go?”