On a Sunday night in March, bartenders from three of London's most iconic bars packed up their cocktail shakers and turned up to work hundreds of miles away from their homes. Staff from the Connaught Bar (famous for its martinis), Lyaness (run by bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana, known for his unusual, homemade ingredients) and Satan's Whiskers (an east London dive-style bar) were in Barcelona to take over three bars on the same street. For Moe Aljaff, the co-founder of those three bars – Two Schmucks, Fat Schmuck and Lucky Schmuck, – it was the biggest takeover he'd ever pulled off.
Guest shifts and takeovers are commonplace in the modern bar industry. Bartenders from one side of the world will travel to the other to spend a night serving their drinks in another person's bar. It means guests are treated to the hospitality of an establishment they might not get the chance to visit in the flesh.
It's not a new phenomenon, but it's gained traction in recent years. People are after more memorable experiences and bars are looking for more ways to educate and give value back to staff. This has led to more elaborate bar programs, multi-bar takeovers and more immersive experiences.
So, how does the world of takeovers work? And what's in it for the bars, bartenders and brands that are getting involved?
Taking care of the bill
Let's start with the practical bit – who pays?
‘It depends where we go, but the way we make it work is that we ask brands once a year to see if they can help us – the flights, accommodation, basically [to] have everything covered when we go abroad,’ explains Hyacinthe Lescoët, co-founder of The Cambridge Public House in Paris, which recently traveled to London to take over Shoreditch cocktail bar Swift. For the brands involved, it means placement on menus and in the drinks – a particularly welcome opportunity for smaller independent drinks businesses to be mixed by some of the world's best bartenders.
There are some instances when the host bar will foot the bill and use the takeover to build on extras, like staff seminars, as was the case when London's Homeboy – a bar that specializes in Irish whiskey cocktails – traveled to Washington DC for two nights at the Doyle Bar & Lounge. As well as delivering a seminar each day on their signature modern Irish hospitality, co-founders Aaron Wall and Ciarán Smith left the Doyle bar team with a new martini program. They also left the tips – something Aaron says is commonplace when working in someone else's bar.
Even if the trip is paid for, there's still a business to run back home. Aaron points out that traveling for takeovers on your most profitable nights isn't a good idea. ‘You should be doing these takeovers on nights that aren't detrimental to your business,’ he says. ‘When me and Ciarán do takeovers, it's on our day off. We're not affecting the business. We could make maybe 50% more on one of those nights.’
Shake it up
That said, there are benefits to getting out from behind your own bar. Traveling around the world allows bars to market their brand and showcase what they do on an international stage.
For Two Schmucks' Moe, takeovers are more than just serving drinks – it's about delivering a full experience. When his team took over Lyaness on London's South Bank last year, he covered the windows, added neon signs and picked out a hip-hop playlist to give guests the feeling of being in his ‘five-star dive bar’ – without having to fly to Barcelona.
‘Packing your shit, getting on a plane, crossing an ocean, going thousands of miles to just stand behind a bar and do your drinks? Just think about how that sounds,’ he says. ‘If you're going to do it, commit to it and go into it with a clear idea of what you want to do – the music, the atmosphere. Ask to see photos of the bar. Just doing 10% more can make your event 100% better.’
Buy the next round
There's also a huge opportunity for bar owners and bartenders to exchange knowledge. ‘We all have our different ways of working – it's quite amazing to see. It's like watching how an athlete would perform with a different coach,’ says Moe.
For The Cambridge Public House's Hyacinthe, that can mean hosting afternoon masterclasses and taking the visiting bar out for drinks in Paris after their shift. When he and his team travel, it's also a chance to work with different, local ingredients and discover new techniques.
Final tip? Don't forget about cleaning up. Hyacinthe is keen to make sure that a guest shift runs like any other. ‘We often try to do full shifts, from the briefing to service and cleaning down after.’