“I couldn't say it’s 100% different, but it's not a long way off,” the Adventure Bar Group's Tobias Jackson reflects on the impact of more than a year of on again, off again pandemic trade on his now 12-site business.
“We went into lockdown one as a London-based, late-night, wet-led concept – everything we did was pretty much between 5pm and 2am,” he tells The Morning Advertiser (MA). “A lot of it was weighted towards the weekends and evenings.
“We knew during lockdown that however we're allowed to open, we were going to be compromised. So we've been looking at creating opportunities for investors and landlords, and that's where our opportunities come from. We've been proactive, going out looking for investment, looking for sites.”
The approach has not left them empty handed.
Just days after Jackson wrapped his Zoom call with The MA from the sun-drenched terrace of Bar Elba in Waterloo, news broke that Nightcap – the hospitality firm co-founded by ex-Dragon’s Den investor Sarah Willingham which purchased London Cocktail Club in January – had acquired Adventure Bar Group for an undisclosed sum.
Jackson, who alongside co-founder Thomas Kidd will continue to steer brands including Tonight Josephine, Bar Elba and Luna Springs, says that a routine of planning the next five years, without a “grant exit strategy” has always served him and Kidd well.
“We absolutely love having this company that we started when we were 23,” he says. “It took us a long, long time, 16 years, to get to this point and I think the plan is always to keep growing because we can and it's fun. That's what you should do good brands, you should grow them and take them to more people.”
Consolidation and opportunity
News of Adventure’s latest chapter came amid a flurry of mergers and acquisitions across the hospitality industry, with Nightcap boss Willingham claiming that the opportunity to acquire “first-class sites” at attractive rates was unmatched by anything she’s seen during a 25-year sector stint.
Since the turn of the year, for example, London-based stalwart Young’s confirmed plans to sell its tenanted businesswhile Rooney Anand fronted, American backed, RedCat Pub Company entered the sector scrum, purchasing 42 pubs from Stonegate Pub Company for an undisclosed fee at the end of March.
What’s more, the founders of London-based ETM Group have also announced plans to raise £4.3m to fund new seven-site venture, Maven Leisure, while multiple operator Red Oak Taverns has also acquired 10 leased and tenanted pubs from operator and brewer Wells & Co for an undisclosed sum this year.
“I think there's going to be people looking to consolidate and people looking for opportunity,” Jackson reflects.
“I think there'll be some opportunities on the back of other people's adversity – which is not the way anyone wants it to be, but it's a reality of the situation – and there'll be opportunities from an entrepreneurial standpoint where people will try and find a different way of doing things.”
One such opening has seen Adventure stretch beyond the capital for the first time in its 16-year history with the purchase of two sites in Birmingham – outdoor bar and dining concept Luna Springs in Digbeth and Tonight Josephine, in the city’s centre.
“An idea was sold to us by the landlord – we’d been talking to them about looking for a site in Digbeth, it's got a fantastic reputation,” Jackson explains.
“They had a kind of dream for it, but it was up to us to add what we're good at and what we can do to it. They had an opportunity, we took the opportunity. There are different ways that that that comes about. There will be plenty of opportunities due the pandemic – but there are opportunities every year.”
‘The fun of expanding’
Despite sector-wide Covid symptoms, the search for new opportunities is still, nonetheless, dictated by demographic, footfall and brand, according to Jackson – irrespective of how far off the beaten track Adventure strays. “I don't think that all of our brands would naturally lend themselves to wherever we wanted to put them,” he tells The MA.
“I think everyone does this, similarly, but different, really,” he adds. “We have all these different markers, and we also look at which competition is doing well just from visiting areas and talking to people we know and people in the industry. We're very collaborative industry, we do talk, it's one of the great things about hospitality.
“I think the end of the day, we have a group of brands, a way of working and a lot of learnings from last year that lend themselves really well to a lot more places than we've dared to go so far,” Jackson continues.
“I think that being an operator, it's our duty to take what we love and give it to more people – that's the fun of expanding.”
With this in mind, Jackson believes that as the industry bounces back from its Covid symptoms experiential concepts continue to go from “strength to strength” with new concepts and operators – including Jackson – setting the ball rolling with new on-trade experiences.
“They're not exactly axe throwing, but a lot of our overall offering has become a lot more experiential,” he says. “A lot fewer customers turn up, have some drinks with friends, and go home again. There's a lot of pre-booked, a lot of ticketed events and I think people will pay for great experience.
“It'd be great to see places like Secret Cinema able to do what they do again,” Jackson continues. “I think experiential is best positioned, but I think everyone needs these restrictions to ease when it's safe to do so.”
‘No need to rush’
Having initially visited the site of Tonight Josephine in Birmingham in November 2018, Jackson explains that spreading his firm’s brands to more customers and cities adds a “layer of complexity” to the business and as such, he sees no need to rush Adventure’s expansion trail.
“I've lived in and around London my entire life and I live just outside southwest London,” he says. “Naturally we’d probably look at expanding North first, with all the massive cities and amazing places that we're not currently in.
“There’s no need to rush, there are loads of great areas in London and there are lots of operators who have way more sites than us just in London. There was never any need to, really, but you find one great no brainer site, in for a penny in for a pound, and we don't have any reason not to keep looking now.”
“I don't think we ever intentionally hadn't left London, apart from the fact that we hadn't really needed to,” Jackson adds.
“I think the first stage of leaving London was always to open a site we believed would be a no brainer. We found this site, absolutely loved it, did some research on the city, and the area, and absolutely loved it – we just made it happen.
“As we've seen with many companies in the past, opening one site in a new area was always the gateway to opening more,” he continues. “We will be looking further afield – we've already opened a second site in Birmingham – and we'll absolutely be looking at other cities too.”
Even before Nightcap’s acquisition of Adventure in April of this year, Jackson described the operator as a “fundamentally different” business to the one which saw sites shuttered in March 2020.
“We created all these new parts of the business knowing that in the future that we can trade profitably,” he says.
"We're very fortunate – we’ve worked very hard to be able to say that – but we can trade profitably with lots of different restrictions. But because we prioritised natural extensions to the current business, we are able to add that new part of the business onto the existing model when restrictions lifts.”
Yet while Nightcap seeks to raise in the region of £4m through the placing of new shares with investors to fund the roll out of brands such as Tonight Josephine, Bar Elba and Luna Springs in a bid to expand Adventure Bar up to 40 sites nationwide, Jackson doesn’t feel pressure to open sites.
“There is a pipeline, but we’ll open the right sites when we find them,” he says. “We're not going to overpay for sites – I don't think that's the current market.
“I think it's about finding opportunity and having options. We're not going to be forced to open the wrong venue in the wrong city – there's no pressure to.
“I'm looking forward to finding those sites in the next six to 12 months, but if I can't find them, I'm not panicking at all.”