Being sensible in suburbia
15 December, 2009
in some of the suburbs of the east midlands, you'd be hard placed to find a Starbucks or a Caffè nero or a chain restaurant, and there are lots of empty sites, old wine bars and bistros that we can do something with
As a successful award-garlanded bar entrepreneur turning over £7 million, Chris Bulaitis is probably never very happy with Government. But he’s been more than usually brassed, particularly with those who hold the purse strings of further education.
The grants funding fiasco, which has held-up university student loans, was threatening to deprive Bulaitis and his Ever So Sensible Group of heavy new-term spend by some of his best and most regular customers.
It’s an irritation that was only partly assuaged by spotting Sven-Goran Erickson, the new Notts County coach, outside his Nottingham bar, and coming out to shake hands with the former England manager.
If Sven lures some big names to ply their trade at the lowly 2nd division club’s Meadow Lane stadium, Bulaitis would be hoping some football superstars might make the Dogma bar in Nottingham an occasional haunt.
It’s not Chinawhites, but Dogma, of which Bulaitis has three others, in Lincoln, Coventry and Reading, are modern, stylish, often retro-furnished city centre bars – as are his two Muse operations, in Sheffield and Nottingham.
Bulaitis, who set up Ever So Sensible in 2001 and owns outright a number of the sites, also runs a pub in Nottingham, plus three new suburban sites (two in Nottingham, one in Derbyshire) when he acquired at a knock-down price a small bistro group, Le Mistral, in July this year.
“There’s a big opportunity in suburban eating out,” says the ex-M&B senior manager (he was responsible for It’s A Scream). The high street is still a bit of a mess and very competitive. But in some of the suburbs of the East Midlands, you’d be hard placed to find a Starbucks or a Cafe Nero or a chain restaurant, and there lots of empty sites, old wine bars and bistros, that we can do something with.”
Le Mistral, which Bulaitis has had his eye on for some years, is in need of fixing, but simple things – like putting a menu on the outside wall – have already started to make a difference.
Local sourcing is also helping. “We’re trying to get as much local produce as we can, using local farms,” he says. “It’s not something that city centre customers are into, but provenance is very important in the suburbs. People want to know the business is supporting local jobs and the local economy.”
He’s looking for more of these sites, within a reasonably tight radius. (“Geography can be a killer - we’ve only got a small head office team”.)
Although Bulaitis has a brands background, with its over-arching formats and disciplines, micro management is the name of the game these days. “In the past 18 months or so, we’ve been running each site as its own micro-market, looking very closely at what’s going on next door and adjusting wherever we have to. Each site has its own idiosyncrasies. Some have to trade later some nights, and target students, whereas others are more chameleon bars attracting all sorts at different times of day.
“You have to think so much more about your customers, and not take them for granted. Customers are looking for a reason why they should go out and spend money, and even perhaps spend more money than they want to.”
To help persuade them, Ever So Sensible use Facebook regularly, but more importantly work their 10,000-strong customer database very hard. Many of these details are secured through the Dogma customer card, a credit-card-sized loyalty scheme. E-mail bookings are increasingly a major part of sales.
A large local character, Bulaitis has raised his profile higher recently by his involvement in Nottingham’s pitch for Business Improvement District (Bid) status. These public-private partnerships can use local business taxes to increase local funding on infrastructure schemes and general civic improvements.
If it succeeds, and helps Nottingham shake of its still slightly unsavoury reputation for youth violence, Bulaitis would be doing the pub trade in general a favour, as well as helping firmly underpin Ever So Sensible’s future development.