Raising the bar in the City
3 January, 2012
Corney & Barrow’s bars have long been the City’s favourite drinking spots. But as Tom Holman reports, it is using its new Devonshire Terrace venue to move its reputation along.
How does an operator synonymous with drinking make its mark in food? It is a question that plenty of pub operators have been trying to answer over the last few years, and for City wine bar group Corney & Barrow, the challenge is especially acute.
On the evidence of Devonshire Terrace, its new bar-cum-restaurant hard by Liverpool Street, it is a challenge it is rising to. Corney & Barrow bought the venue in January, and relaunched it after a £500,000 refit in May. What it opened looks very different to the traditional Corney & Barrow formula, with a softer, belle époque-era design and a much less corporate feel.
Reflecting a shift in City habits (see below), Devonshire Terrace pays far greater attention to the quality and provenance of its food than Corney & Barrow bars of the past. As managing director Lucy Knowles admits, that has required a major refocus for a chain not previously renowned for its lunches and dinners. “Food has been a big journey for us. It’s not that Corney & Barrow has ever done bad food—it’s just not something we’ve been known for.”
Another striking thing about Devonshire Terrace is that Corney & Barrow’s logos are nowhere to be seen. “We were very clear that we didn’t want it to be a brand, and we’re treating it as a separate entity—but nor are we trying to hide the Corney & Barrow name from anyone. In time we hope it’ll become known as Devonshire Terrace, with wines by Corney & Barrow.” It’s a flexible space too—a 270-cover restaurant by day and an atmospheric bar by night, and, with four private rooms, well suited to the corporate dinners and parties of the City.
After taking a while to bed down and spread the word, Devonshire Terrace is now trading 20% ahead of budget, says Knowles. Food accounts for around 40% of business, compared to 25% in Corney & Barrow’s branded bars. Loyalty is building, and Corney & Barrow hope to sustain it with a couple of card schemes—a black one for manager-level customers with perks like fine wines at cost price plus £30, and a pink one for the City’s army of PAs. “They’re our gatekeepers,” Knowles points out. “They book the parties and dinners—and where they go, the men follow.”
Having worked her way up from manager to managing director in 15 years, Knowles knows the City bar market as well as anyone. And while keen to update the Corney & Barrow brand, she is sensitive to its rich heritage in wine, as well as to the risk of alienating drinking regulars while chasing the food market. She also thinks that rival operators trying to muscle into the Square Mile underestimate the local knowledge and personal touch that is required. “They don’t understand the City.”
If sales continues to grow, Corney & Barrow will be tempted to pull elements of Devonshire Terrace into its core offer. It has already resolved to push food across the chain, and from this month will relaunch its entire menu, with a new emphasis on British provenance and quality. “We’re about to start making some very strong food statements.” And in April it will launch a new bar—“Corney & Barrow with tweaks”, some of which are doubtless drawn from Devonshire Terrace—at an as yet undisclosed train station in the capital.
So is this the shape of things to come for Corney & Barrow? “Yes, it is,” says Knowles. “But whether that means new sites or converting existing ones remains to be seen.” But as it changes and grows, it won’t forget where its roots lie, she promises. “Corney & Barrow is such a part of the fabric of the City that if you took it to somewhere like the west end I’m not sure it would stand up. But this [Devonshire Terrace] gives us another, less corporate brand to work with. It gives us options.”
Food and informality: How City bar life changed
Bars in the Square Mile used to be all about the booze, served up to expense account bankers with due deference and ceremony. But those days are long gone, and the new needs of the City are changing Corney & Barrow.
“Ten years ago people only ordered food to soak up the drink,” says Knowles. “Now it’s the main thing they think about when they’re choosing where to go.” That trend reflects a much deeper understanding of food—and even in this money-drenched part of London, customers need to feel they’re getting a good deal. “People are so much more knowledgeable about food now, and they won’t come if they don’t think they’re getting value. But value doesn’t mean cheap—they don’t mind spending big money if they’re getting great quality.”
Another shift is in the formality of service. Just as jackets and ties have become optional in City boardrooms, so the starchy style of service has loosened up. Staff at Devonshire Terrace wear jeans, and are encouraged to express themselves rather than follow rigid service steps. “There’s much more informality at play now, even compared to five years ago,” says Knowles. “You can cut out the corporate stuffiness and still provide a five star service.”