Stuart McCluskey on a decade of Bon Vivant: 'I'm still madly passionate about the industry, my businesses and the people within them'
credit: James Gourlay
McCluskey talks about the ever-changing bar scene, the pressures of opening new venues and the benefits of prioritising customer experience over the bottom line
Stuart McCluskey is a force of nature: creative, courageous and so optimistic that the NHS should offer him on prescription. But perhaps that's what it takes to run an empire these days: with four bars (the Bon Vivant, the Devil's Advocate, Lady Libertine and the Register Club); two restaurants (El Cartel Old Town and New Town); and a bottle shop in the form of the Bon Vivant's Companion, his group of companies has almost doubled in the space of a year.
Expansion at such a rate is challenging. It takes investment, and in the case of the Register Club (in many ways the 'house bar' of Lateral City Apartments' Edinburgh Grand development), new ways of working. But growth hasn't led to a more hands-off role for McCluskey, as he cheerfully admits: 'For the new El Cartel, I was at the coalface – knocking down walls, wiring, plumbing.'
He identifies a real difference between the skills needed to get new bars off the ground and the ongoing effort required to make them successful year-on-year. 'When you open three businesses within six months, the pressure that puts on everything is real – you need resources, manpower, mental capacity and the right people around you. Then, once they're ready to go, you have to start introducing the creative and operational stuff, but you have to gear yourself back up into that. That's when the hard work really starts.'
Ten years is a long time in anyone's money, but especially in Edinburgh's competitive bar scene. A lot of great venues have come and gone since 2008, and clearly this commitment to getting the details right night after night has seen Bon Vivant – still winning awards in its 11th year – flourish. But no one can be in six places at once, and that means letting go – just a little.
'The law of averages dictates that the more businesses there are, the more things can get diluted. That's what keeps me up at night, because I'm still madly, insanely, passionate about the industry and my businesses and the people within them. If they're making mistakes, it's not because they don't care, it's because they haven't had the experience or right guidance.'
These days, opening a bar tends to fall into one of two broad camps. There's the DIY approach: take an old man's bar and flood it with fairy lights and mismatched furniture, as exemplified by newcomers like Smoke & Mirrors and the Christophersons, who are behind Edinburgh's Scandi-bars. Or, go big: huge building renovations, smart branding and a whole heap of cash, like Signature Group's high-end Cold Town House in the Grassmarket.
But when McCluskey set up Bon Vivant, things were a little different. Armed with a small loan from his family and around a decade of experience gained in bars around Edinburgh and Australia, it took a while to find the right premises. 'Bon Vivant was already a pub, not a perfect one, but it was operating. I love France so thought let's do something inspired by the wee dark, cosy backstreet bars you get there. We made a feature of the things that were already there, covered up the cracks – you have to be creative and I had to make the budget stretch.'
No focus groups then? 'I've never set out to target a demographic, it's about a mindset. If you're in on a Thursday night, I'm sitting there with my mum and dad, there are groups of friends starting their night, people on dates. And I like to think that if we introduced everyone they'd get on, because they all enjoy being in a nice environment with great choices of food and wine that won't break the bank.'
It's clear that McCluskey feels strongly about both the hospitality industry and Edinburgh's place within it. Fiercely proud to be one of only two home-grown operators amid the multitude of openings in St Andrew Square, he acknowledges the city has seen its challenges over the past couple of years. And while he is happy to namecheck places that he feels are getting it right – like Dishoom and neighbours Hawksmoor – he resolutely refuses to 'gun for' the bigger brands that have targeted the city over the last couple of years.
But he's clearly not immune to the pressures they bring, alongside widely reported rising rents, rates and other costs. There's also Brexit to contend with, which is already hitting hospitality hard. Bon Vivant opened at the same time as the global financial crash started; the fact two of his bars now sit in the former RBS head office isn't lost on him. He remains bullish though, particularly about the way the hospitality industry has tried to clean-up its long-hours, hard-drinking culture to focus on the health and well-being of its employees. He believes food and drink is one giant community, and a community Scotland can lead.
'We have world-class chefs, bartenders, drinks – our hospitality industry is top-class. Edinburgh has changed so much and is starting to get more exciting again; Glasgow is brilliant at the moment too. But we're not very good at talking that up. This is a sophisticated country with a wealth of resources, it's a great place to be. If we want to bring guests and staff in, we have to get that message out.'
So what does the future hold? 'I hate predicting trends, I'm not very good at it. I think it's interesting to see that bartenders are getting more interested in wine and food, and chefs getting more interested in spirits and cocktails. I love the idea of blurring the boundaries. We're seeing this all over though, a focus on experiences – and it's clear people want food and drink experiences. Look at the growth in food festivals, for example. So we have to look at the places that do well because they give a shit about their customers and want them to have an experience that's as close to 100% every time. Less emphasis on the bottom line, more on the experience you deliver. And that will make everyone pull their socks up.'