As more hospitality companies continue to tackle varying styles of operations, we speak with the team behind The Initiative – a London-based business that runs bars, street food sites, coffee shops and delis – about its most recent foray into the low- and no-alcohol bar scene.
Created by four friends who worked their way up in the hospitality industry from cleaners to bartenders to business owners, The Initiative has opened multiple London venues in the last year, including The French Corner, Central Market and Cha Cha Mayfair. The group has a further six openings in the pipeline for 2020, so Pub & Bar decided to catch up with co-founder Youri Axel Michel to find out more…
P&B: Tell us about The Initiative – the idea, the people, the story…
YAM: The Initiative is a trailblazing hospitality group taking the food and beverage industry by storm. Originating from regions across France, all four members of The Initiative worked their way up in the hospitality industry throughout England and Europe, and, a decade on, they have combined their experience and channelled their industry intel into a hospitality concept that understands the constantly changing expectations of customers.
Ready to turn our attention to our own projects, we decided to take the course of the F&B industry into our own hands. Since the group’s first venture, The French Corner in Mercato Metropolitano Southwark (a sustainable community food market), The Initiative has reaffirmed its core brand ethos to develop our hospitality concepts around the needs of local communities in prospective launch areas, never to enforce it.
P&B. OK, but we’re here mainly to talk about bars, can you give us a bit more detail on the two bar brands within the company?
YAM: The Initiative has created bespoke bars for each concept we’ve developed, however we consider The French Corner our most unique bar experience, with its traditional and down to earth style of service and signature drinks created with French distilled spirits. Shaman has been focused on educating guests about the growing no- and low-alcohol trend, bringing the joy of a good drink without the hangover. Our other bars such as Cha Cha Mayfair and The Cotton Factory in Manchester are much more food-pairing-led and we revisit the cocktail list seasonally, following the rhythm of our residency chef concepts.
P&B: Shaman has arrived in the industry at the right time! How did a ‘low and no bar’ perform during Dry January?
YAM: Surprisingly well and we saw a huge take-off of our grab-and-go offering. Our juice drinks programme offers guidance on what nutrients are best to remedy how you are feeling – it has really boosted customer curiosity and our sales.
P&B: Most people would assume that sales would drop away once Dry January was over. Was that the case? What are your predictions/forecasts like for the rest of the year?
YAM: February was a steady month and has given us the chance to consolidate our offering. We’ll soon be introducing a new twist in our drinks programme not yet developed in the UK, which we believe will attract a new and curious demographic.
P&B: To what extent are consumers interested in the low and no category?
YAM: People are spending more time out than ever and our guests appreciate having an alternative that helps them skip the hangover without missing any of the fun. We are constantly bringing new products to our menus to keep our mixologists and consumer palates guessing.
P&B: Do you think low and no products are of an inferior quality compared to their alcoholic counterparts?
YAM: We find a lot of low and no products are jumping on the trend, rather than trying to create something that tastes great and really adds something special to a drink. We aim to work with products that don’t make you feel like you’re drinking tasty water – there is texture, taste, consistency and more flavour, and there are really innovative products and brands using spices, herbs and flowers, which are exciting additions to the offering.
P&B: You run a variety of businesses within the hospitality sector. Can you apply the same mantra to all of them?
YAM: We certainly can, as it’s all about being transparent about what you want to achieve while working on becoming an expert in your craft.
P&B: Interesting. So, what are your key business philosophies?
YAM: We always listen to what an area/location needs and what its demographic wants. We listen to people’s needs first, prior to developing our next concept. As simple as it sounds, we don’t enforce projects on people; we build projects around people.
P&B: Does that mean you have to change operational strategy when operating in different areas of the UK?
YAM: We believe it is all about understanding an area, so we adapt by bringing local operators into our projects and then we supply the infrastructure, back-of-house, vision and strategy. We always invite locals to run the operation the way that the local culture will appreciate and understand the most, which helps in recruitment, credibility and much more. It’s all about removing the ego from the equation.
P&B: Where do you think are the biggest opportunities in the hospitality sector?
YAM: We’ve been working in most sectors, from food hall markets to hotel bars and coffee shops, and have really made our mark in the lunch trade. Casual dining is limitless, but whoever can explore and work the magic of changing customer habits for lunch will find the greatest opportunity in the industry.
P&B: What are your biggest frustrations and how do you overcome them?
YAM: For an industry based on looking after people, gathering people around a drink or a meal, our industry doesn’t work together. We are looking to change that – watch this space.
P&B: Finally, what are your plans for The Initiative going forward?
YAM: We are consolidating our portfolio, as it has been two crazy years with 14 openings. In 2020, we are looking at international opportunities and building with consistency our retail brands Deja Brov Beer and Bedouin Coffee.