Theatrical drinking + dining: Inception Group
Charlie Gilkes and Duncan Stirling are the founders of Inception Group, the creators of some of London’s most unique bars and restaurants.
Each with a different theme and concept, Gilkes and Stirling have transformed the bars into far more than just a venue but what should surely be described as pieces of theatre. From the moment you’re greeted and shown to your seat the team are fully in character and embodying the context of the scene.
If visiting Cahoots you will be transported back in time, to a post-war 1940’s abandoned underground tube station, with ticket inspectors on the door awaiting your arrival and showing you to your carriage seat. Or if you’re visiting Mr Foggs, ‘the residence of the eccentric British adventurer,’ prepare to be surrounded by various pieces of taxidermy of which he would have collected along his worldwide voyage. And of course the food and drink is as eclectic as the décor – ensuring you’re in for a unique and memorable evening.
Inception Group own; Mr Fogg’s Residence and Mr Fogg’s Tavern, Barts, Cahoots, Bunga Bunga, Beaver Lodge, Maggie’s and Cocobananas. The Interview (London) talk to Charlie Gilkes and Duncan Stirling on how they have formed their careers, what inspires the themes behind the bars and restaurants and what advice they can offer other entrepreneurs.
Images courtesy of: Inception Group
Please can you introduce yourselves?
We are the founders of Inception Group, which owns and operates a collection of bars, restaurants and clubs in London.
Can you tell us how your partnership came about and your first ventures together?
We met by accident when a club double booked us by mistake to organise a Christmas event 12 years ago. We both promoted bars and clubs after school and soon realised how well we worked together and set about realising our ambition of opening our own place. Our first venture was a management contract with a hotel in Sloane Square where we opened a club called Kitts. At the time I was still at university and Duncan had an events business. From there we both then went on to found Inception Group and launch our first bar: Barts.
Inception Group has experienced repeated success after each opening of its bars and restaurants. What are your tactics to ensuring this?
It's a combination of factors including a lot of hard work. Creating an original and exciting concept with a real attention to detail which people are going to buy in to is a key part of it. Additionally great service and maintaining excellent food and drink is essential to ensure our concepts are not short term fads and long term success. We are delighted that our first bar has grown year on year and had its most successful year seven years after first opening.
What inspires you when coming up with the themes for each different location?
As Danny Meyer the famous US restaurateur said, creating a concept is a bit like writing music. The notes are predetermined but the order you put them in creates something unique. For example we didn't invent karaoke, live entertainment and pizza but by combining them with our unique Inception Group twist and sense of fun we've created a very unique atmosphere in the form of Bunga Bunga. We get inspired by some ideas travelling and reading but a lot of them are dreamt up in our imaginations.
Can you tell us about your first bar, Barts, which opened in 2009. How did you go about launching and what strategies did you have in place?
We had seen the success of speakeasy bars in New York but they hadn't been done in London. We found an old residents bar hidden in the back of a fairly sleepy apartment building with no on street presence at all. We used this obscure location to our advantage marketing a secret bar, never revealing the address! It quickly generated a real buzz on Twitter ( which was also just taking off) and became an overnight success. It's been labelled Londons worst kept secret as we found that as soon as you tell most people not to tell anyone about something they shout from the rooftops!
What do you find is the best way to attract visitors to your locations?
We tend to mainly rely on word of mouth. Our bars have a following now and usually when we open something new there is some interest by our existing customers to check them out. It is then our challenge to ensure they have had a good enough experience to want to return! Press is also a great way of letting people know we're there.
Do you have a favourite and if so why?
We couldn't possibly have a favourite. That would be like having a favourite child!
Can you tell us how you find the properties for the bars?
Most of our sites have been found off market. Typically they were venues nobody else wanted way off prime pitch, which we've felt we can make work with destination concepts. We now have great relationships with some major London landlords and are offered more prime sites. Our most recent opening, Mr Fogg's Tavern on St Martin's lane is in a prime position and we had to bid against over 40 other operators to win it.
Was being an entrepreneur a natural path for you? Or did you have different careers in mind prior to the creation of Inception Group?
I think we both always wanted to run a business of our own. We love the industry we're in as it combines so many different elements from property, travel, food, drink, music, theatre and of course people!
What are your goals for Inception Group in 2016?
We are focusing on growing two of our brands: Mr Fogg's and Bunga Bunga. We have plans to open more spin off sites for Mr Fogg's and to open a Bunga Bunga in central London later this year.
What are the key lessons that you learnt from your first launch and how has your approach changed/improved over time?
We are constantly learning and there's no end to the list of things we've learnt since our first opening back in 2009. Each time we open a new venue we like to think improvements are made.
What would your top three pieces of advice be to other entrepreneurs today?
1. Don't put starting your own business off: you have a lot less to lose when you are younger ( even whilst at school and university) and the longer you leave it the harder it becomes, as you will have financial responsibilities and probably a larger salary to walk away from.
2. Test the water on a smaller scale as much as you can. If you have a restaurant idea then rent a pop up location or market pitch.
3. Be persistent! We've learnt over the years that you have to be patient and persistence pays off: Don't take no for an answer too quickly!