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“Australasia turns over £6m a year… it’s my personal favourite” Tim Bacon exclusive

An exclusive interview with Tim Bacon, the illustrious and humbling CEO of Living Ventures

“I think staff are the singularly most important thing in any bar or restaurant. It’s all well and good having a lovely space to go into but if you’re met by arseholes or people that don’t care then it doesn’t matter how nice the place is.”

Tim Bacon. Nice chap. Witty. Direct. Approachable. No airs or graces. All the things that make a good interview. He’s looking slim – gaunt almost. “I’m on a new special diet,” he retorts.

“Manchester is phenomenal. Just phenomenal.”

Living Ventures have transformed the casual dining scene in Manchester over the last few years. Brands such as The Alchemist, Australasia, and The Oast House have emerged alongside old reliables such as Grill on the Alley and Gusto, and more recently, the firm took on fine dining with Manchester House and the £2.5m investment that came with it.

Everything Living Ventures touches turns to gold (no Alchemist pun intended).

I Love MCR caught up with LV head honcho Tim Bacon in Knutsford to talk TV appearances, turnover and theatricality.

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Manchester – and Living Ventures – recently starred in the BBC’s Restaurant Wars. What did you make of the programme?

We had no idea what they were going to show. We had no editorial control, but thankfully I think we got away with it and we came across all right.

I think LV came across as a serious and professional business that takes a lot of care and pays a lot of attention to detail. They could have been a lot more salacious and less kind if they had wanted to be and I’m glad they didn’t cut it that way.

Lots of people have said that you and Aiden (Byrne) both came across well.

Aiden is a nice, genuine guy. It’s very hard not to like him. We’re very fortunate to have found each other. Everything is as you see with Aiden; no hidden agendas.

How are you currently feeling about Living Ventures generally; new investments and expansions?

It’s been an ambition of ours for a while to have different brands coming through at different rates under their own management structures. If you think of Living Ventures as a group company and at any one time we’ll have six brands coming through it. The view is, as they go through the process from conceptual to emerging, we develop the management teams and they become mature. We’ve done two now: Gusto, and the New World Trading Company.

I like developing new things. A long time ago I made the decision that running a single brand just wasn’t for me. When it gets to nine or ten units, I’m ready to hand it over to someone else, quite frankly.

This structure allows me to keep myself entertained and motivated. It also keeps my head office together.

Like a professional family?

We could turn that as a phrase (laughs).

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What’s your overall view of Manchester? You live here and do business here, but you’re not a native.

I’m a big Manchester supporter, as you know. I chose to live here instead of being born here, and it’s been good to see it grow.

Manchester is phenomenal… Just phenomenal (elaborates).

I came here in 1991… I lived above a club that closed after its opening weekend. It was a really scary time. It’s really matured as a city now and grown up. The weather is a talking point I guess, but you get over that. It keeps the grass green.

My homeland Tasmania isn’t too different from the climate here. Only slightly hotter.

I really like the I Love MCR brand and website. There’s so much more to do with it. Surely, it’s just the beginning.

A key part of the LV strategy in the city centre is to create destinations around our brands, if you take Spinningfields as an example. I’m hoping you’re going to do that with Deansgate again.

That’s the endeavour. We’ve put Spinningfields on the map with our six locations and changed the way the city goes out to a degree.

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Some bars on Deansgate have a weird ambience about them… why is that?

Deansgate is a little bit unloved and rough at the moment. But the base is there, and it’s the city centre. The daytime is strong. Whether or not we can influence the entire strip of bars there is a moot point, but we can certainly put in The Botanist to help the environment.

What’s THE most important thing in any bar or restaurant?

I think staff are the singularly most important thing in any bar or restaurant. People like people at the end of the day. It’s all well and good having a lovely space or office to go into but if you’re met by arseholes or people that don’t care then it doesn’t matter how nice the place is because you’re not going to tolerate it for any amount of time.

Going out to eat or drink is entertainment for God’s sake.

Is Living Ventures theatrical then?

Yeah of course. You don’t want to make it Disney, but there’s got to be an element of show to it. I used to be an actor many years ago and what I noticed when I became a bartender in London in 1997 was that bartending was pretty much the same; you went on stage every night. If you took your problems on to the bar, you didn’t make anything in tips. It was that simple. That taught me a massive thing in life.

And I generally try not to take myself too seriously anyway.

Does that emphasis on atmosphere carry a temptation to make the food less important?

The thing with food is keeping it consistent. You can’t be brilliant one day and poor the next because people will notice the difference, but if it’s the same all the time then it becomes a tick box thing. Obviously, the further up the chain you go, then the food needs to be spectacular all the time. But at The Botanist for example, this isn’t the case.

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What do you like about The Botanist?

It’s easy to use, offers something for everybody and I think it’s almost Dickensian in its approach. I quite like that element of faded glamour; it’s like an old pair of slippers because you feel comfortable going in there. It’s not trendy in that cutting-edge way. I’ve always tried to keep The Botanist one step behind fashion actually, purely because fashion is something that dips in and out of favour and if you take it a few steps back, it can still be fresh and alive and relevant.

And The Alchemist?

The Alchemist is a wonderful brand. It is just the most amazing brand with a very high turnover. How much? About £50k a week. Recently, more 70k a week, to be honest.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but I was surprised with the quality of food in The Alchemist, especially the one on New York Street. The chicken in the basket is great.

What else does anyone want? A chicken in a basket, some slaw and fries. Job done. *laughs* It’s interesting you’ve noticed the difference between the two though.

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Consistency is key, I think. A word I associate with The Grill On The Alley, actually. What are the numbers like their?

It’s a great space. And no matter what’s happening in town, it keeps its numbers – £3 million pound a year. £60k a week. We’ll take that.

What is the best performing unit overall?

Australasia. That place can take £125k a week. That’s a turnover of £6m a year. Is it my favourite? It’s the most personal in the sense that it is from where I am.

What are the goals for the future?

To get Gusto and New World Trading Company motoring forward and getting openings happening: we’re aiming for five a year. We’re looking at the Artisan and Australasia sites and making sure they are up to date. The embolic sites, if you like. In the mid-range we have Blackhouse and The Alchemist which we’ll be looking to do things with soon. And then outside that we have Manchester House, which is a one off really.

You couldn’t really take that to Liverpool.

We are thinking about ‘The Scouse House’. Aiden is Liverpudlian, so…

So what’s your ideal night out in Manchester?

I like going for a nice little pre-cocktail in Grand Pacific and then going downstairs to Australasia for a bite to eat before ending the night at Lounge 12. In the daytime I tend to go to The Oast House (my kids LOVE the hanging chicken kebabs). And then Manchester House if I’m trying to impress somebody.

The wife likes Artisan.

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I thanked him for his time with me during his busy schedule. His response was “nonsense, thank you for coming all the way to Knutsford.” Typical Tim.

And so as I left Mr Bacon’s office in Knutsford (think classical music, leather trunks and stuffed squirrels), I was left with the feeling that Living Ventures are showing NO signs of slowing up.

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