Breakfast at Samphire with Brian Smith, Owner of The Blind Pig, Ce Soir, and Alfresco Events.
If you’ve ever wondered who might spend $250 on a single cocktail, every week, and then treat the bar tender to dinner, you should ask Brian Smith.
The owner of two of Jersey’s most innovative bars, The Blind Pig and Ce Soir, Brian has the entertainment business down to a T – or if it’s a Friday night – a G&T.
With both parents in hospitality – his father was a chef and his mother worked in hotels – Brian grew up seeing how bars work.
“It’s not just the everyday mechanics of running a bar that matters,” Brian said when we meet for breakfast at Samphire, “it’s the story. Every bar needs a story if it’s going to give people the experience they really want going out – a sense of magic that you’ve entered a place where you can forget anything and enjoy yourself.”
Brian first saw this ‘magic’ as a child, helping his mother tidy her bar in Scotland. But it was years later, on the other side of the world, that he understood it.
“I was about six when I fell in love with the business. I would see people sitting at the bar laughing and enjoying themselves, while the world went on oblivious. It’s strange but I didn’t experience that again until I was working in a cocktail bar in Sydney around 2002. It was an incredible place, with views over the harbour and the biggest celebrity clientele list in Australia. We looked after everyone from Shakira to John Travolta and even organised the wedding for the INXS guitarist.”
It was here Brian learnt how to make cocktails that go beyond everyday ingredients.
“Our favourite was the Black Amex. This cost $250 and you could only buy it if you had a Black Amex. It contained some of the finest ingredients – 1952 Cognac, 100 year old Grand Marnier and a candy stick to sweeten it. We served it in a crystal glass and you got a bottle of Krug to top it up.
“Every Friday a gentleman ordered one, then would sit at the bar with me for a lobster dinner. It was bar policy that if a customer wanted to buy you a drink or food you could sit with them and chat. He was a venture capitalist – a really interesting chap. One night he signed the bill and left me a $4,000 tip. I think 90% of the experience we have in a bar is the chat and for people who can go anywhere in the world, that was what set us apart.”
Fast forward a decade, a few more continents, and many more bars, (Brian was a co-owner of Rojo’s from 2006-2011) and Brian was ready to launch his first solo concept in Jersey.
“The Blind Pig was based on the story of the Prohibition. It had a massive impact on America’s bar scene and was the reason people drank cocktails. When I walked past bins and washing lines to the space behind Chambers I could immediately see its potential.”
Brian used ‘school yard marketing’ to promote the bar, giving membership cards to 100 people. The password was Scooby Doo – the same as the bar in Sydney which gave Brian the idea.
“I used to go to an amazing speakeasy bar in Sydney. It was below a hotel where actors stayed and the first time I went in, the first person I saw was Keanu Reeves.”
Ce Soir followed the Pig in 2014 – another Randalls property where Brian was given creative freehand.
“Originally we were just going to do the upstairs of Ce Soir but when I explained the concept of Mme Fifi and the Moulin Rouge we ended up doing the whole building. I sourced Occupation era JEPs to create wallpaper, found an 1890s bath tub in a farmer’s field, and raided second hand shops for accessories.”
“Most establishments make more money now on food than on drink, the opposite of a few years ago. We’re one of the few places not to do food, but this works for us because we are focused on our cocktails.
“People used to go out a lot more, but Millennials tend to go out twice a month rather than every week. They drink less the rest of the time too, perhaps going to the gym instead of a bar after work, and when they come out they will have pre-loaded. It’s a different market to when we first started out.”
With turnover up 30% on 2017, Brian is clearly doing something right.
“My first few years running bars involved a lot of partying. I now know you have to pay close attention to profit and loss if you want to be in business long term. Paying bills on time and keeping suppliers sweet is very important. My wife, Stani, does our accounts, and with two young children my partying days are well and truly over. I’ll have a couple of beers at the weekend but don’t drink during the week.”
Brian’s approach to breakfast is just as disciplined. He only wanted one croissant and manages to ignore the rest of the carbfest accompanying it. Coffee is decaff, because he has already had two caffeine hits. Jam and butter go untouched. But he does indulge in a spoonful of sugar.
“All businesses need good foundations,” Brian said, swirling the demerara. “But bars also need a little sprinkle of fun.”