Alchemist boss pinpoints awards success, gripe over Gov levy

By Gary Lloyd

- Last updated on GMT

Speed of service: The Alchemist head of bars Jonathan Fraser-Prinn says training is key to the brand's success
Speed of service: The Alchemist head of bars Jonathan Fraser-Prinn says training is key to the brand's success

Related tags Cocktails Multi-site pub operators Training Publican awards

Winner of Best Drinks Offer at the Publican Awards – The Alchemist – has admitted it has a unique model and always aims to be at the forefront of innovation to keep it ahead of rivals.

Head of bars Jonathan Fraser-Prinn also told The Morning Advertiser​ (MA​) a bugbear of his is that the apprenticeship levy that many hospitality businesses pay into is virtually useless in terms of using it for its intended purpose and needs a review.

The Alchemist saw off competition from Albion & East and Casa Hotels in the final of Best Drinks Offer to take the title​ at the prestigious Publican Awards, which took place at the end of March​.

Fraser-Prinn told the MA ​what he thought constitutes a good drinks offer: “I’ve put this down to three things: creativity, innovation and breadth of product offering. A lot of effort and time goes into curating our cocktails, wines, beer and non-alcoholic options.

“We’re always ensuring we’ve got products we are proud to stock and premium lines that the market wants.

“There’s an element of bravery where we look at trends but when we are, ultimately making decisions, we need to be at the forefront of them or leading them. So we’ve got a lot to talk about and there is a lot of thought that goes into that.”

The Alchemist proves its bravery by having best-selling drinks available that it is ready to ditch in the name of advancement. Prinn explains: “There’s an old mantra, which we’ve used that since the inception of The Alchemist, which is ‘failure of success’ and it very much is that that. You might be good, you might be fine now, but you need to keep pushing the envelope and not rest on your laurels otherwise you will get left behind."

Fundamental ethos

He continued: “We do something very unique, which is speakeasy-style molecular cocktails made at speed and delivered with a dash of theatre.

“Every drink is designed from the ground up to pack a punch but is carefully constructed so bartenders can sling them out at pace. We can definitely do this because one of the core tenants of our business is the training programme for the bartenders, which is a month-long programme from start to finish. It takes someone from being a bar support to one-on-one to being able to make these drinks. It’s this core fundamental ethos of good training and that’s what allows us to deliver these fantastic offerings.”

Fraser-Prinn exalts the virtues of great training and meticulous planning further. He says a customer can order a cocktail and just one minute later it is ready to drink. The team members are trained in such a way that the muscle memory is there on the bottles at each station and drinks are designed to be produced quickly and at arm’s length so they can be completed “with panache and real speed”. 

He adds: “Our guys’ stations are set up so maybe they have to turn around to grab a couple of bottles from the back bar but everything else is in the speed rail or the ice rail – everything’s thought out and considered. It’s a science and a bit of F1 theory where minimal gains can shave off a second here and there but equally, the quality of the product is good.”

The business has a new menu launching on Tuesday 2 May that focuses on guest interaction, playfulness and ties into amplifying the late-night offering but Fraser-Prinn isn’t revealing all the secrets yet.

“The late night is very much a key focus for us and harks back to our original bar roots and how things were pre-Covid – there’s dry ice, there’s fire and there’s flair and really creating that cocktail moment,” he says.

“We’ve got some really disruptive shots unlike you’ve ever seen before. They’re in a very sort of playful vessel that will elicit some smiles. It’s not just a Tequila or a Sambuca but it’s us crafting a cocktail to shoot in a very playful Alchemist way. It’s going to be pretty cool.”

The Alchemist will also use lights in one of the serves in what it calls a very creative fashion that complements the bars’ dark yet luxury environments. The menu is designed to show off bartenders’ talents and encourage guest interaction.

The business is also taking its UK success story to Germany with a new site set to open in Berlin this year.

People want an experience

On the current challenges facing the sector, Fraser-Prinn argues: “Like all operators in the sector, it’s certainly been a challenge to navigate this cost-of-living crisis and ensuring not to pass all the costs on to the guests because value for money is key and money is tight for a lot of people at the moment.

“What’s really important to us is delivering a great and unique product each and every time to each and every guest. We capture theatrical moments with fun and creative serves that can’t be replicated at home or elsewhere. People want an experience and that’s what we deliver. People are going out less but want to pick more experiential places like The Alchemist so we need to deliver on that every time.”

More help from the Government on support with energy bills would be welcome and a business rates system that is “archaic with incorrect valuations and egregious timescales” to go through refunding processes is just too long a process, he says and “it certainly needs to be up for review”.

The apprenticeship levy is a real gripe for the head of bars at the business that has more than 20 UK-wide sites. He says: “Being a training company, the apprenticeship levy is something we notice. All businesses of a particular size in the hospitality sector pay into this pot that is set to be used for training and development.

“However, to access this money, you’ve got to jump through a lot of hoops and do so through accredited training providers but a lot of the training we provide on a practical level within our bartenders, servers and chefs is actually of a higher standard than what you’re getting from a lot of these training companies so we can’t use any of that money in-house to improve our training infrastructure.

“It seems like a bit of a bonkers system that needs an overhaul really. If you can demonstrate good practices in-house and you’re doing things for the betterment of your staff, you should be able to access that pot of money that you’re paying into.”

Related topics Spirits & Cocktails

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