Earlier this year London-based cocktail bar operator Grand Union launched a new concept – Trade Union – combining bar, restaurant, coffee shop, barbers, florist and playground under one roof. Founder Adam Marshall talks to James Wallin about his ambitions for the brand, including an international push
Last year, Adam Marshall realised he had hit a wall. The founder of London-based, cocktail-centric Grand Union had successfully grown the brand to eight sites and attracted investment from serial sector entrepreneur, Luke Johnson.
“We have some fantastic sites in Grand Union – some we were very lucky to get. The problem was that the quality of site we needed was coming at an ever higher price. The London market has gone from challenging to ferocious. It was clear that we needed to look at different kind of properties if we were going to continue to grow.”
The search for new opportunities took Marshall to a vacant unit in Thomas More Square, Wapping, the former home of Rupert Murdoch’s News International empire, which housed The Sun and The Times newspapers, and is now rapidly filling up with firms, including Ipsos More and Mitsui OSK.
Marshall could see huge potential, surrounded by residential and office development, but the 6,700sq ft site was daunting.
He said: “It was a big risk and what we needed was someone to share that risk with. That got me thinking about what would eventually become Trade Union.”
The concept Marshall developed is a playground for adults and a department store of hospitality and sees it running with other operators under the same roof.
Grand Union directly manages the bar and the Brooklyn-themed diner, operated by its own Bushwick Pizza Co. The partners when it opened in June were three-strong coffee shop operator and roastery, Vagabond; male grooming specialist Drake’s of London and florist Maua London.
Each signed a contract for two years to operate on a turnover-related agreement, with Grand Union funding the fit-out and partners providing their own equipment.
The collaboration lets the venue trade from 8am to 1.30am, and ticks a number of boxes for its target customers, says Marshall.
He says: “People come in during a break for a coffee and a beard trim, or in the evening for a haircut and a cocktail before going out. The space is big enough that even if we’ve got a healthy crowd in for lunch, there’s still space for work meetings, interviews and people just to have a drink. As the night progresses, the DJ starts and the party begins.”
The venue also boasts two private function areas – including one on mezzanine level with a slide to the toilet – that are marketed for corporate events and parties.
Four months on from the launch and there have been tweaks to the model with the decision that the logistics of selling fresh flowers just didn’t add up. The florist element has now been replaced with silk flowers, with around £150 a week being sold.
Now Marshall is looking to the future for the brand and is thinking big. He is keen to establish the format in London, but says “I couldn’t see there being eight or 10 of them here” and stresses that there is real potential to take Trade Union international.
He adds: “There is nothing quite like this anywhere in the world – we’ve looked. There are places with coffee shops attached, there are places where a barber does a residency but the concept of everything working as a partnership is unique.”
He says he would not rule out regional sites but stresses: “I know the London market but I would need to do a lot more research into other areas to find out if this kind of offer would work”.
Appetite for concepts
Marshall says he would like to open a second London site within the next year.
He says: “With the name Trade Union, that opens us up to working with all sorts of different partners. I’m confident that all the elements here work well so would want to continue that into a second site but what I’d really like to do is extend the offer with something aimed at the female market. I’d like to look at working with a make-up brand as a partner, so we could offer groups the chance to get made up together and have a cocktail.”
He adds: “There seems to be a real appetite from landlords for concepts like this – something that provides different experiences for their tenants and doesn’t have the baggage that comes with a chain.”
Marshall is also confident about the potential for Trade Union’s fledgling workshops programme – customers can learn about coffee with Vagabond or sign up for a pizza and cocktail making masterclass with Grand Union.
There have also been tentative steps to allow the Bushwick brand to push out on its own, with pop-ups selling its signature p-dogs (a sausage wrapped in pizza dough) in Thomas More Square.
The focus on Trade Union does not mean, however, that Grand Union will not grow.
Marshall says: “Grand Union is my baby and I’m very proud of what we have created there. We have never stopped looking and I still hope there will be chances to grow. I can’t see the London market cooling down any time soon, but it’s impossible to predict how trends will change. All you can do is focus on giving customers an experience that will make them come back. That’s what we’ve been doing at Grand Union for years – Trade Union is just taking it to another level.”