HAIRCLUBBING - Drinking in the Heart of London’s Soho
Order directly to your chair or perch at the bar whilst your hair colour is processing.
London is the centre of bar innovation and it doesn’t get more out there than this – a full time, fully working, a staffed bar in Soho hairdressers – Blade was started Julia Olofsson and soon joined by Stroo Despot-Olofsson. Julia comes from Russia via Sweden, Stroo from Croatia and they came together about 6 years ago to make what is the most unusual London bar that I have ever been in! But it works and what’s more their customers' celeb and otherwise love it.
In an exclusive session, Stroo talked about his salon & bar with us which we thought of sharing with everyone.
Tell us little more about Blade?
We’ve been going as a bar in the hair salon for 6 years now. We started with a coffee bar.
Julia had the salon and it did pretty well, but we always wanted to make it more of an experience for our customers. In the early days, I’d go up to Milroys (famous London whisky shop) and get friendly with the crazy guys up there who made full use of their tasting facilities, if you know what I mean!
We were awarded a temporary licence when we put on Jazz events, which then seemed to just become social events. So it seemed like a logical thing to make Blade a more permanent bar.
The big hurdle was the licence especially being in Soho’s ‘red zone’, but they were persuaded eventually that we didn’t add to the local drug and alcohol problems, that this was just about having a drink whilst getting your haircut!
And we’ve been residents in Soho for 10 years, so we have a good feel for the area.
We have evolved completely organically, and this is a much nicer way to get your hair cut. It's moving away from haircut as a functional practice towards a haircut as an experience, trying to make it more human. But it really took about 2 years before people really got it and started to bring friends. It is really difficult to change people’s mind when they are so established. The cumulative effect and PR eventually seemed to bring people around. Whether the British are more conservative or not – we will see when we open up in N.Y.C.
We have trademarked the word ‘Hairclubbing’ and are just planning our first outlet in N.Y.C. – yes New York City.
Is the current economic environment good or tough for pubs and bars?
We are not making the majority of profits on the bar side of things, but having said that I think that we are feeling the whole BREXIT thing a lot. January 16 things were really tough.
Haircuts are things that people need to do – just before payday time, people will come in a put in on a credit card, whereas if they come in after payday they will have a couple of drinks and pay on debit card.
You can feel budgets are restrained. Starting February/March this year things started improving a little. It is tense – in a state of flux.
Like a head of hair, even a small-scale pub or bar has a million pieces. How do you assert priorities and yet remain flexible to demand?
Wing it – no seriously – the beauty is that we have the luxury that it is a labour of love. You come along to Blade and you get offered ‘what we went out and caught today’ rather than the whole A La Carte menu.
We are very passionate about Scotland and whisky. We don’t really have to cater to the basics. We carry what we like.
A lot of these whiskies we bring in ourselves direct from Campbeltown, Islay or wherever. So the range is more ‘home cooking’ as opposed to ‘mass produced’. We always try to find the niche.
There is nothing worse for me than people who don’t care – the person just says, ‘I’ll have a vodka and soda and I don’t care which vodka’.
Identity and putting a stamp on things is really important in such a small space and it’s fun to inspire people.
If we expand things then we will have to moderate things a little.
What are the top 5 priorities in running a great bar?
1 Curation of offering
3 Presentation in terms of glassware and hygiene
4 Personal approach
Which is most important beer, wine, spirits, non-alcoholic drinks?
We do have the best coffee here, cold pressed fresh juices, tea pigs and then there are Whiskies. We have a specialism in whisky –that’s my thing, but they are not the biggest thing. Cocktails and wines are probably the most popular.
We’re adventurous. It depends on the time of the day.
You have to represent all of the things and do them well.
It is also mood. Julia spends time with her customers and it really depends on how they are feeling.
We have to remember that it is Hairclubbing – we are not a stand-alone bar in that sense.
At the same time, people are planned. People are coming from Scandinavia and plan to have a hair styled or cut and meet friends here whilst having a drink.
Partners will come – one for hairdressing one for drink – quite a few, leave for a real drink down the road probably more expensive and then come back because here is better!
What is the hottest drink and cut trend in Blade currently?
We don’t really have that sort of volume, and the drinks menu is what I like. I don’t really respond to
‘I want a porn star martini’ my answer is ‘no’.
Prosecco but biodynamic production.
One rule; it only gets on the menu if I like it.
And we do really cool cocktails.
(I tried the Hairclubbing version of Espresso Martini – The Razorblade - wow full on espresso coffee, real cola, frothy, genuine cocktail!)
We have our own beer made by Harviestoun and we love the beers.
How important is it for suppliers to consider sustainability and environmental issues to pubs and bars?
To me it is important, but I don’t think I am necessarily important to them. I don’t react well to the retro special – it has to be produced first.
We have a clientele that ranges from an Archbishop’s daughter to Maggie Thatcher’s daughter, so they often respond to what we offer and as the sustainability thing is important to me (we do cola but not coke ) then its important that they get the real deal.
Pubs and bars are still closing at 18 per week (CAMRA Aug 2018) – do pubs have a long-term future in the UK?
Funny you should say that because I saw a report this morning that said that 18-24-year-olds are moving away from alcohol. And yet what I see is that the trade is booming – gin, English wines, craft beers.
I have a feeling that it is such a strong part of the culture that it's not going to go away. I wouldn’t mind if there was less of the binge culture.
But the money side of things counting things in super long numbers doesn’t seem to suit the more artisanal side of the business.
The hybrid is going to be the answer to that – as much as I adore a good old fashioned local pub, then for the younger generation, there needs to be more - more engagement. Authenticity and passion will keep the pubs and bars rolling.
Recruitment seems to be a big issue in the UK hospitality sector. What strategies and tactics can you use to manage it?
Whatever is necessary, but go by feel, and we use our network before we rely on official networks.
We feel it on the hairdressing side. But we try and ignore the daily text from corporate recruitment and do anything and everything to keep people on.
Will Alexa replace bar staff?
No, I don’t buy that.
I saw something on TV and there was a report from a guy reporting from a bar in Vegas who had a robotic set-up. But in the end, he seemed to be saying that it was a little boring. I mean I don’t imagine that it is a great thing to walk into a bar and feel even lonelier than you possibly are in the first place – a robot or Alexa or whatever is not exactly improving that. So no never.
About the Author
Alistair Morrel - UK Market Adviser & Contributing Editor at London Spirits Competition
The article is contributed by Alistair Morrell, Wine Inspector, wine industry consultant, journalist and, commentator. Over 30 years as a wine business professional, Alistair shares his global knowledge, network, and experience of growers, importers, distributors and buyers.