Developers’ plans for Edmund Weil’s Oriole site meant shuttering the bar after seven years. But he’s discovered the economic and sustainability benefits of being able to preserve the fixtures and fittings for a relocation.
As a grim inspiration for this piece, my editor brought to my attention a recent news piece showing that nearly 5,000 premises closed their doors in 2022. By the end of Q4, the rate had accelerated to 18 per day. Oriole – my Smithfield cocktail bar/restaurant/music venue – went out in a blaze of glory on New Year’s Eve, thus becoming one of the final bricks in a wall of shuttered venues in 2022. Although I’ve invested in a losing horse or two in the past, this was first time I’d ever had to close one of my own venues, and whatever the circumstances (more on that later), it’s a miserable feeling.
Picking through what was left of the bar before I handed the keys back on 31 January, what struck me was the total blankness of the space. I have a photo of Oriole before we started the fit-out in the summer of 2015. The space was just as barren back then, but felt pregnant with possibility, rather than elegiacally empty. Perhaps that moment – before the self-inflicted woes of the Brexit referendum and the horrors of the pandemic – represented a high-water mark for hope and possibility in the UK hospitality industry. Oriole was certainly an ambitious project – we took on more than double the space of Nightjar (our first venture) in a lower-footfall location. We put in 120 covers; a proper kitchen; a big band stage; we worked to the biggest fit-out budget I will ever approve. It was almost too ambitious – a fairly slow start and the level of overhead meant we didn’t make a profit for the first year, and it wasn’t until the end of 2019 that we’d made back our investment. And we all know what came next.
The cruel irony of Oriole’s closure is that 2022 was its best ever year of trading. In the end it wasn’t Brexit, the pandemic, or inflation that did for Oriole, but the beat of the property developers’ drum. The entirety of the Smithfield Poultry Market – where Oriole was located – is to be redeveloped into a new home for the Museum of London. I’m in no doubt that our landlord hoped fervently that Oriole would go out of business during the pandemic, reducing one obstacle to its grand project. The fact that we didn’t, and that we traded strongly into 2022, meant that it was obliged to pay us a fair level of compensation for vacating our lease early, giving us the means to relocate Oriole in 2023.
The relocation plans meant we needed to retrieve as much of the value from the site as possible – a strip-out in its truest sense: bar and kitchen appliances, banquette seating, lighting, fixtures and fittings, even the ceiling. And, beyond the despondence of tearing apart something that I had built, what I took away from this experience was a renewed appreciation of the astounding level of resource that goes into opening a bar. Peeling back the layers of timber, concrete, metalwork, HVAC, plasterboard: fitting out a bar from shell probably expends more resources than building a family home. I count myself as very lucky that much of this can now be redeployed into a reimagination of the original Oriole. More often than not, when a bar closes its doors, most of the interior tends to languish, gathering dust until is it stripped out and sent to landfill by a new tenant.
In an industry that affords increasing importance to sustainability, the environmental cost of opening a bar is easily overlooked. Every one of the nearly 5,000 bars that closed in 2022 carried an associated sunk cost, not just in money and man hours but in carbon and materials. It got me thinking about what it means to open a bar. About how important it is to be absolutely certain that’s what you want to do with your life, and even more certain about the concept and business model. After all, if it goes belly up it’s not just your hopes and dreams going up in smoke, but all the carbon and other resources that went into it. It’s also made me more acutely conscious of the benefits of using second-hand fixtures, fittings and furniture for future bar openings. It’s not just money you’ll be saving.