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Real business story

My staff give me 200 per cent, so I need to give 1,000

Few sectors were hammered as hard by the pandemic as hospitality, but Elaine Clarke of Baa Bar is determined to put the industry's annus horribilis behind her and lead her team to new heights. Follow the company's evolving story as we check in each month to track progress and improvement efforts.
baa bar

Baa Bar was hit hard by a series of lockdowns and restrictions, but had a record week upon reopening

Elaine left school at 16 and went straight into the hospitality industry.

More than 30 years later, she is CEO of Baa Bar, which has five venues across Liverpool and Nottingham specialising in the bar and clubbing space.

Elaine, along with six other UK businesses, will be providing monthly updates as she looks to steer her business through the next year. Follow the six other stories here:

You can see monthly updates from Elaine using the links at the top of this page as she shares her progress towards her five improvement targets. But first, let's look at Elaine's experiences of reopening after a lengthy absence and what her immediate focus is for Baa Bar.

How Baa Bar started looking forward

2020 and the start of 2021 was especially difficult for those working in the hospitality sector, as Elaine can attest. With all of her bars hit by a series of lockdowns and restrictions, bringing cash into the business has been a challenge.

However, with outdoor leisure facilities allowed to reopen on 12 April, it finally felt like there was some positivity ahead.

“It’s been great, fantastic – Liverpool has been amazing,” Elaine said of their first full week as an outdoor-only business.

With a covered outdoor space at one venue offering seating for around 200 people, Elaine was confident of a good week before the reopening, and her expectations were more than met.

“It’s been our record take – we had an amazing week,” she went on. “We did over £100,000, just on the outdoor area in a week.”

“The turnover of people hasn’t been high – once they’ve got the table, they’re holding onto it for dear life," she added. "We’ve had people queuing for between two and three hours! Our outdoor areas are also lovely 'traps', so people sit out and order food and stay for hours.”

Elaine had toyed with the idea of investing in outdoor heaters and blankets, but decided against it due to the significant cost. Instead, she pinned her hopes on the government's pledge that indoor drinking and dining would resume in May.

“We went full steam ahead for opening the indoor areas in May,” she reported. “We’ve got a lot of making up to do with the sales, so we wanted to be ready to hit the ground running.”

As with many hospitality businesses, there was now a focus on securing a guarantee when people made a booking to reduce the likelihood of customers failing to turn up.

“If you make it your policy to get a credit card guarantee when booking, at least if they don’t turn up, it’s paid a couple of hours of someone’s wage,” Elaine said.

Introducing mental health sessions

Throughout the pandemic, Elaine had paid a lot of attention to staff mental health and wellbeing, and she was keen to continue with that momentum.

Having noticed that some staff were already struggling with being back in the workplace after such a long absence, she was looking into introducing mental health sessions.

“More than anything, I want to introduce [mental health sessions] into the business,” Elaine explained. “We’re looking at the Cycle to Work scheme, and also a new exercise app where staff can compete against each other.”

Elaine herself had struggled with her mental health in the past year, but has pulled herself back after a restful Christmas break.

“I can’t be seen to be overwhelmed – it’s up to me to keep the business going,” she said. “Baa Bar cannot have a miserable leader – my staff give me 200 per cent, so I’ve got to give them 1,000 per cent.”

She isn't on this journey alone. Over the past year Elaine has found a new vigour for networking and has made some important new contacts, and she has also had help from a coach and business developer. The Baa Bar staff, she added, are being asked for their feedback on multiple aspects of the business.

Defining what success looks like

After the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, we asked Elaine to set a one year from now success statement – a situation the business would be in that would represent both recovery progress and steps towards her longer term vision. We then got her to identify the five individual targets that would be most important in making that success statement a reality. See what she set out for Baa Bar below.

Time for some targets

Update one: June 2021 – “Everybody needed a bit of readjustment to get back into work mode”

Elaine Clarke, CEO of Baa Bar Limited, brings us up to speed on the most pressing of her five business targets: to reopen and trade safely and successfully.

Training

“I think everybody needed a bit of readjustment to get back into work mode, and we worked hard to make sure that people were ready for it. We got everybody in for team training – the whole team did a refresher covering service, working behind the bar and so on – and we introduced our external trainer Danny Clarke to do some 'back into business' training for our managers. We were concerned about everyone's mental health, too, so we have kept up our fortnightly newsletters that pretty much focus on our staff's mental health and wellbeing, and my Operations Director also kept in touch regularly with our teams to make sure we all supported each other.

Product development

“Yes, we developed our overall product in both of our eateries by enhancing the menus, and we've introduced an app called Piazzi into one of our operations in Liverpool which lets people order from their table on their phone. We've added a service charge onto that which goes directly to the staff – we've never had that before, and it's good for the staff who are relentlessly running around under the sun to know they'll be getting a nice little tip at the end of their shift. We've also been looking at standards and presentation so we can give returning customers the best possible experience.

Product development is also an important focus for another business. See how digital signage firm Allsee Technologies is progressing towards its development goals by following founder Baoli's journey.

Workforce

“Finding staff is the problem everyone's talking about. Lots of people in hospitality have moved out of the sector into new jobs during the pandemic, and if they are more stable in their newfound jobs they won't be in a rush to come back. To address this – and also the fact that some staff are now thinking twice about signing up for a late-night shift that ends at silly o'clock – we're looking at ways to grow our workforce from the ground up, making the most of students and graduates and people who have been unemployed, for example. We're also looking at ways to retain people, including new staff bonus schemes.

Reopening

“Business has been good, especially at our biggest venue in Liverpool which has a huge outdoor space with a retractable electric awning that we can use if it's raining. It cost us almost £100,000 a few years back and has definitely paid for itself this year. Our smallest site was allowed additional outdoor tables, which was a big help, but we were a little disappointed that one venue didn't have the flexibility to allow us to adapt and trade.

“The weather has also been a challenge. We've got so many apps, all giving us a different forecast. It's also been such a rush to get staff in that it has felt like some didn't have enough time to settle, so we'll be looking at our strategy for that because we want them to feel supported.

“We opened and traded successfully though, which was really good. It was all very hands-on and I think we're working well together.”

Follow Elaine's lead with staff training

Elaine is offering "back to business" training for her team – could your staff benefit?

Upskill your team

Update two: July 2021 – “I'm back again – and I've got the hunger and drive”

Elaine Clarke had been ready to move on from her bar and club business before the pandemic hit, but the Baa Bar CEO has rediscovered a determination to push the business forwards. In this short audio clip, she explains how connections made on LinkedIn and other channels are helping her to see a world of possibilities.

Maximise your business connections

As Elaine has explained, a network can open up new possibilities

Get more from your network

Update three: August 2021 – “My new team of experts will help make us more profitable”

So says Elaine Clarke, CEO of Baa Bar, a group of five venues across the north of England. Having ditched plans to remove herself from the business mid-Covid, Elaine now has her sights on improved efficiencies, happier staff – and more money coming in...

Better than normal

“We flatlined during the pandemic and dreamed of the day we'd enjoy 'business as usual' again, but – amazingly – things are now even better than normal. I was in London the other week and in the City especially it was dead; in Liverpool, though, home to one of our main venues, it's absolutely buzzing with stag and hen parties and staycationers coming to the city.

"While things are looking great, there's no getting around the fact that we lost a year of sales, and one of my goals for 2021-22 is to try and turn around all aspects of the business so that we can grow."

Team

“I've already mentioned our efforts to look after our staff – spending more time on training, development and on their mental health. As well as that, I've been thinking a lot about the organisational team I have around me. In this business, a thin, lean organisational team just doesn't work.

"Last August our new operations director joined us from TGI Fridays, and she's been a fantastic addition to the senior team. The business basically used to be run by myself and my FD, and when he left last year, I promoted my Financial Controller to Head of Finance. He's been amazing, and I'd like him to be able to see a wider, company picture, so I'm looking at ways to develop his role.

"I'm determined to bring in people who are real specialists in their field, such as our commercial director who works part time and, hopefully, a new freelance head of marketing. The idea is to have expertise on hand which can help me grow the company again now that I'm back in the picture and leading the company."

Hunger for the business

“I've got a hunger for the business again and it's exciting, plus I'm gaining confidence to think that if I did need to take a few months off for any reason, there are people here who can keep the business running. Having really clear job descriptions for each of the people in these new roles has really helped.

"Because of the changes I've been making and the new way we're all working, the business is becoming more efficient and more profitable, which will help us achieve another target – to reduce the debt we had incurred, and which only grew during Covid.

"By reducing debt, we'll be in a much better place to refinance the business, and that's something I'm now hoping to be able to do sooner than next April, which was the date I'd set myself to try and do that by. I'm already speaking to some potential financiers – including banks, who had been reluctant to speak to people in our sector during the lockdowns. But that's all changing again."

Elaine isn't the only leader focused on bringing new talent into the business. Learn how an influx of young talent has given a Sheffield café a boost.

Read The Steel Cauldron's story

Update four: September 2021 – “I’ve been picking up the phone and calling in some favours”

Elaine Clarke, the CEO of Baa Bar, a group of five venues across the north of England, is expanding her team and her outlook thanks to good old-fashioned networking. In this short video, she brings us up to speed on the latest events.

Where to go next

Elaine isn't the only leader sharing her journey this year. Six other businesses across the UK are providing monthly updates as they emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and work to achieve their "definition of success" statements.

Follow their progress so far:

  • website: baabar.co.uk
  • location: North West (England)
  • business size: 100-249 People
  • business type: Hospitality & tourism

Lessons learnt

After a difficult year, Elaine's asking for credit card guarantees so the business doesn't suffer from no-shows.

Returning to work after a long absence can be difficult - Elaine has introduced mental health sessions to counteract this.

Connections made through LinkedIn has helped Elaine seize new opportunities.