Security cameras were always at the heart of entrepreneur Nick Desai's plans for his innovative brewery-bar-restaurant concept. He wanted to cut out theft of customer belongings and loss of earnings through the stealing of takings and was determined to prevent drug abuse in toilets.
With the third example of the Zerodegrees concept due to open in Reading this year, his principle of discreet surveillance is proving an important deterrent to bad behaviour and criminality.
"Many nightclubs employ strong-arm tactics at the door to keep undesirables out," says Nick. "We decided to go down the technology route to deter bad behaviour because we wanted to be welcoming to everyone."
The original Zerodegrees site in Bexleyheath, South East London, which opened in 1999, used analogue CCTV cameras and rack-mounted digital video recorders (DVR). Nick found the system restrictive.
"It lacked the flexibility we wanted," he explains. "Any new DVRs that were needed as we expanded were expensive and they limited the number of cameras that could be hung off each rack."
The answer was Axis network cameras, trialled at the second Zerodegrees site in Bristol in 2002 even before building was finished so Nick could keep check on progress.
"I could see that each camera had an individual network address attached to it, so I could literally pick on one specific camera, access it through a normal web browser via my laptop or PDA, and I could view specific locations in specific bars and restaurants wherever I was in the world," he says.
"It taught me cameras could be used to provide visual updates on how an outlet is doing day to day. I can check in on Friday evening to see how busy it is and how quickly people are being served, for example. I saw it as a great additional management tool as well as a security device."
A total of 16 Axis network cameras and four analogue cameras now cover both the inside and outside of the building, which is 75-metres long and contains a good number of brick walls and steel structures.
A Milestone management system pulls the network together and in total, before cabling, the system cost Zerodegrees around £6,000.
It soon proved its worth. The Bristol venue was hit by a major theft when a member of staff stole from the takings after a busy Friday night. The evidence was caught on two cameras.
"When confronted she blamed a manager but it was clear from the surveillance pictures that it was her," says Nick. "She was successfully prosecuted and ordered to pay back the full amount or face a jail sentence.
"This incident alone proved the value of the system in terms of return on investment. And we have had other incidents, including the accidental breaking of a reinforced plate-glass branded door which we caught on camera and, as a result, were able to process the insurance claim much more quickly than normal."
Network cameras are located in the downstairs bars, which tend to be vulnerable to pickpocketing or bag snatching and the wash basin areas of the toilets - clean flat areas like sinks are areas where drug users are likely to congregate.
Two contracted security guards are hired in the evenings and Nick is considering providing them with PDAs so that they can monitor activity inside the whole building via the cameras.
Cameras set up outside use 'exclusion zones' to ensure the movement of trees will not trigger the system but people walking into the upstairs entrance will, increasing refresh rates on the cameras from four to 12 frames per second for better definition and guaranteed identification of individuals.
Zerodegrees stores 31 days of images as requested by police. "The police asked for footage after a woman had a handbag stolen from the bar area," says Nick. "We provided them with the relevant images and also used the pictures to alert staff should this person come back another evening."
Images can also be viewed on a dedicated computer in the Bristol Zerodegrees office where a split screen covering all cameras is frequently monitored by the general or assistant managers or security staff.
For Nick, the surveillance system is already proving much more than a security measure. It enables him to keep in touch with his growing chain and help manage them remotely while he is on the move. "Frankly, I don't want to spend my life sitting in the car travelling between sites," he says. "I want to be able check up on progress whether it's a building site or a buzzing venue on a Friday night.
"The information I get from these cameras enables me to take the temperature of the company. The best way to iron out an issue is to see it with your own eyes, take stock and then act to ensure profitability and staff morale are not adversely affected," Nick adds.
Ensuring health and safety legislation compliance is one additional benefit of the system. The brewery, in particular, demands specific hygiene standards and only authorised staff are allowed into the restricted area where the controls and fermenting tanks are located.
"Cameras help us check procedures are observed and ensure no staff are risking their health while going about their work," explains Nick. "If there is an accident it will be valuable to have it caught on camera."
The new Zerodegrees site, which will open in Reading before the end of the year, will trial the integration of cash tills with the camera system, and the company is considering integrating the network cameras into its time and attendance system to make sure the person clocking in is the person who should be clocking in.
Another option being explored is a camera which could be open to people wanting to see a venue over the internet before making a party booking.