Living Room debuts in the capital

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Living Room has just opened its first outlet in the capital. Mark Stretton meets co-founder Tim Bacon.Early evening on a wet Tuesday night and the...

Living Room has just opened its first outlet in the capital. Mark Stretton meets co-founder Tim Bacon.

Early evening on a wet Tuesday night and the new Living Room at Smithfield is buzzing. Hardly a table free, the bar is swimming with customers.

The new venue (pictured below)​, the fourth Living Room, has taken just shy of £25,000 in its first week and co-founder Tim Bacon (pictured top)​ is not displeased.

The market may be flooded with bar-led brands but few are creating waves like the expanding Manchester-born concept.

Tim and partner Jeremy Roberts have taken Living Room to London after unrivalled success in Manchester, Liverpool and most recently Birmingham. Further additions to the estate will follow in Covent Garden, Islington, Nottingham and Sheffield - the duo plan to build a 20-strong estate.

Living Room is not a pub or a bar or a restaurant but has elements of all three. "It's a space," said Tim. "It operates on many different levels. People come here for many different things and occasions - our target age group is 18 to 65. As Robert Earl said, our target audience is about 70 per cent of the western world."

Living Room, says Tim, is succeeding where the so-called chameleon bars failed, by taking money in every session of every day. "People want to spend their money at 10am as much as they do at 10pm," said Tim. "It's a place people can come day or night.

"Some thought it strange when we called it Living Room but I knew it was the perfect name." The name seems appropriate but it's not like a front-room or lounge where you would find chipboard walls adorned with flying ducks.

The bars are design-focused with sharp clean lines that please the eye, bright colours, dark wood and black leather seats. Newspaper racks and coat cupboards line the walls, panama fans rotate leisurely, and a white piano sits at the end of the bar, a dining area lies beyond.

"We are not competing or targeting the top end or cool market," said Tim. "I'm very mainstream - our bars are fashionable without being trendy.

"The key thing is the environment and the atmosphere," he said. "That equates to three things - music, lighting and temperature. The venues have a structured restaurant area, but the bar area has very little defining.

"The quality, service and commitment has to be right." Tim says barstaff can earn an annual salary of £25,000.

One of the remarkable things about Living Room is the depth and diversity of the food menu and the modest prices that go with it. It is tempting to wonder if Living Room makes any money from putting out a wonderful array of food so cheaply. "We see very good returns from our food," said Tim. "It's about rigid systems. We make complex food very simple through having the right controls in place.

"It is also about management and constant checking. It's my job to keep asking questions and to ensure everything is happening as it should."

Tim has an interesting and varied past. A former actor, he played a leading role in eighties Australian soap Sons and Daughters.

He also appeared on Terry Wogan's chat show, after he won a bartender competition.

Tim was diagnosed with a cancerous lump the size of a golfball in his thigh last year. Months of treatment ensued and he was given the all clear four months ago.

He originally cut his teeth in the trade at the Covent Garden outlet of TGI Fridays where he served up the cocktails behind the bar, after coming to London to look for work.

He quickly discovered he had a flare for bar management and set up his own firm, Barbiz Consultants. The company specialised in providing start-up staff for bar launches. Tim ran more than 60 bars through Barbiz.

In 1993, Tim and Jeremy bought J W Johnson's, a troubled bar and restaurant in Manchester that had fallen into the hands of receivers. "I was in the right place at the right time," he said. "The place had been run badly and the location was perceived to be poor but we were up and running in no time." Tim started taking £40,000 a week.

The duo have built an impressive track record since. Before Living Room they founded and sold off such brands as Starvin Marvins, Via Vita and Life Café.Now the entrepreneurs are grabbing the headlines for their current project. They founded Living Ventures, the parent company for Living Room in 1999.

The first outlet in Manchester was not without teething problems, especially crowd control. Tim says he knew it was time to get help when a gun was pulled in the venue.

Tim didn't look far, turning to his brother, Chris, a Commonwealth judo gold medalist and an amateur boxer. "Chris started visiting all the local gyms in Manchester," said Tim. "He would step in to the ring and take out all the top guys.

"Then people would see him on the door on a Friday night - the trouble just went away." Venues followed in Liverpool and Birmingham.

Living Ventures, which is backed by Sagitta Private Equity, recently appointed Alan Jackson as its non-executive chairman. Mr Jackson is also chairman of City Centre Restaurants and Jamie's Bars, the City wine-led brand, and a non-executive of De Vere, the hotel leisure group.

Sagitta's investment of £2m has given it a 30 per cent stake, with the balance held by Tim and Jeremy, who funded the first two openings and recently invested a further £1m of their own money ahead of the roll-out. The duo also have a debt facility with the Bank of Scotland for up to £2m.

Last month, Living Room hit London, launching the company's fourth venue at Smithfield market, EC1. "I have opened bars in London before," he said. "To be honest it was an easy decision to take because London has the masses."

The Living Room is not short of celebrity endorsements. The Liverpool and Manchester outlets are often the favoured choice of venue of the high-profile professional footballers who ply their trade at Anfield and Old Trafford.

But Tim says Living Room is not some pretentious celebrity hangout. "We can't get rid of Fabien Barthez - he's always in there," he jokes. "People like that come in here because its low key, and they know they will have a fairly hassle-free night."

The Living Ventures founder says Living Room is the culmination of 15 years of experience in the business.

"I was a bartender who didn't have a pot to piss in," he said. "The next five or six openings are key - then we will really know what we've got. But, aside from being absolutely passionate, we totally believe in Living Room."

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