What do you call a casual eating place that doesn't fit neatly into any of the usual categories? This was the problem facing consultant Amanda Willmott in her latest project: to develop a new brand for Yates Brothers Wine Lodges. "None of thetraditional names really fit," she says. "What we need is a new word to describe such a place."
Wednesday 4 February saw the culmination of a year's planning by Willmott and brand manager Nellie Benstead, the duo behind the Bass-owned All Bar One chain, with the opening of Yates Brothers' first Ha!Ha! Bar and Canteen in Berkeley Square, Bristol.
In creating the venue, Willmott and Benstead aimed to bridge the divide between places to eat and places to drink. "There are some places that claim to do both but they don't really achieve it," says Willmott. "We wanted to create a venue that would meet a number of demands; somewhere people could have a drink with friends, take work colleagues for lunch or go with the whole family, all under the same roof."
The 90-seat venue is housed in the former Bristol University Literary Club, premises acquired on a 35-year lease. The building is light and airy with a polished wooden floor and plain walls. Central to the venue is a long counter, over which both food and drink can be ordered, and to one side is an open-plan kitchen. Seating areas range from a few widely spaced tables scattered in the main area in front of the counter, to high stools by the kitchen and snug areas with leather-cushioned sofas and window seats. Outside are a further 50 seats in a heated courtyard setting complete with pot plants.
Also available at the counter is a range of branded provisions, from preserves and relishes to oils and even humbugs to take home. "We wanted to extend the concept beyond just the restaurant and bar," says Benstead. Ha!Ha! T-shirts are on sale, and the branding continues down to the last detail - even the measures on the wine glasses feature the Ha!Ha! logo.
Yates Brothers' managing director, George Marcall, says: "Food is becoming more important because a whole generation is growing up used to the idea of eating out. We wanted a brand for that market and that's when we met Amanda. She was thinking along the same theme - getting back to simple grilled food and finding ways to make it more visual and entertaining."
Impressed by Willmott's track record for developing new concepts, Yates Brothers put up the money to develop a new brand that would bring them into a different market. In turn Willmott was able to draw on the financial and administrative resources of a company that also had experience of developing brands.
For Yates Brothers, Ha!Ha! is a substantial departure from operations to date. The majority of the estate consists of 73 wine lodges where wet sales account for much of the turnover. A typical wine lodge customer is aged between 18 and 35, is conditioned to eat three times a day and prefers a more traditional menu, offering dishes such as roast beef, gammon, or fish and chips. Ha!Ha! is a more food-orientated operation, although the wet side is still cash-generating. It is designed to attract people with a casual approach to when and where they eat.
Yates Brothers has invested more than £1m in the project and is committed to opening a further two venues in London later this year. "If it works then we'll carry on developing and I could see there being 100 venues nationwide in a very short time," Marcall says.
King of the kitchen
The kitchen is the domain of executive chef Marcel Obry, former All Bar One area trainer in catering for London's West End and City. Willmott tracked him down six months ago in the South of France, where he was working as a personal chef, and invited him to head the kitchen of the new operation, organise staff training and assist in the opening of new venues over the next five years.
Together with Willmott and Benstead, Obry set about creating a menu based on quality ingredients from carefully selected suppliers. Although the bread is supplied locally, the fruit, vegetables and pasta are delivered daily from London.
With future expansion in mind, Obry did not want to confine himself to local suppliers and has in fact already chosen his bread suppliers for future London branches. He plans to change the menu no more than four times a year. "Menus can be changed too often," he says "and then you disappoint people who come back for the same dish or recommend it to a friend."
The current menu consists of three starters, 15 main courses, nine side dishes and four desserts. Starters are £3 or £3.50 and include rustic breads for dipping in olive oil and balsamic vinegar served with roasted garlic cloves and shallots (£3). Main courses range from a light sandwich of avocado, tomato and melted mozzarella on olive bread (£3.50) to a more substantial chargrilled rib-eye steak served with chips and chilli onion rings (£9.50). Nearly half of the main courses are available as small or large portions, such as the Mediterranean fish stew with crusty bread (£5.50 or £8.50) or the Moroccan lamb casserole with minted couscous (£5.50 or £8). Desserts are £3.50 or £4 and include macadamia pecan and fudge tart with clotted cream (£3.50). There are no specials because, according to Willmott and Obry, "If your menu is good enough you don't need them."
Between 10am and 12 noon at weekends there is a brunch menu offering toast or croissants (£1.50) and dishes such as field mushrooms on toast (£3.50) and scrambled egg with smoked salmon on a toasted bagel (£3). One of Willmott's aims is to keep prices average to make the venue accessible to as many people as possible.
The three red and three white house wines are bottled by Yates Brothers for the Ha!Ha! brand and cost £10 a bottle or can be bought by the glass. A further choice of wines priced from £11 to £17.50 includes selections from Europe and the New World.
Food is served all day, seven days a week because Willmott rejects the idea of eating at set times in favour of casual dining at any time. "There are so many places where, if you turn up at 2.30pm, you'll find the kitchen closed," she says. "Here you can eat at any time." Willmott estimates serving 150-200 covers at lunchtime and food is expected to account for 40% of total sales.
A team of part-time staff has been recruited from Bristol's large student population in addition to the dozen full-time staff. There is a training programme in progress to acquaint staff with all aspects of running the venue. The bar staff have been trained to wait and if any of the staff show an interest, Obry says he will teach them to cook. "It's good for the staff to do different jobs," says Obry. "They can learn to appreciate the value of other members of staff."