When Matt Tebbit, head of residential catering and bars at the University of Reading, first thought about taking a group of TUCO members to New York to study its bars, the idea wasn’t plucked out of thin air. New York’s bar scene is infamous, plus Matt knows what he is talking about. In 2010 the university had an income of just £144,000 across 12 outlets. Today it has a turnover of around £2m and growing.
While Matt doesn’t profess that the university’s bar operation is perfect – there was plenty he took from the New York trip both on his initial fact-finding mission, and on the main trip – it made sense to send the TUCO Study tour delegates to New York via Reading.
It was, in fact, the perfect way for the group to acquaint themselves with each other before embarking on a seven-hour flight. The group was made up of Matt, Brian Horgan and Stephen Anderson from Queen’s University Belfast, Carly Sheard from University of Nottingham, Peter Welling from Lancaster University, Samantha Riddington from University of Kent, Eva Haltmarova from University of Aberdeen, Kelly Sheppard from University of Bath, Leigh Phillips from University of Birmingham, and Kelly Beresford from Carlsberg.
Each individual was required to submit a case study of their current bar operations, ready to discuss with the group what they would like to achieve from the tour. A presentation from Carlsberg on category trends provided insight into the UK market, while a tour around Reading’s bars highlighted some of the things Matt and his bars team have found to work well.
During their stay in New York, the group resided at Pod 39 Hotel, a revolutionary budget hotel that doesn’t scrimp on style just because it offers value for money. Even here the group were able to see how the hotel bar and the hotel’s décor could be reflected in a university hotel or student accommodation.
This hotel was just a base though, as there was plenty to pack into their three days in NYC. Although the benefit of being a member-led tour, explains Matt, was having the flexibility to not always stick to the schedule.
“It meant we could add stops if we saw something really good or could spend more time in a place we liked,” he says, “It was all about variety, not being too cocktail-driven and to see different ways of doing the same thing,” explains Matt. “A lot of bars we saw wouldn’t necessarily feature on lists for the best bars in the world, but they were good bars in their own right and they were realistic for our purpose.”
Even stopping for food didn’t involve three-course meals in fancy restaurants. During the day, the group visited food markets and in the evening they ate from the bar menu.
“We should be eating the food the bars sell,” says Matt. And they found some great ‘food inspo’. “We looked at places like Brooklyn Brewery, which had a really interesting food offer. We had breakfast at Salvation Taco for Mexican food and the food markets had great ideas on how to produce simple things well.”
The group visited Eataly – high quality food at sustainable and reasonable prices under one roof – and indoor food hall Chelsea Market. Urban Space near Grand Central Terminal was a particular highlight for Matt, one of New York’s most buzzed about food halls, featuring rotating food concepts. While for Eva Haltmarova, Egg restaurant in Brooklyn was particularly inspiring.
“It is the simplest thing you can think of, yet it is done so well,” she says. “A simple menu with tonnes of choice, simple décor that I just loved and made me think, why do we not have any living plants in out bar? That’s one of the things that I will be implementing.”
"The tour has really exceeded my expectations, I didn't believe I would come away with as much as I have. I have come away with so many new food ideas, street food set up ideas, craft beers. I think one of the main things I will look into is how individual each food outlet was in New York and try to recreate that in our facilities."
– Delegate from University of Birmingham
"I will create the business plan for my bar using design changes from places I saw and implementing ideas from bars."
– Delegate from University of Aberdeen
"The tour and the location were very inspirational, you could see how passionate people were, not just the owners, but the majority of people who worked there. It is now my job to try and instill this passion across my teams."
– Delegate from Lancaster University