Sheer doggedness turned Niall Barnes’s idea for a contemporary Scottish bar into a reality. There is now a corner of Trafalgar Square that will be forever Scotland, says Patrick Schmitt
NIALL BARNES, a passionately patriotic Scot, had no experience of the food and drink industry when he decided to embark on an ambitious project to open the world’s first truly modern Scottish bar and restaurant, Albannach, the latest addition to Trafalgar Square.
What he did have was an art degree, some project management experience and what must qualify as a PhD in the school of hard knocks. He also had a remarkably tenacious attitude.
One senses that Barnes’s determination was first tested when he applied for his art and engineering degree at Glasgow School of Art, because, quite simply, he was rejected. Rather than look elsewhere, he reorganised his portfolio and literally banged on the school’s doors.
So impressed were the tutors at this display of keenness they took him, although Barnes, by his own admission, recalls, "I wasn’t great at product design".
The course did, however, "hone any limited artistic ability", something that would prove useful later when Barnes attempted to persuade various rich Scots, using drawings by his own hand, to invest in his project. University also taught him "how to research", a skill which would prove vital when Barnes was catapulted into a world he knew little about.
But between university and an attempt to start a restaurant in central London, Barnes did manage a successful career. Initially working for Reuters, then British Gas, followed by British Airways, he developed an ability in project management, handling multi-million pound schemes while living in London.
He wasn’t happy, however, and back in 1995 he left BA to go travelling, which was when the idea to start a modern Scottish bar originally struck him. "My first port of call for real travelling was Buenos Aires. I met a girl out there and I was chatting with her when she suggested setting up something Scottish.
There were loads of Irish bars and other ones of a specific origin – I hate the word ‘theme’ – and I thought there was definitely an opportunity to do something of Scottish ilk. This was 10 years ago now, but it’s an idea that’s never left me.
"I thought it was something I could do to promote where I come from and I also thought it was a market niche. So with these points combined I eventually moved forward." That was, however, after four years travelling, during which Barnes ticked off "all of the Americas, a lot of Europe, Africa, and a lot of Australasia, and Asia".
All this time, though, Barnes was keeping an eye out for any Scottish bars or restaurants, scanning the internet and phone books on arrival in any major city. And after all that touring and exploring, Barnes admits that he could "probably fit on one hand the number of Scottish bars and restaurants", aside from a few in London, that is.
He mentions a couple in Europe – the Bonnie Prince Charlie in Zurich, for instance, and the Old Alliance in Paris, which is popular with rugby supporters, but basically, "They were all small, tartan-carpeted, nicotine-stained, traditional Scottish pubs, rather than bars and restaurants.
They weren’t contemporary, and even in Scotland there’s nothing similar to Albannach. There’s nothing contemporary that’s been created, and that in itself is a huge problem." Barnes recalls one place he found in Hong Kong, describing it as, "The closest I found to a contemporary Scottish bar. It had reasonably clean lines, and was a new attempt at a Scottish bar and restaurant, but there was no great thought behind it."
The abiding memory of his travels was that there were "Irish bars bloody everywhere" and every nation had some representation. Scotland, on the other hand, despite its "strong and good cultural identity, hadn’t actually been exported, so that’s what I thought about doing".
Before embarking on his project, however, Barnes did have one last crack at project management, landing a job in Zurich for Swiss Re-Insurance, but as he recalls, "I was earning great money but it wasn’t satisfying." So he returned to London some three years ago "with about £10,000 and no contacts in London apart from a few very good friends".
That 10 grand disappeared quickly, in nine months to be exact, but by this time Barnes did have a business plan and some contacts.
Nevertheless, it was his friends who helped out, lending him small sums of money and letting him sleep on their floors rent-free. All the while Barnes was "trying to raise awareness of the idea, although there was a risk someone else might do the same thing.
I was desperate," he explains. To find investors, Barnes "actually got The Financial Times rich list and went through all the Scottish names from one to 100 and phoned them up and sent them, or usually their PA, a business plan."
He explains, "I tried to get through to them – celebrity Scots, sports Scots, business Scots; I’ve tried them. Sir Alex Ferguson, Ewan McGregor, all the people from Stagecoach up in Scotland, the people who did JBB sports division, Royal Bank of Scotland, Clydesdale, TSB, Scottish Courage, literally everyone, but I wasn’t getting very far, and it’s been such a hard and long slog."
The problem for Barnes was that without a precedent, it was hard for him to convey his vision to potential investors. "I had done some drawings, but people just couldn’t imagine it, and people kept saying ‘Name a bar in London that it’s like’, and I couldn’t."
He also admits, "There was a lack of credibility on my part – I hadn’t any experience, but I had huge drive". Eventually Barnes got his first break, a "letter of intent" from Scottish Courage "who said they would come in to the tune of £450,000". After this, similar letters from a couple of others arrived until Barnes had potentially generated around £1m.
"So, after a year’s work I had amassed three letters of intent. They weren’t definitive commitments, but they were the start of the snowball." His next step was to search for property, and he spent some time getting to grips with London’s complicated market, studying leasing and how to take over existing businesses.
He then started to bid for places, although as he admits, "I didn’t get too far." Then, one day, when looking at a property on Cockspur Street, which is next-door to the current site of Albannach, he and his friend noticed number 66 Trafalgar Square, then an Angus Steak House, and agreed it would be perfect. So Barnes went to see the owners of the steak houses, who "literally laughed me out of the office".
But not long afterwards the company went into receivership and Barnes returned to the Trafalgar Square site and made a bid for it.
"However, in the interim, a very wealthy individual bought the whole building, including the flats above, and I transferred the bid which I’d put in originally and had a meeting with the new owner.
Within a week I’d heard from her and she seemed to like the proposition so she gave me an opportunity to try and prove myself, which was unbelievable.
Thistle do nicely
"I’d faced a lot of rejection until then, and to get that was phenomenal. There were people who’d wanted to do something with me who bidded for the property behind my back.
It was horrible and I’ve met some terrible people along the way who’ve been underhand to say the least." Nevertheless, Barnes had the ideal site for his bar and restaurant. "Amazingly, 66 Trafalgar Square was Union Bank from 1873, so on the wrought iron gates you see a thistle and a rose in the Union Bank crest – the thistle being Scottish,the rose being English – so you might argue it was meant to be," says Barnes.
"And after Union Bank it was a Royal Bank of Scotland and then an Angus Steak House, which has weak Scottish links, and then Albannach, so it has retained some Scottish identity throughout."
Barnes now had a site but he still had to get the rest of the investment. To do this he recontacted a lot of the Scots he had initially tried, and, "Out of 1,000 or so I contacted, I had three or four interested, and one or two in the end helped with the raising of additional finance."
This did supply him with enough money, some £2m, but the troubles didn’t stop there. "Unfortunately," he recalls, "I managed to contract a very poor firm of architects who, in turn, contracted a very poor bunch of builders."
The result of this was a £250,000 bill for five months of doing nothing, at which point Barnes had to call in a more expensive firm to manage the construction, which they did, but at a cost. By this time there had been a substantial delay, which would mean the restaurant would not be running smoothly by Christmas, a key period for the new business.
And worsening the situation further, the air-conditioning contractor’s wife killed herself during the build, hindering that aspect of the construction considerably.
"We were seeing Christmas coming up at a pace," remembers Barnes, "so what we decided to do – and it has been criticised, in particular by the Evening Standard’s Edward Sullivan, who really had a pop at us – was to just open up for friends and family pre-Christmas."
This meant opening without any signage outside or any PR. "We thought we could get away in the early days by trading not as effectively as we could have done – and I do take fair criticism on board".
The formal opening was planned for February 1, but, as Barnes admits, "Naively, I thought if I don’t have any signage or do any PR then people won’t come in and review us. So I had three or four very poor reviews – and it’s no surprise they coincided with the pre Feb 1 opening and happened, unfortunately, to be in large publications."
Trafalgar’s not square
Since then the reviews have been better, and Barnes is hoping to at least break even by early April. He’s also hoping business will be helped by the emergence of new bars and restaurants cropping up in this relatively quiet corner of Trafalgar Square.
The Rockwell, a couple of doors down from Albannach, has just been refurbished, while the Cinnamon Club is setting up a bar on the site Barnes originally bid for in Cockspur Street. Mint Leaf, at the bottom of Haymarket, is drawing more punters to the area and Barnes believes, "There will be five or six hopefully high-end outlets."
He’s also applying for a 3am licence for the lowerground floor bar at Albannach, like the Thai Square restaurant’s downstairs club, which is a few yards away. After a series of setbacks, and some damning criticism, Albannach’s future is beginning to look bright.
Barnes’s real problem has been "the poor perception of Scottish cuisine and drinks", but he sees Albannach as a step towards moving Scotland into the 21st century. "A lot of the Scottish organisations in London have been crying out for contemporisation, if there is such a word; for getting away from the antiquated past without dismissing it, but drawing on it," he says.
As for the next step, Barnes sees no reason why Albannach shouldn’t be the first of many. "It’s a seriously strong brand. I don’t doubt for one second that, given the opportunity, Albnnach will perform extremely well.
We need to stabilise the first one but why shouldn’t there be an Albannach in Edinburgh, Dublin, Paris, New York or Sydney? The market is crying out for it."
And so, surely, is Buenos Aires.