Charlie Gilkes, co-founder of the award-winning Inception, speaks to MCA about the London bar group’s ideas for new concepts, opportunities to grow its existing brands and its mission to create memorable experiences

Step into one of Inception Group’s Mr Fogg’s venues, or Cahoots for that matter, and it truly is like stepping back in time to a more opulent and imaginative era.

And its newest opening – Mr Fogg’s Pawnbrokers, in Soho, and the location of my interview with co-founder Charlie Gilkes – is no different, with hundreds of trinkets and antique market gems on display, from ornate watches to copper tankards.

The attention to detail and environment that is created for guests is central to its mission statement to create unique and memorable experiences, with the depth and quality of its offering part of the reason why it was recognised by peers with the Best Pub/Bar Company Award at MCA’s Retailers’ Retailers Awards this year.

“We have always tried to do things a bit differently, and that’s been key to our philosophy,” Gilkes explains.

Though he concedes the word ‘experience’ is now somewhat overused, he believes it is still extremely well placed in the market with its differentiated offer.

It is a blessing that Gilkes found so much inspiration in favourite childhood book ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ – a piece of fiction the business has added to with completely new characters and other concepts within its sites. For example, the backstory to Mr Fogg’s Pawnbrokers is that Phileas Fogg has a wayward half-brother who has taken to selling off the family’s wares.

Where it all began

Having met through their previous roles as club promoters, Gilkes and co-founder Duncan Stirling set up Inception Group in 2009, after a stint testing out their working relationship on a joint venture with a hotel group, which saw them turn a small basement into a club called Kitts, in Sloane Square.

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Inception’s first opening was ‘hidden’ speakeasy bar Barts – located ‘somewhere’ on Sloane Avenue in South Kensington. The pair had been inspired by speakeasy concepts in the US and opened their first on a £20k ‘shoestring’ budget.

“We worked with graffiti artists, stuck brick a brac on the walls, did cocktails in teapots and had a fancy dress trunk, all different ideas,” he explains. “Our mantra has always been ‘innovate don’t imitate’.”

They went against advice given by some when starting out, to focus on a single brand and take a cookie cutter roll-out. “I am glad we are multi-brand – it’s much more versatile,” he says.

Despite the fact the group now has several Mr Fogg’s venues, Gilkes describes them as a collection rather than a chain, as each have their own distinct design and theme. The group works as much as it can with the buildings it acquires to drive maximum value from them – whether that’s converting basements or little used upper floors into extensions of the main concept – such as with Mr Fogg’s Tavern and Gin Parlour on St Martin’s Lane.

“Mr Fogg’s can work in a three-story glass box or a basement wine bar, so we are not prescriptive in terms of the size of site that we need.” It’s a real bonus if something suitable comes up in a Victorian building, but not many of those sites come up, so Inception is open to other quirky spaces such as with its Control Room B venue at Battersea Power Station. “It suited us brilliantly […] and we are open to doing more standalone concepts if it fits well within the group.”

’There are opportunities for our other brands’

The business currently has 13 sites, three of which have opened post-pandemic, with another site – Mr Fogg’s Hat Tavern and Gin Club to open in Soho this summer.

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Having grown organically for the first seven years - without the help of investors or any bank debt - the group took on a small amount of high street bank lending at that point, with OakNorth then supporting them in 2018. Last week the group revealed it had secured a further £6.7m loan from OakNorth which will support the business to open new sites.

The Mr Fogg’s concept has given Inception plenty of mileage to open multiple differentiated venues but Gilkes says there are plans to do more with their other brands.

“I feel like we could build a collection around Cahoots,” he says. The original site – opened in 2015 – was extended in 2019, more than doubling its size, and there are plans for additional Cahoots venues. Similarly, with Bunga Bunga Gilkes believes there is the potential to open single sites in other cities, as part of plans to explore options outside London, from next year.

“We are really interested in lots of cities, but in particular Birmingham and Manchester – I think they would be the ones that would make the most sense for us.”

’We have climbed Everest’

Covid was tough on the company, with no outside investors to turn to, but Gilkes says the combination of support from OakNorth and its landlords – who “on the whole were really good to us” – helped them live another day. While they have gone from an important impossible situation to a very challenging economic climate, “once you have climbed Everest, nothing feels as bad”.

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“Within all of this we have got to see the opportunity, and we have certainly seen more sites available. Landlords are more willing to help fund projects for the right operators.” Grosvenor, for example, lent it the money to open Mr Fogg’s Apothecary last year.

Once its 14th site opens, the group will then be looking to focus efforts on investing in its existing estate and elevating the quality of some of its original sites, in terms of the look and feel and furnishings, for example, to match those of its more recent openings. But there are other site opportunities bubbling away alongside that.

“We are excited in the medium- to long-term. We think there is lots of opportunity,” Gilkes adds. “Our offer is ideally placed for the current market – experiential, differentiated and drink-led. Yes of course profitability is a challenge at the moment… but that’s why we are growing sensibly and cautiously and not overstretching ourselves.”

The business benefits from a lot of international visitors – particularly from the US – and its sales are “fairly buoyant”. The challenge is more around converting those sales to the bottom line.

As a way of driving value within its existing locations, the business is also looking to introduce additional elements to venues. For example, it will be launching a bottomless brunch at Mr Fogg’s House of Botanicals soon – something it launched in Bunga Bunga in 2011 – ahead of the curve, a new gin experience at Mr Fogg’s and an escape room at Control Room B, to join its existing collection of weekend experiences, which include murder mysteries and cocktail-making classes.

Inception Group Mr Fogg's Pawnbrokers (3)

For a business that still views itself as a very small London operator, Gilkes says it meant a lot to be recognised by his peers at the Retailers’ Retailer Awards and was certainly a highlight of 2023 so far.

“We have come through the storm and we are now navigating heavy turbulence, but I think the roaring 20s will come – we might just have to wait another couple of years for them.”

The Best Pub/Bar Company Award was sponsored by Aspall Cyder

Duncan Stirling, co-founder of Inception Group will give a snapshot of the highly creative historical inspirations and elaborate publicity stunts which have helped the London bar group punch well above its weight at MCA’s Pub Conference on 20 June, which takes place at the HAC in London. To find out more or to book tickets to the event, please click here