“We mean business in the North East”
FRONT page headlines in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle announced the news that we had acquired a chain of wine bars in the Geordie capital.
The story ended weeks of speculation that owner Joe Robertson was planning to sell his City Leisure Group’s six wine bars to a major brewer.
The news also concluded months of negotiations between Joe Robertson and the two Tetley men most involved in the acquisition – North East regional director, Alex Porteous, and development and licensing manager, George Alderson – to secure six wine bars that represent an outstanding trade success story.
A measure of that success is a quote used in the Evening Chronicle article which said that City Leisure had ‘revolutionised drinking in Newcastle’s city centre’.
Certainly former owner Joe Robertson – an ex-manager of North East group Lindisfarne – has stamped his identity on the six units which have grown from relatively small beginnings only five years ago.
“Joe opened a first floor restaurant with a ground floor cocktail bar in a former Victorian coffee shop in the city’s Cloth Market,” explained George Alderson on the day he took Huntsman round the wine bars.
“Within a few months he found he was getting more people in the cocktail bar than the restaurant so he shut the food operation down, up-graded the bar, called it Rick’s and never looked back.”
Though only a relatively small drinking area Rick’s has lots of style and character and remains a favourite meeting place for Newcastle’s young set.
“When Joe created this place with interior designer Barry Nicholson the aim was to introduce ideas he’d seen around the country,” said George.
Champagne and cocktail hours, extensive use of mirrors, mood lighting, greenery, naughty but nice prints, mirror balls… all were features that Huntsman was to find at the other units.
But back to the history lesson.
“Rick’s became so successful that Joe opened a cellar bar nearby called No. 1,” explained George.
“A short time later he moved virtually across the road to the Bigg Market to convert what was a former snooker hall.”
Called City Vaults, the one-time down-market spot is now an impressive complex of bars.
All provide top class lunchtime food – there is even a small, candle lit Bistro section – and revert back to drinking areas at night.
City Vaults became so popular Joe decided to open – purely as an overflow area – another ground floor bar opposite which he called Brahms and Liszt.
Here again the emphasis is on quality lunchtime food served up by a chef behind the bar where grills are prepared on charcoal burners that at 3 o’clock are concealed ready for the evening trade.
An example of the style Joe Robertson has built into his operations is the story of the passage separating City Vaults from Brahms and Liszt.
Realizing that people wouldn’t venture down a dimly lit passage Joe had three former street gas lamps installed, painted them in gold and black, hung floral decorations round the top and had window boxes fixed along the walls of the passage.
The result was a passage of old world charm and character that adds to the appeal of visiting the two wine bars.
A short walk from the Bigg Market into Grey Street brings you to Legends which opened two years ago.
The small entrance opposite Newcastle’s famous Theatre Royal leads down into bars full of colour and atmosphere.
Again lunchtime food – with the emphasis on giving a fast service – is a strong feature which allows all the wine bars to retain two identities, one for lunchtime trade and the other for evening customers.
Another strong impression – apart from the lights and décor – is one of cleanliness. Not only in the food areas and behind the bars but throughout all the units.
“Weekly training sessions impress on staff the need to maintain standards,” says George.
Next stop was a short car drive away to the newest wine bar, Sloane’s.
Built on the edge of a big car part behind Newcastle Civic Centre, Sloane’s is a completely new wine bar come fashionable pub.
Again full of the flair seen at the other units, Sloane’s also has a patio area with a barbecue section where during last summer’s glorious evenings customers enjoyed steaks and bucks fizz promotions.
A design feature of the building is a full length first floor conservatory where customers can sit in all weather conditions to enjoy the atmosphere of late night drinking.
At the end of the tour Huntsman talked to Alex Porteous about the new bars and asked if it was planned to include any changes to the running of the units.
“None at all. In fact we are so keen to see everything continue as before that we’ve set up a separate subsidiary company to operate them.”
Consultant to the new company will be Joe Robertson.
Speaking about the acquisition Alex Porteous said: “Getting these six units for Joshua Tetley proved to our competitors that we’re becoming a force to be reckoned with in this part of the world.
What we need to do now is to build on this success so that customers of all ages can see we mean business in the North East.
Getting these six, fashionable units will go a long way to help achieve such aims.”