Small Talk

Andy Kerr on The Sun Tavern and the importance of investing in staff

By Melodie Michel contact

- Last updated on GMT

"By investing in your staff, you avoid diluting your concept" - Andy Kerr
"By investing in your staff, you avoid diluting your concept" - Andy Kerr

Related tags: Bartender

Andy Kerr, co-founder of bar group The Umbrella Project, has just opened the company's second venue, The Sun Tavern. 

Tell me more about the Sun Tavern.

It’s a continuation from our last project, which was smaller. In this one we’ve incorporated locally-sourced craft ales, as well as artisan coffee from a local coffee supplier, and we are using local bakeries, butchers and suppliers for our food offering. We’re trying to keep it very local.

Cocktail-wise we’re concentrating this one of pre-war cocktails like our previous venue, however we’re incorporating punch cocktails, which goes back to the 18th​ century.

My partner and I have been in the industry for 15 years as bartenders and we just love that style of drink – very boozy, with lots of citrus. As we found with our other venue, people responded to it very well. It’s in fashion to go back to the original style drinks, with martinis and manhattans and things like that. We wanted to concentrate on this and also introduce forgotten classics – cocktails which were very popular before the war and have been forgotten by the general public.

What’s the ethos behind Umbrella Project?

Our ethos is quality and no compromise. I’ve worked for other people and I’ve had to make compromises, to some degree, my whole career.

Big companies do drinks deals with suppliers so you have to stock serve products and have a certain style of menu. We do not do that. We want to give our customers the absolute best of everything and that means that we cannot do drinks deals because then someone will be dictating to us and to our customers what they should drink.

Every bottle, every beer in the bar has been sourced by us and has a quality story to tell. To a customer that’s a really good thing to have because it means we’re not trying to upsell drinks that aren’t good.

What’s next for the Umbrella Project?

Every venue gets slightly bigger and incorporates something new. For our next venue we would love to do a small restaurant alongside the same style of drinks, service and quality. We don’t have a venue yet, as they are very difficult to get hold of. We haven’t completely sorted out the food concept we want either, and in terms of demographics and areas, we know where we’d like to be, but we’re in no rush.

Long-term we’re just about to get a brewery and a distillery off the ground, initially to sell beer and spirits to our venues but eventually we want to be able to sell that to the general public through retail and other bars.

We already have the premises for the brewery, but we’ve opened two venues in the past year and it’s put a little bit of strain on us, so we’re going to hold back a little bit and wait until early next year to start planning new openings.

What’s your ideal number of venues?

Our approach is slightly different from other companies, as we want to invest in our staff at some point. I know when I was young and had some great ideas, I didn’t have the money or opportunity to go it alone, but we’re going to give the people who work for us the opportunity and invest in them.

What normally happens with bar groups is that they get four to six venues and every venue gets diluted slightly, they run out of ideas because they’re stretching their creativity, whereas we want to get young and passionate people, and give them a certain percentage of the company by telling them ‘this is your concept, we’re going to give you the financial backing but you run it as your venue’.

Depending on how well it works, the sky’s the limit. But the one thing we don’t want to do is have ten boring venues because we ran out of ideas after six and we’re just expanding to make money.

How did you get to where you’re at now?

I started working in 1998 as a bar-back, and really enjoyed it straight away. Very early on I knew what I wanted to do, and it was the only think I was always good at.

I worked as a bartender for many years and then decided that if I wanted to run my own business I would have to learn how to run someone else’s first. That’s when I started going up the management ladder – that’s where a lot of people go wrong especially in this industry. They’re very famous bartenders and have worked behind the bar for many years and they think they can run a business but they can’t. What they need to do is get that experience and make the mistakes they have to make on someone else’s money.

On the other hand you have the other types of people: the business people with no experience working in this industry, and that’s almost as bad. You need both.

What’s your greatest achievement so far?

The highlight of my career was opening my first venue. That’s fixed in my mind because it’s many years of long hours and working weekends. People who know me realised how much I had sacrificed to get there, so for me opening my first bar in January was definitely the highlight.

How are you finding London’s bar scene at the moment?

I think it’s fantastic: there are loads of small operators doing really amazing stuff. A couple of years ago New York was ahead but London now is the number one place in the world for creativity and small bar operations.

Competition is fierce, and that’s how it should be. You can’t rest on your laurels. You’ve got to be innovative, creative and passionate constantly.

Who has inspired you the most in your career?

I’ve got massive respect for my business partners. I’m a bar professional but they’re entrepreneurs and without them as catalysts this would have never happened. 

Related topics: People, Small Talk, Venues, Business

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