Rob Star: ‘Increasingly, people want an experience’

By Amelie Maurice-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

From throwing parties to pouring pints: Electric Star celebrates 15 years
From throwing parties to pouring pints: Electric Star celebrates 15 years

Related tags London Property Multi-site pub operators

When Rob Star bought his first pub, he’d never poured a pint. Having spent his youth putting on raves, the call of east London’s taverns enticed him away from abandoned warehouses and archways.

Now, his pub business, Electric Star, boasts a portfolio of eight sites. It’s been 15 years since the company was founded, but launching that very first pub in Bethnal Green was the publican's biggest achievement. “We opened on a shoestring,” he remembered.  

Star was no stranger to putting on events,​ having hosted illegal raves in London since the age of 16. He’d break into places like disused factories, warehouses, and archway spaces to throw parties that drew in crowds of thousands. Progressing licencing laws meant he began to secure licences for the spaces in the early 2000s. 

The parties were just getting bigger, but the gentrification of London’s East-end meant a rise in built-up areas and drop in rave-friendly locations. 

Initially, Star wanted to buy a nightclub. But then he stumbled into the pub trade by accident. It all started with a pub in Tower Hamlets. “It had a late licence, so we still do events,” he recalled. “We put bands on, we put DJs on, and we had a 2am licence but used to get temporary licences to stay open until 4am.” 

The team had a mere £40,000 to revamp the site. Looking back, Star marvels at how they opened with so little money.  

After launching in 2008, the site begun as an event space, and then gradually evolved to include pub classics like quiz nights and a Sunday roast.  

Pubs & parties

As Star grew older, he grew away from the east London party scene. “The pub became somewhere I wanted to go in my 30s,” he continued. “It wasn’t as focused on the DJs and the events, and we started to focus a bit more on the food and other sorts of entertainment.” 

But the journey hadn’t been an easy ride. It was, in fact, a “constant rollercoaster”. By the time the Star in Bethnal Green had begun trading, the UK had plunged from the heights of a buoyant economy into a deep recession.  

“Our backs were against the wall as soon as we opened,” he said. Sometimes, however, business was just like that. “You’ve got to take the ups and downs, and you have to roll with the punches,” added Star. 

He continued: “We didn’t open our doors and expect people just to walk into the pub. We weren’t in an area with high footfall, so we’ve had to bring people to the pub with events, promotions, and lots of marketing.” 

This has now become the norm across the industry, with guests expecting entertainment​ when they go out. People don’t tend to pop to the pub for a pint, as was the case a decade ago, but instead venture out for occasion-based events. 

This certainly rings true for the business' latest site, the Star in Shoreditch​, which opened its doors last month (April). Formerly known as the Roadtrip, the pub has been redesigned to cater for large parties. Live music and DJ sessions will run throughout the week, and there’s a bookable karaoke room which can host up to 50 people.  

Collage Maker-12-May-2023-10-21-AM-9665
The Star in Shoreditch opened last month

In fact, all bar one Electric Star pubs boast karaoke rooms. Wine tastings, DJs and sing-alongs are commonplace across sites. The younger demographic in particular is not interested in just going to the pub for a drink, according to the operator.

“They want to try some new food, or they want to listen to a DJ or hear a band,” Star added. His sites also put on bingo nights and quiz nights. “Increasingly, people want an experience”.​ 

Fun comes first

Entertainment had been the bedrock of the company since the start. It was this, Star believed, that set the company apart.  

“We want to create a fun environment that people want to come back to,” he said. On top of this, the company had to increasingly try out new things to mitigate rising costs. 

“If we put our prices up in line with the way all our costs have gone up, then we’d be super expensive, and we don’t operate in that end of the market. So, we have to try and keep our prices competitive, but also find extra ways to bring in revenue.” 

“You’ve got to take the ups and downs, and you have to roll with the punches.”

Patience was a value Star had learnt to hold onto during his time in the industry. The team was savvy at scouring out pubs in areas before they’d taken off. The company’s second pub launched in King’s Cross just before the redevelopment of King’s Cross Station, for instance. 

It took a while for the pub to become profitable. “Obviously, as a business owner, you want things to take off straightaway. But we knew that area was going to be big, but we were just too early,” said Star.  

Taking a chance on places was “always a gamble,” he added, but it was a job made easier by the “great people” that formed the business’ backbone. Star dubbed his business partner Steve Macri a "real operator”. 

Secrets to success

Star’s skillset was sourcing locations, coming up with ideas and getting guests through the door. But he wasn’t an operator, and had never poured a pint before buying his first pub. So having Macri on board, as well as great managers and bar staff, had been key to the pubco’s success.  

And so had the customers. “Without them, we haven’t got a business,” Star added. 

How was trade now? “Tough,” he said, “but good”. Having multiple sites meant the pub company could negotiate with suppliers to secure good pricing.  

Currently, the trickiest challenge is keeping customers coming​ to venues, as the cost-of-living crisis squeezes budgets. This, coupled with soaring costs, created a “constant battle”. But Star assured all sites were trading well. 

If the Government slashed VAT on food and drink, this would give the sector a helping hand,​ he believed. He also thought the staffing shortage created by Brexit “had to change”.  

It’s certainly a tough time for everybody in the sector. To stand out, Star advises to make your entertainment better than their entertainment at home. With three quarters of Brits going on less nights out,​ it was key to create an environment people wanted to come back to again and again. 

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