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.


“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.


“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.


“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."


“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.

Update five: October 2021 – “I'm starting to see the bigger picture”

As the pandemic eases, Elaine Clarke has begun to appreciate how sustainability, diversity and inclusion and looking after her team play a key part in the business development side of her company, which was one of her key goals for 2021-22. Here, the CEO of Baa Bar explains her thinking.

"Business is going well right now in Liverpool, which is home to our biggest venues. Now that I'm back in the business for the long-term, as opposed to thinking of exiting via a sale – which was the case 18 months ago – I'm finding myself involved in every aspect of the business.

"I'm tapping into costs, profits, supply chains and everything else, and part of that is making sure that we're environmentally friendly and a 'good business' as well. I'm feeling for the first time that it is my own values that really underpin what we stand for."

A second chance

"My values are much stronger than ever before. It feels like I have been given a second chance to even be allowed to have a business in these awful, pandemic times. I'm not taking things for granted any more; I'm all about the details, and I'm enjoying it. I have a lot of energy, which is probably not so great for the people who work for me because I'm up at the crack of dawn and I work until late in the evening, but instead of delegating how I want the business to be – like I used to – now I'm much more hands-on in the day-to-day.

"When looking at suppliers, I'm now asking, 'What's their supply chain? What do they do with their waste?' I'm looking at energy suppliers – where does their energy come from? If I can, I want to use small local suppliers for the things we use in the business, because I'd rather make a small company grow into a medium-sized company than make a big one even bigger.

"I recently worked with Janet Nuzum from the Liverpool City Growth Platform and we did a big supply chain/energy exercise, and on the back of that, I've asked my commercial director to look into what we can improve. I realised that talk is cheap and decided that I actually want to do something about it."

A more diverse workforce

"As a mixed-race woman, it’s important to me that I create a diverse and inclusive business and support people to progress. I want to make sure that the leadership in my organisation is representative of the people in our communities and that local people are being given the chance to achieve in the same way I was.

"My vision for a more inclusive business that supports the team to achieve is in my business plan for the next 12 months: I want to educate myself and see how we can make things better as a company.

“To back this up, I'm going to give up to ten per cent of profits after hitting company budget back to our workforce and teams. Incentivising and paying our people a bonus is the most important thing to me.

"I've come to realise that it's not all about the bottom line; it's about people, creating opportunities, sustaining the business and keeping people in work. I want to be involved in a business that is lucky enough to still be trading 30 years later and doing the right thing."

Update six: November 2021 – “Solid leadership has got us through”

More focused on her 30-year-old business than ever before, Elaine Clarke, the CEO of Baa Bar, now sees a path paved with happy, well looked-after staff and a buzzing business atmosphere. She updates us on her 2021-22 goals here...

1) Open and trade successfully and safely

"Clearly," said Elaine, " the challenging months we had before we reopened and were able to get back to ‘full operations’ meant that there was an obvious nervousness and anticipation around how business would be." Their only option, she said, was to stay focused on success and determined to overcome any challenges relating to compliance, staff and supply chain along the way.

"There’s no doubt that the thing that got us through was the solid leadership team that I spent time expanding and developing during the lockdown," said Elaine.

Having a united senior team meant that Elaine and her colleagues were able to quickly respond and, she said, deliver results. "The market that we operate in has been extremely good with staycationing and Liverpool being ‘a party city’, but we will not allow ourselves to get comfortable," Elaine said. If there is anything the past couple of years have taught her, she added, it's to expect the unexpected.

2) Reduce debt to be able to refinance in April 2022

The financial impact of the pandemic on the business was huge, said Elaine. "We have had to hold our nerve and show financial resilience. We are now working in the right direction, but there is a long way to go before we have dealt with the financial impacts." One thing she can certainly say is that she now has a very strong team behind her and a structured approach to making sure the business progresses – whatever the market throws at them.

3) Work on the organisational development of the business

"As we developed and restructured the management team, one thing that was clear is that our company values and living by them would be paramount to our success," Elaine said. Now that her leadership team is in place, she can work with them to ensure the business operates based on its people-first values. "This approach to leadership and our values has come to life in how we have invested in team rewards, making sure that our people are recognised and benefit financially for their hard work," said Elaine. "We are also involved in being active citizens – that means working with the community, the police and partners to tackle challenges relating to crime."

Baa Bar is developing in such a way as to be a 'good' business, delivering social value. "We're exploring opportunities to attract and support diverse talent in the business and assessing our supply chain to ensure we are leveraging our buying power to be environmentally friendly," Elaine added.

4) Grow the business

"Everyone in the business is working hard to get back on track," said Elaine. "We are still in the mode of working through the aftermath of the pandemic, so it’s too early to say what future growth will look like. The main thing for me is that the team are engaged and on board."

5) Make more connections

New connections to access the best advice became of paramount importance to Elaine during the pandemic. "The business being closed gave me time to invest in relationship-building and the results of this are still delivering value now," she said.

Recently, for example, she was able to meet an experienced marketing expert through her recently developed network. This person had recently relocated from the south and had an impressive CV of working with global TV and media brands. "There is no way that I would have been able to find this person through traditional advertising or recruitment channels," said Elaine. "That’s just one example of when expanding my network has led to results – and there are many more."

Baa Bar first opened 30 years ago, but the challenges of the pandemic have given Elaine a renewed focus on the business

Update seven: December 2021 – “The pandemic continues to be a huge disappointment”

With the pandemic right at the top of the news agenda once more, Elaine Clarke, CEO of Baa Bar, was in a pragmatic mood when we caught up with her to discuss her 2021-22 business goals. Here are three things she's learned this month...

You have to stay positive

"It's all been about just getting through Christmas this month – one of our goals this year was to reopen and trade successfully, which we did, and we've benefitted from staycations during the summer and so on, but we're aware that we could be back at square one soon. I know the government has said we wouldn't go into lockdown again, but what can you do? What will be will be.

"We've not had any 'crisis' talks other than conversations surrounding the most recent updates – and talks to ensure that we make our venues safe for customers and staff. I've always taken things into my stride when handling uncertainty, but the pandemic has obviously been a huge disappointment at a time when I'd like to expand the business."

We're all in this together

"Like us, competitor businesses in Liverpool pretty much flourished during the summer, but we're now all in the same boat with fewer customers because of the recent spate of cold weather. I think that solidarity between businesses has grown – you'll approach someone now that you might not have before, and people are more honest. We're all in the same boat, so there's no shame in saying, 'I'm struggling.' People never used to share that kind of information, but people seem more open now."

I have more confidence than ever before

"One thing I have always done is make business plans for both the business and also for myself, and that's still the case. I'll be doing those this month and looking to the future, because previously everything was all about survival – I want to see what the next one, two and three years look like for me and for the business, because that has obviously changed since last year when I was planning to exit.

"People are still going to come out and the world's still going to continue – even if Covid is going to be a permanent feature of that. I think one thing that will change in my personal plan will be a new focus on a better work/life balance. I have a great team in place now and more people in senior roles, and that's helping me to see more clearly and giving me more confidence to develop better plans for the business."

Update eight: January 2022 – “I'm working on a new venue that will help to keep us really relevant”

So says Elaine Clarke, CEO of Baa Bar, a network of five venues across the north west. Here, she brings us up to speed on three of the 2021-22 goals that she first set out with Be the Business back in May 2021...

1) To open and trade successfully

"It's certainly been an interesting learning curve since we reopened our doors after the first big lockdown. We've had highs and lows, but on reflection, the thing I am most proud of is the team's willingness and ability to be flexible and rise to whatever challenge is put before them.

"As a family-run business, we have always prided ourselves on the strength of the Baa Bar family: many members of the team have been with us for over 20 years. At a time when hospitality was put under immense strain, I would say the strength of the team was proven like never before.

"We have had good months of trading followed by difficult periods overshadowed by further restrictions. The uncertainty over the Christmas 2021 period that shook the industry and impacted sales again was especially hard.

"All in all, from switching nightclubs to seated bars and adapting our bars without kitchens so that they could serve food – especially during the Eat Out to Help Out boom – the team has come through, stayed with us, and delivered. For that, I am immensely proud."

2) To work on the organisational development of the business

"One thing that has made a significant difference to the way the business now operates and how we are progressing is the structure of the team. We've really developed this over the past two years and it is now looking really strong.

"I have some of the best people in the business working in my top team now, my approach having been to bring in the best talent as consultants or on part-time contracts. And it is really working. It's a brilliant way to get expertise at a rate the business can afford.

"I'm currently focusing on the marketing side of the business – we have a new digital marketing manager to help us focus on our digital presence and help us to sit in the special events space. I want to drive customer engagement and sales through tailored event offers rather than just pushing the venues as a whole. My long-term goal is to be able to react to changing markets with ease."

3) To make more connections

"As I've mentioned in previous updates, the new connections I have made have been a very important part of navigating through difficult times. We are now in a place where we are happy with our supply chain after having the opportunity to make sure that all our suppliers are aligned with our values.

"I'm currently working on a new venue with some visual architects and designers, and having the chance to meet these businesses who can really deliver a niche offer that can help me keep the business relevant is brilliant.

"There's so much value in finding the right people who can help you with your objectives. I think these last 24 months have reinforced this message more than ever before."

After the highs and lows of 2021, Elaine is proud of how the team and business adapted to continued disruptions

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:
  • 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.