The Florist is the newest brand from the rapidly growing New World Trading Company. In a new series, MCA Introduces, James Wallin profiles the concept and talks to NWTC chief executive Chris Hill.

A couple of 20-something art student types loiter in the entrance of the New World Trading Company’s newly opened The Florist, in Liverpool.

Approached by a member of staff they bashfully explain they’re just here to take a few pictures. They are waved through and start enthusiastically snapping the twin trees twisting up into the ceiling of the entrance hall, the mural stretching the height of the staircase and walls bursting with flowers and neon – with the result soon to flow into the constant torrent of social media, no doubt.

The reaction goes to the heart of The Florist – we know that pubs are the original social network, but if Instagram was to create its own pub brand, this is what it would look like.

The first impression of The Florist is later summed up to me by one enthusiastic employee, who says: “I came here on a rainy day, but inside it was like the sun was shining.”

Pink is the colour

The Florist is bright. It’s blossoming. And it’s pink. This has to rank as the pinkest pub I’ve ever set foot in and seems to be the next stage in NWTC chief executive Chris Hill’s quest to make this great British institution as female-friendly as possible. Having said that, there is no shortage of Y chromosomes in the packed site two weeks’ after opening. Similarly, it is not just the Millennials snapping pictures of their surroundings in the former Old Blind School.

The concept is the latest chapter in the NWTC story and shares the DNA of the other brands in the stable, which is dominated by the Botanist and House formats (the Oast House in Manchester, the Club House in Liverpool; Birmingham’s Canal House and the Trading House, currently NWTC’s only outpost in the capital) and a selection of standalone sites.

It started as an idea to compliment the mainstay, The Botanist, as well as opening doors to a younger demographic, and to London. Having launched in Bristol, Liverpool quickly followed and the group has already secured a site in Watford, complete with a terrace.

Surveying the bustling scene in the 120-cover first-floor dining area, Hill enthuses: “There was a point when we were developing The Florist that we realised we were ticking so many boxes of what people now want out of a pub.

“This is a real experience and a canvass for social media and we’ve added that together with all the expertise we have of service and standards.

“Our business is ultimately selling hot food and cold drinks, but we feel that we have created a complete and unique environment to do that here”

Hill’s expectations for the new brand are in line with his enthusiasm for it. “This has every chance of being a big brand. I can see one of these in every city, and this gives us the potential to have a Florist, Botanist and a House in the same locations.”

For the moment, Hill insists that the growth rate of six sites per year remains the right one for the currently 22-strong group, which was acquired by Graphite Capital for £50m in 2016. However, he concedes that if the demand is there he would be foolish not to capitalise on it.

To reflect the growing complexity of his business, Hill has split the operational responsibilities – with long-term lieutenant, Leanne Patching, taking responsibility for the Botanist, under the continually watchful eye of operations director Matt Bamber.

The publicity around the Liverpool launch predicted that The Florist would become the most photographed venue in the city, and the social-media buzz around the opening has yet to die down when I visit.

Hill explains that the group took a new approach to its soft-launch programme with this opening. Whereas for previous projects a full launch was preceded by several weeks of discounting, staff at the Florist prepared by cooking meals for NWTC’s charity partners, Barnado’s, Alder Hey Hospital and My Time Unpaid Carers

”Opening discounts don’t work and ‘Soft openings’ don’t work”. Hill stresses. “We have used opening discounts in the past and we found there is no way of targeting your message, or measuring the return”

For the opening and to maintain a post-launch buzz, NWTC has once again partnered with Liverpool PR veteran Carolyn Hughes, who ensures the Who’s Who of the city’s Twitterati and Instagramunity (I may have made that last word up) have received an invite.

Hughes tells me: “Gone are the days when you needed to invite the world and his wife for a free meal to get the word out there. There are key influencers and if you can impress them, they’ll tell the whole city in one picture.”

The food is all cooked in-house and the menu covers deli, rotisserie and grill-inspired dishes as well as a wide selection of vegetarian and vegan dishes. The floral theme runs throughout the menu, which also features lavender honey and sunflower loaf with whipped goat’s cheese butter

Extensive drinks offer

The drinks menu includes 60 beers and a range of spirits, including NWTC’s own Secret Gin, which is a collaboration with Manchester Gin. NWTC also serves its own Tribal pale ale, previously known as Pacific, which is another collaboration, this time with Freedom Brewery.

Hill says: “What we’re offering is at a casual-dining pricepoint, but in terms of quality it’s way ahead.”

Now juggling an estate with multiple growth brands, Hill remains as competitive and ambitious as ever. He is eyeing sites in Bath, Cardiff and Leicester among others and is already building his pipeline beyond 2019.

“NWTC has become essentially an umbrella company,” he explains. “It’s not important to me that people know they’re in a NWTC venue, or even that they’re aware that there are Botanists, and eventually Florists, all over the country. The aim is to use our base of quality service and product, to create the hands-down best venue in any town or city. Then with the multiple brands under that umbrella, we’ve got the scope to have the top two or three best venues in any area.”