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Secrets behind the success of North Bar/North Brewing Co

By Nikkie Thatcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Beer, Multi-site pub operators, Leeds, Training, Pubco + head office, Craft beer, Publican awards

Off the back of North Bar/North Brewing Co’s recent win at the 2021 Publican Awards, The Morning Advertiser caught up (virtually of course) with head of retail Fiona Potts just before the company opened its latest venue for outdoor trading.

Potts started her career in hospitality working behind the bar at weekends, as a second job. A path that led her to where she is today.

"I had started nursing and then went into a PA course and at the weekends wanted to do a bar job," she says.

“There was a place in Leeds called Town House, which was brilliant. It was a massive old building, three floors and I loved it but wanted to continue doing my PA side.

“So I hounded the Living Room in Leeds. They didn't have a role at that point, it was just in Manchester and they offered me a PA job. At that time it meant doing bookings, events Monday to Friday working in hospitality.

“I thought it was a perfect opportunity but travelling to Manchester from Leeds every day wasn't great. So instead I hounded the GM in Leeds and said I wanted a job and eventually I got one.

“I was there for about a year and a half and I loved the role but wanted my next step.”

'Tim Bacon inspired me to stay in the industry.'

Realising just how much she enjoyed working in the sector, Potts went on to stay with Living Ventures, travelling to different cities and heading up a variety of venues.

“I stayed there and became restaurant manager then continued my career with Living Ventures for a number of years,” she adds.

“I went to Manchester as assistant GM, then went to Glasgow as a GM, them Newcastle for a couple of years as a GM with Living Ventures and loved it.

“Living Ventures at the time, grounded me, gave me a really good standing, Tim Bacon, who was the CEO and unfortunately passed away a few years ago, was really inspiring and inspired me to stay in the industry.

“Then as everyone does, I had a career break and I went to Australia for a year, loved that but came back home, to Manchester and I went back to Living Room.

“In hospitality, everyone enjoys it but sometimes the late nights, seven days a week, you think 'is there something else I'd like to get into' but still within the remit of hospitality.

“I went back to Living Ventures in Manchester, the Living Room on Deansgate. I was doing business development there and it was meant to be a stop-gap but two years later I was still there.”

The site changed hands a number of times while Potts was there and she moved to another venue within the estate.

“At the time, I had gone through different stages with Living Room,” the now head of retail explains. “It was hard, it was tough, there was different owners, different ways of management. I went back to Living Room in Manchester and was BDM (business development manager).

“An opportunity came up at the Oast House in Manchester, which was then owned by Living Ventures. Tim Bacon was setting up new brands by creating a new brand that would eventually be sold on so New World Trading Company and The Alchemist and the Oast House was part of New World Trading Company.

“I managed to get the GM role at the Oast House. I had not been a GM there for four years.

“When it was first set up, it was meant to be a pop up and it stayed because it was doing ridiculous, incredible numbers. In winter it had a big tipi, in summer there was a massive outdoor space. There was a stage with music every night.

“The actual Oast House itself was small but outside it could hold about 1,000 people. I took on the role as GM at the busiest point in summer, I don't think it rained for about a month.

“It was incredible. Tough for two years but I never looked back.”

Potts used the experience she had in previous roles to make her mark at the Manchester venue and push forwards in her career.

'When you've left the industry for a couple of years, when you go back to it and you become a GM again, you come back with different eyes and see it differently.'

She says: “The grounding I got previously from Living Room and Living Ventures, I took that on at the Oast House.

“When you've left the industry for a couple of years, when you go back to it and you become a GM again, you come back with different eyes and see it differently.

“You've matured, grown up, you deal with situations differently. It was great. I spent two years then I was at the point for my next challenge so I went into ops for New World.

“At that point, we had six bars in total, just opening Birmingham when I started. I was looking after an area from Newcastle down to Birmingham, then we opened down south so I opened a couple of sites down south and moved down south for a while.”

After a number of years running sites, Potts made the decision to change direction slightly but wanted to remain in the hospitality sector.

“Then decided to have a change of career path and wanted to go down the training side more, the HR and admin side,” she explains.

“HR has always been seen as disciplinaries, all about culture, training, how to develop staff, it's not just seen as a bad route.

“I saw an advert for North, I had moved back up north at this point. I loved North's bars, I used to go to them 20 years ago on New Briggate.”

This presented an opportunity for her to remain in the industry while pursuing a slightly different road.

North Brewing beer
North Brewing Co is the company's production arm and creates a multitude of different beers for the on and off-trade (credit: Nick Maw)

“I thought it was a great opportunity for me to try something new because they were looking for an HR and admin assistant and I could do the Chartered Institute of Personal Development (CIPD) course at the same time," Potts explains.

“It was funny, when I had my interview, I had just moved into a new flat in Leeds and it turned out, the flat I was moving into, was exactly the same flat as the finance director who was interviewing me, that she had lived in two years previously. It felt like it was meant to be.”

This was the start of Potts’ adventure with North less than three years ago, after starting with the Leeds-based business in an admin and HR role, which lasted about four months.

She reflects: “I started in the September and at the end of November they opened a city tap in Leeds. The old ops manager was leaving.

"At this point, I wasn't sure if I wanted to go back into ops. When I did it before, it was a lot. A lot of travelling seven days a week, every hour and I wanted to ensure I had that work-life balance.

“I could see North really did encourage the work-life balance. John [Gyngell] and Christian [Townsley] really wanted to support that. The ops manager left and John took me for lunch and asked me if I would like the ops manager role.

“I thought about it and this is what excites me. I thought I wanted to go down a different route and you sometimes do have to do that but actually I want to be in the thick of it.

“I love being in the bars, I love the management of it, I love the excitement of it. The firefighting at times, it can be stressful but it is so much fun. I took on the ops role.

“They wanted to business to grow, I could see the direction they wanted but still having that work-life balance and encouraging that culture while growing the business.”

Potts outlines how much she appreciates the opportunity North presents her with and how much she enjoys her role, with its ever-evolving criteria.

North Springwell bar
The company's latest venture - Springwell - is a diverse space, which the company is hoping makes is somewhere for all to access.

She says: “I was lucky, it happened at the right time and they took a chance on me. Other companies could have seen me coming in and thought I was too experienced but what John and Christian saw was what I could bring to the company because I had worked for other people and my passion and took a chance on me.

“Without sounding soft, it really is the best company I have ever worked for. I was with Living Ventures and New World for a long time and I have a lot to owe them but I feel like I am part of something really big with North.

“I started at the right time, where I can make an impression, I can make a change and that's what we are doing.”

North as a company has been running for more than two decades, openings the first venue – North Bar – almost a quarter of a century ago and Potts highlights how the business has gone from strength to strength since.

This includes expanding its portfolio of bars alongside its production arm North Brewing Co, meaning its beers are now sold in the off-trade too.

She looks back on the changes she has introduced in the relatively short time she’s been with the business.

North Bar
North Bar first opened more than 20 years ago (credit: Nick Maw)

Potts adds: “That first year we introduced a trainer, training manuals. The bars in North because they were all organically opened, when they opened North Bar 24 years ago, they just wanted a really good bar.

“Then they opened Further North then Alfred and so on. It hasn't been so many a year it has been every so often when it felt right and when they found the right site.

“So when they have opened the systems weren't always the same all the time and going through quite a few different managers because it was 24-years-old.

“One of the things I wanted to do was introduced a training plan that was the same through every site, every person got the same training and follow up.

“Some of the sites are quite small as well so might have three members of staff or lone working so it was to ensure everyone got the same standard of training and every customer got the same service. That was a really big focus.”

Having the brewing side opens up a whole host of other things to consider from a supplier point of view, with different team members completely and one thing Potts wanted to ensure was all staff felt as one.

“Also an emphasis on involving the bars in the brewery as well. We introduced brew days, making sure all the bar staff knew the brewery staff, that was the intense focus for the first half of my year,” she adds.

'I could see North really did encourage the work-life balance.'

And if that wasn’t enough, she was also instrumental in developing offers at the bars with a plethora of different initiatives to incorporate food too.

“Introducing things like food pop ups, different training days for customers, away days as well so involving the community in the bars, that was another focus.

“Before Covid-19 hit, we had lots of plans for that year to potentially go to different cities, look at new areas and obviously Springwell, which we did still manage to do.

“We also managed to do the web shop, home deliveries and create a completely new retail side, which has been phenomenal and has saved us. As well as having a broad spread of sales across different avenues.”

But, all this, of course, hasn’t been without its challenges. People present the biggest one, Potts says but also a chance to learn and evolve.

She says: “The biggest learning curve is also the biggest challenge and people management.

“One of the things is when you're a GM and it's your first time doing it, stepping up to assistant manager to GM is tough, there's a lot more pressure and being able to trust the team under you to do what you ask them to do and the same expectations.

“Not doing everything yourself because you get burnt out, frustrated, angry, the biggest thing is leading by example.

“It's okay saying it but actually getting your management team and the rest of the team to do that is really tough.”

In fact, Potts looked upon her time running sites as one of the largest challenges she has faced in her career but also the silver lining that came with.

“The toughest time was at Oast House because it was a big operation. You could go in after being off for a few days and things weren't done or how you would do it.

“By telling people how to do it all the time, you're not letting them think by themselves so it's giving the management team and the staff the ownership and ability to think for themselves rather than you telling them all the time so it becomes second nature to them.

“It was really about them thinking on their own and you giving them the space to think, to make mistakes and to follow up.

“The biggest challenge was getting managers to think for themselves and to follow your example and I did that by getting them to think on, giving them space, getting them to come to you with ideas but really following up to not just leaving it.

“That's probably the challenge we have had after Covid-19 as well. Last year, we were being told what to do so we were telling managers how to open a site, how it needed to look, how the bottle shop needed to look and then now we are growing the business again, I can't be at every bar every day so I need them to think on their own.

“They are so used to me telling them what to do because I'm being led by the Government, we now need them to think for themselves again.

“It's really hard to change people's habits. The guys did really well.”

It goes without saying customers come into the challenging environment managing people can bring and this was also something Potts references when discussing learnings.

She adds: “Table service was always a thing for us. Don't get me wrong, 80% of customers were brilliant and we got so many comments back saying they were comfortable and felt safe but you're always going to get that 10% or 20% of customers who don't want to adhere to the rules, don't see why and it's politely saying that's fine and if you don't want to be here, that's fine.

“But everyone wants to support us really. We saw that when we did home deliveries.

“When Boris said don't go out but you can do before we had to close down and people were just buying beer over the phone, saying 'I don't need any more but I want to do it to support you' and that's what we want to progress to, to other cities, expand North and expand the brand, for people to know us all over.

“We are international and people across the world do know us and want to work with us. Because it has been going for 24 years, it's not just about craft beer, it's about a good bar, good culture, people can go in if they are 18 or 80, you can sit on your own, have a drink, read your book, you don't feel intimidated, it's just a nice, good place to go.

“That has made it easier for us when we did reopen. It wasn't just seen as pint after pint, people wanted to come back, support us in a nice atmosphere. It was tough, restrictions were changing left, right and centre, goalposts were moved.”

'As much as it was a hell of a year, it was good, I love a crisis, it was exciting at times.'

The ever-changing restrictions and with sites in different areas meant the company, like many others in the sector, was having to keep on top of rules and regulations across various local authorities but Potts outlines how circumstances like these are times when she thrives.

“Leeds Council was different to Sheffield Council. They weren't sure at times, getting told different things,” she says.

“At one point, we were told we had to do food at one of the bars and we didn't. I went and bought a car full of noodles then was told we didn't need to. It was back and forth, changing constantly.

“When you're in operations and you have been a GM, you almost love a crisis and you revel in it. It keeps you on your toes and it keeps you good, controlled paranoia.

“As much as it was a hell of a year, it was good, I love a crisis, it was exciting at times. 

“It was thinking 'what can we do now', we weren't just going to shut and accept it, we made the most of it and I do enjoy that side, which is why I like the operations side.”

Now to looking ahead, North is steaming forward with expansion plans and has recently opened up Springwell in north Leeds​ – a new 500-person taproom in the 21,000sq ft factory and increasing its brewing output to 16,000 hectolitres (2.8m pints a year).

The new site gives a central hub for the brewery and its on-trade arm North Bar’s seven sites and taprooms, allowing brewing and bar operations to be under the same roof.

Potts gives an insight into how this latest venture came about and why the decision was made during the pandemic: “We were looking to expand the brewery a couple of years ago.

“Springwell is an old tannery. Before Covid hit, we were going to start work in June time and we decided to continue with that.

“We started work in July and we opened, we started brewing at the end of January 2021. We moved head office here, we have got the Springwell tap, we are going to be doing beer festivals.

“We have a lot more brewing capacity. We still kept Taveners (North’s brewery tap in Sheepscar, Leeds) as well.”

However, the new site isn’t just there to increase beer production, but to the hub of its community, for customers and staff.

Potts says: “We have set up the Springwell charter so it's part of, we are looking at equality, diversity, sustainability, culture, accessibility.

“Those five pillars aren't just there to be opened with but to continually improve. Accessibility is we are looking at Braille menus, wheelchair users, gluten-free, vegan options, family-friendly, it's not just adults but for children as well.

“We are involving the community. There's Meanwood Farm just up the road, there's yoga space. We want it to be a landmark destination.

“It's a dream come true for all of us. It's really putting North on the map internationally. It gives us the ability to brew a lot more, of course and to get the name out there.”

But on the brewing side of things, Springwell has opened up opportunities for the company to create different beers – something it was unable to do before.

“It has given us the capability to do our Springwell Pils as well. We've never done a Pils before, a lager because it takes so long to brew and we never had the space or capacity at Taveners and we would always use Veltins in the bars,” Potts says.

'[Springwell] is a space for all.'

“When we opened with no Veltins and all the bars had Springwell, customers were saying 'I was really wanting to hate that Springwell because I like Veltins' but everyone loves it, which is really good.

“It's given us the ability to do more specials, more cask, the Springwell Pils, gluten-free, it's a bigger scope. We are also looking at doing more for supermarkets.

“We're not snobbish, we just want to sell good beer to everyone and it be accessible to everyone. Springwell itself as a brewery is accessible.

“It's not just for beer lovers it's for a real range of people, whether you like cocktails, wine, soft drinks, just have a space to come and work as well. It's for the staff.

“At the back of Springwell, we are going to build a fire pit, have benches, staff can enjoy that space. We are going to have a gym upstairs, we have got showers.

“It's a good work space, it's not just an office. For brewers, it's hard brewing, it's hard canning, it's not fun, it's hot, it's tiring, you're on your feet all day and if we can give them the opportunity to have a shower, to relax afterwards with a drink or just sit in the sun, with a book, then that's what we can do.

“We've got solar panels, within the company, we have an environmental champion, charity champion, mental health champion and it's all about creating a better working environment, not just for us but for the whole world.”

Related topics: MA Leaders Club