It’s hard to imagine a city centre in the UK without an All Bar One, a Pitcher and Piano or a Slug and Lettuce. Love them or loathe them, these modern, spacious, wood-decked bars, filled with smart young professionals, have become a permanent fixture on the UK pub scene.
Over the last decade or so, and seemingly from nowhere, this new breed of pub has emerged to dominate city centre drinking. It’s a spectacular business success story but what are the reasons behind it and, more importantly, what can you as a small business learn from it?
“The first All Bar One opened in December 1994. It was a time of major change in the British pub market, following the gentle, long-term decline of traditional pub goers,” explains Bob Cartwright, communications director for Six Continents, the company behind the All Bar One chain.
With the traditional customer base of predominately male, blue-collar pub drinkers shrinking, pub companies like Six Continents realised they had to attract new types of customers. One group in particular stood out - women.
“Social changes were changing the role of women at this time. They were taking around 80% of new jobs in knowledge based businesses and there was a dramatic shift in the age at which they were marrying and having children,” explains Cartwright.
These young, women professionals, combined with an ever-expanding group of professional men, had formed a new pub-going market – and it was clear that the existing pubs weren’t equipped to serve it.
“We needed female friendly pubs that young professionals of both sexes would want to visit. From this we came up with some ideas that seem very obvious now but which were quite revolutionary at the time.”
For a start, the buildings broke the traditional pub mould, with spacious saloons and large windows instead of the usual frosted glass frontage. “This was so people could walk past and see immediately whether it was the sort of place they would feel comfortable in,” says Cartwright.
Behind the bar, things changed as well. “Beer had always been the traditional pub drink. We decided to have a large choice of wine, displayed very clearly and available to buy by the glass or bottle. We also compiled a large [food] menu that would be attractive to both men and women.”
In short, everything about All Bar One was designed with its target market in mind – a lesson that small businesses would do well to take on board, according to Nick Shrager, member of the National Council of the Institute of Business Advisors.
“I always explain that you need to focus down on who you want to sell to. Most people starting a business are like drunks with a machine gun. They want to sell to everyone, but this isn’t necessarily a good idea.
“When I owned a pub, I wanted to sell a drink to everyone that walked in. But the fact is that not everyone wants to drink in the same bar as drunks or families with kids, for example. All Bar One focused very much on who their market was and went for it,” he comments.
So how did the company bring All Bar One to the market? “The main concern was finding the right sites,” says Cartwright. “We wanted, in particular, sites that were very visible – Leicester Square in London, for example. Having bars in high-profile locations helped establish the brand.”
“Staff were also critical. Hiring the right sort of people is not just about salaries. It is also to do with training, teamwork, flexibility and giving your staff a sense of belonging. We needed staff that could make the customers feel comfortable.”
This is another area that small businesses can focus on, explains Shrager. “It’s all about customer retention. If staff make the customers feel welcome, they’ll come back - and it’s six times easier to sell to an existing customer than to a new one.”
A theory that seems to have worked for All Bar One. The popular chain now has 52 pubs and has established itself as major brand in the UK – a success, no doubt, that quite a few small businesses would be happy to emulate.