I meet Richard Wynne (pictured), owner and operator of Callooh Callay, before trading hours at his renowned cocktail bar tucked away on Rivington Street in east London. All was quiet in the empty, unassuming site – deliveries were being taken, bartenders dotted about the place. Yet, despite the stayed environment, my previous knowledge and experience of the bar tell an entirely different story. Tales of unique hospitality, pioneering drinks and lively conversation are what I’d recall when asked of Callooh Callay, that and how the bar got its name from Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical poem, Jabberwocky.
In fact, Carroll is a huge inspiration for Wynne, who named his second site, Little Bat in Islington, after the writer’s work, as well as the bar within Callooh Callay, named Jubjub. What’s more, if this operator’s five-year plan is anything to go by, the on-trade could well see a whole group of sites inspired by the author of Alice in Wonderland. But we’ll get to that. For now, let’s start at the beginning…
P&B: Tell us a bit about your background…
RW: Like a lot of people in this industry, I didn’t end up with the career I studied for, which was fashion design. I couldn’t stand the nature of the fashion industry. I started bartending in London and New York during a year out when I was 21 and worked for cash tips. I ended up working at Pitcher & Piano in Nottingham. I was there for three months before they started asking me to lock-up or open first thing, and after a year I was assistant manager, running busy shifts on Saturday nights – I thought, maybe I could do this as a career?
I joined the Pitcher & Piano management academy. There are lots of people who have gone through that and now run their own businesses – Scott Hunter of Noble Inns, Andy Maddocks of Mothership Group. It was a reputable training programme and I learned a lot from it, moving from bar to bar.
P&B: So how did you end up in east London?
RW: A freak day happened in my life. I was running a site when someone called in sick, we had record lunch for numbers, the staff room got broken into and someone else walked out because of a fight – everything went wrong. So, that night, I needed to calm down and went for a drink with my girlfriend at a bar called LoungeLover [formerly on Whitby Street] and just immediately wanted to work there. Within 15 minutes I was speaking to the assistant manager about a job. I was offered the job four days later. The owners were complete extroverts – they had no problem blocking a fire escape, so long as the symmetry of the room looked great. It was all about the look, feel and environment – business and everything else came second. So, me coming in with Pitcher & Piano mentality of environmental health, health and safety, best practice, etc. gave me an apprenticeship on business and service combined. I was able to merge the two into a very profitable enterprise. After two and a half years, I had increased profits by about 600%.
P&B: Wow, quite a successful combination then. Is that why you decided to set up your own place?
RW: I decided to start on my own right at the beginning of the financial crisis, so set-up costs were cheap. I opened up Callooh Callay, but had no money. We were banking with RBS at the time and I had about £8,000 in loans, then maybe £4,000 in savings. We had a £50,000 loan from RBS rescinded into a £10,000 overdraft about a week after I signed the lease. I had already committed to about £100,000 of opening costs, so it really taught me to think on my feet. I negotiated 60-day credit terms with suppliers, which was the godsend I needed. I had also negotiated seven months of free rent too – the place had been vacant for two years. We did half the build ourselves; it was needs must.
So we made about £8,000 profit in our first year, which I was happy with. We traded for three or four years, won some awards and had some decent money coming in. We opened a restaurant called Beard to Tail round the corner, but then Blues Kitchen opened, which did everything we wanted to do, but so much better. We changed the concept slightly, but the place was too big for it to work. We took the decision to walk away without losing any money, dusted ourselves down, spent a year looking for something else and then opened Little Bat in Islington in March 2016. We haven’t looked back since.
P&B: Celebrating your 10-year anniversary in November last year must have felt like quite an achievement. Why do you think your bar has been so successful and longstanding?
RW: We’re an industry bar – we get a lot of bartenders, chefs and brand reps coming in – senior industry folk on their night off. With that, you’re always greeting people that you know. We don’t really market ourselves as an ‘industry bar’, but we always employ personalities that are both industry- and consumer-focused. Good with names, drinks, faces.
We give ownership of drinks, food and music to the people who are in charge, with boundaries and guidelines as to what we expect the business to follow. I can’t come up with every single idea, and I would be micromanaging if I literally tried to do everything myself. If I can state my goals and objectives, and ask people what’s new, what they’ve heard, what they want to try, we can then act and react to that. We might not go with an idea, but there’s a lot you can grab hold of and run with – we hear so many ideas and pitches, but with the right thing we can really take it to the next level. We’re not afraid of failing. There is a real stigma about the word ‘failure’. If you consider failure a setback or learning how not to do something, then you almost never fail – you just learn to find the right way of doing things.
P&B: Do you have any examples of taking team ideas on board?
RW: In 2010, we employed Rebekkah Dooley to do our reservations, and she was going on about Twitter and social media, which she ran with and suddenly we were talking directly to people who were interested in what we were doing – not just marketing to as many people as possible. She is now marketing and PR director of Dead Rabbit in New York.
Simon Thompson was our GM for about three years, and he was the one who started looking at booking in groups vs booking in couples. We stopped taking groups of more than eight people, as we could turn over more money at the weekend by turning areas three or four times with groups of twos and threes. Smaller groups spend well – they come here because they know the cocktail bar, as opposed to being a part of someone’s birthday, plus they’re in and out. That might sound bad, but there is only a certain amount of drinks you can sell to someone. You need numbers through the door, not just people in the building.
P&B: And that includes your upstairs bar, correct? Tell us about ‘Jubjub’.
RW: It was an idea we came up with in 2011. Our rent-free period was done, so we had to pay rent on the whole venue. So far, we had only used upstairs as an overflow for the back room. We asked ourselves: ‘How do we open up all three rooms, five days a week and make sure they’re busy?’ We quickly realised that a second entity was something we wanted to look at. We called it Jubjub, which again comes back to Jabberwocky. A bartender at the time said he would run it while I ran Callooh, which wasn’t such a bad idea, and I asked him what he’d do and went with it. We’ve had success and setbacks with it. As much as you want to give free rein to the bartenders to run the upstairs operation with their own menu, it has to sit within the brand, but it has always reverted back to being about giving ownership to the bartender. It was a great way of them getting their own customers and recognition. Personal development for the team has always been key.
P&B: How do you see ‘the cocktail bar’ in today’s modern on-trade?
RW: I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m sick of going into stuffy West End hotel bars. Everyone loves a good pub, right? The vibe, atmosphere and relaxed mentality. So when our bartenders are talking to guests, we want them to talk to them like people: ‘Hello, mate. What can I get you? How you feeling? How has your day been?’ You can often think of a drink to offer based on the answers to initial questions.
Our bar is always about the team and them understanding situations straight away and having the personality to approach customers and actually talk to them. It’s not just about the liquid – it’s about the vibe and environment that you set that makes it sustainable. Look at the success of Be At One, London Cocktail Club, Barrio – those three have changed the whole meaning of the words ‘cocktail bar’. It is now about cocktails for the masses with dance floors. They’ve come a long way, which has forced the bars at the top end to change their offering, as everyone can now do 100 different drinks. The menus and vessels have become so creative.
P&B: What does the future hold for you? We hear you’re looking at cocktail deliveries?
RW: Takeaway cocktails show that the industry is shifting. Look at restaurants with Deliveroo. Takeaway cocktails are something that I think could be huge over the next 18 months. There are licensing issues that bars would face – there are no laws governing this. Anywhere that delivers alcohol is primarily a restaurant, delivering it with a meal, meaning the alcohol is a subsidiary part of the order – an add-on. We’re suggesting we need an off-licence and a third party for ID checks, which isn’t a quick fix. We need to look at how delivered cocktails sit on our current menu. I don’t want to come up with two menus, so it will be interesting to see how it develops. We’re hoping to launch that in September.
Also, I’ve put a five-year plan together and I’m looking for investment. I’d like to take on a financial partner who shares the same ideals as me business-wise – across the brand, the liquid, the service and the venue. Everything. They have to value the brand as much as I do and then we can open site number three maybe even this year. Maybe a couple more outside of London – we’re looking at Bristol, Brighton, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester and Edinburgh. If everything is Callooh Collay, it might dilute the brand a little, so we’re looking to put together a family of Lewis Carroll-based workings. Poems, characters, novels, things like that. It all depends on the city we’re working in.