Big Interview: Be At One's Steve Locke and Andrew Stones

By Claire Churchard contact

- Last updated on GMT

Party on: L-R Be At One finance director Toby Rolph, HR director Graham McDonnell, operations director Andrew Stones and managing director Steve Locke
Party on: L-R Be At One finance director Toby Rolph, HR director Graham McDonnell, operations director Andrew Stones and managing director Steve Locke

Related tags: Cocktails, Cocktail, Bartender

Be At One’s Steve Locke and Andrew Stones reveal how speedy yet great cocktails have been the basis for a business that is still keeping the party going.

Be At One’s managing director Steve Locke knows his cocktails. And so he should. He started out as a bartender at TGI Fridays when bartending and cocktails were the restaurant chain’s USP.

It was in the crucible of the early ’90s TGIs, with its cocktail theatre and strong emphasis on customer service that Locke met Rhys Oldfield and Leigh Miller – all of them award-winning bartenders.

After working together for a number of years, the three friends founded the Be At One (BAO) cocktail group in 1998, with pure determination and a trio of re-purposed car loans.

Locke and Andrew Stones, the operations director who joined in 2011, explain at the group’s head office in west London that the reason BAO exists is to get the party started. And from the company’s 2016 turnover figures – £29.8m during the financial year that ended in March 2016 – it is clearly keeping that party going.

An unpretentious environment

Today, the group’s soon-to-be 33-strong portfolio of bars spans the UK, offering high-quality cocktails in a friendly, unpretentious environment. Number 33 will be in Bournemouth.

Virtuous cocktails

Be At One has a whole range of ‘virtuous’ cocktails to capitalise on the trend for healthier alternatives. It has seen strong growth in this range, which now accounts for 7% of its sales.

It’s not necessarily that the drinks are non-alcoholic, it’s more about using unrefined sugars and healthier ingredients alongside a lower alcohol content. Specialities include The Swedish Death Nettle (Absolut Elyx, nettle cordial, fresh lemon juice, English breakfast tea and soda water) and Bee’s Knees (Beefeater gin, lemon juice, Manuka honey and pollen syrup).

BAO’s ability to capitalise on the growing popularity of cocktails, which is increasing 4% year on year according to Locke, is part of the reason that private equity firm Piper – which also backs Loungers, Las Iguanas and Turtle Bay –decided to buy a minority stake in 2011.

But great-tasting cocktails are not the only reason for the group’s ongoing success. People are the key to a great party, and Locke and Stones clearly understand this. The group invests £6,000 training each bartender, which may seem like a lot, but is a critical factor in their success.

Locke says: “Lots of people are trying to do cocktails, but to do them well takes quite a lot of time, money and effort, and that is our point of difference. When we’re spending £6,000 training every single bartender, that’s what keeps us separate.”

He says that the majority of bars and restaurants that are doing cocktails do so alongside their main offer because they’re either a restaurant – and food is what they’re really supplying – or they’re a pub or a wine bar, and it’s more of an afterthought.

“I went into a very well-known branded bar and I was waiting for a bottle of wine and the bartender was literally off the bar for 10 minutes making two espresso Martinis,” Locke says distinctly unimpressed.

“We focus on getting drinks to people quickly, so people will come in and have a cocktail as opposed to having a gin and tonic.”

Such a large investment in training pays off, as Locke says BAO generates quite a lot of profit per employee. There are bigger businesses out there that have more employees, but don’t make as much money as we do because our guys are also salesmen and they’re delivering a product, he says.

Stones adds: “We’ve got two bartenders in the business that have currently taken over £1m in revenue.”

But Locke says, when people are that good, “you need to work hard to make sure that you are paying them just that little bit more than they are worth, otherwise they wander off”.

With so much at stake, it’s vital to recruit the right people and personality is critical, says Stones.

“We only recruit full-time bartenders, so they have to demonstrate that they are serious about it,” he says. The process is pretty rigorous, there’s a psychometric test, telephone interview and a trial shift where they are tested on whether they can make a selection of cocktails they’ve been sent and asked to memorise beforehand. But that’s not the end, then they have a face-to-face interview with a more senior manager. “Fundamentally, they need to convince the interviewer that you’d want to sit on their station within a bar.”

Once they’re in, the training begins and its clearly something that is still close to Locke’s heart because he was once a bartending trainer at TGIs. “TGIs was the place to go to learn to bar tend. I was drawn to that because there was nobody else doing that sort of training at that time,” he says.

Locke, Oldfield and Miller were all trainers at TGIs. Locke says: “If you were a trainer back then at Fridays, it was one of the most highly respected roles in the business as it is now within BAO.

“We’ve always said we are a training business as much as a cocktail business. It’s evolved over the years as the offering has evolved, but its fundamentals are still the same. What we talk about in terms of consistency and delivering a consistent product has been the same since day one.”

Customer engagement rules

And their techniques are subtle but powerful – with the 5, 60, 30 rule being the pithiest. It requires bartenders to make eye contact with customers within five seconds of a guest walking through the door or up to the bar. Then they have 60 seconds to make the cocktail and then 30 seconds to give guests their change back or set up a tab.

The crucial nature of customer engagement and friendly service is the thing that Locke, Oldfield and Miller honed to a fine art as they built their business. Locke says: “It was quite literally handshakes and names from day one – we built the business one guest at a time.”

They tell every new bartender this story the day they start working at BAO. “From day one, we knew that whoever came to the door we needed to make sure of two things. One, that they had such a good time that they’d come back and two, that they’d bring a friend. That was all you need to do.

“If someone comes in today they won’t necessarily come back tomorrow or next week but within 90 days they’ll be back. And for 19 years we’ve built it like that,” smiles Locke.

Stones adds: “One of my favourite stats from our most recent guest survey, is that 53% of our guests have visited BAO for the first time because it was recommended by a friend, it was a referral. That recommendation, because people have had a good time in a bar, is critical.”

Second site mistakes

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the BAO founders. After working more than 100 hours a week to make their first site in Battersea a success, the trio were ready to open their second bar.

“With our first bar, we’d made our money back in 12 months. We were buoyed by that, so we smashed into our second project, which was buying a site in Wandsworth, south London.

“What we didn’t appreciate was that, with Battersea, we’d opened a great site in a great spot. Our second site was in a less great spot – we didn’t appreciate the importance of location at that time – and it was more expensive. Then we also committed the ultimate crime of diversifying into food.” BAO invested heavily in the kitchen, hiring chefs, kitchen porters, waiters, but barely sold any food.

The second site lost almost as much money as the first site made. The trio learned an important lesson “stick to your guns and do what you are good at – cocktails”.

Locke says: “Even today you see other businesses do it. When times are tough they diversify rather than specialise. We’ve specialised more. So when things are tough, rather than offer coffee or different types of products, we offer better cocktails and do what we do better. That has been the key to our success for 19 years.”

Once the plan to expand was set, the business didn’t really look back, growing at a steady pace. Then in 2005, the founders changed banks to RBS, which lent them money based on the value of the leases they already held. It made a fundamental difference, says Locke.

Purchasing better sites

“We were in this position where we could buy better sites. And make them look better. In 2007, when we opened our seventh site, in Putney we replicated the success of Battersea and made about £1m that year. That was a real turning point.”

With structure and funding in place, BAO started to get interest from private equity at that point. “We could see it scaling and that’s when we decided to start professionalising the business. That’s when Andrew (Stones) came on board. And at every step, every year we’ll professionalise another element of our business without exception. It just kicks you on faster,” says Locke.

Other innovations followed such as the beautifully designed picture menu, which makes the BAO range of 122 cocktails very accessible. Clear, clean images of the most popular cocktails shown as they will be served in the glass are arranged throughout the menu with details of the ingredients in each one. It’s a key tool for the bartenders.

Selling via the picture menu

When the bartender gives you a menu, it will be deliberately open on the centre pages,” says Locke. “The largest percentage of our sales come through these pages. It’s like the ends of the aisles of the supermarket.”

Stones says: “There’s a fear factor around cocktails for everybody. So having things like the shape of the cocktail glass on the menu helps people to understand the style of drink they’re going to get.”

Beer cocktails are another innovation intended to entice more male cocktail drinkers. Stones says they serve them in a tankard to make men who normally drink a pint of beer feel comfortable.”

Even the way bartenders approach you with the menu is deliberate. Locke explains: “They’ll give you the menu and say I’ll give you a minute. The physicality of giving it to you and then stepping back as opposed to asking ‘what do you want?’ straight away takes the pressure off. If you make people feel pressured they’ll say ‘I’ll have a gin and tonic and a Budweiser’, which is the antithesis of everything we do.”

The UK’s top bar app

BAO also claims to have the number one downloaded bar app in the UK with more than 250,000 downloads and 25,000 app activations a month. The company uses the app to personalise ‘happy hour’ or ‘appy hour’ as they call it by encouraging people to log into the appy hour countdown to receive extra drinks offers or to check in via social media to extend the hour by 15 minutes.

Perhaps encouraged by the fact the business sold 2m cocktails last year or powered by its own virtuous cocktail range (see Virtuous cocktails), the group shows no signs of slowing down. Locke says BAO plans to open 70 sites in the next five years. This will boost the workforce from its total of 450 today to close to 1,000. With the kind of return on investment for staff training Locke and co are achieving, future profits are likely mean Champagne cocktails all round. 

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