“there’s no plan, it’s just a bar” — the socialBack
The pub trade continues to be competitive, which is another way of saying that it’s a struggle. New venues open all the time, but they close all the time too, and the pressure increases on bar owners to find new ways of standing out, to find the unique selling point that will help them survive that little bit longer.
Whether it’s the decor, the music or the type of drinks, every venue is competing to find the concept that will keep the doors open. Well, not every venue. “You walk in, and you get a drink,” says Nathan Clark about The Social. “That’s about it!”
Far from having a big, hyped up launch or a convoluted theme, The Social opened quietly one weekend before it even had a sign outside. If you’re looking for a big idea…
“There wasn’t one,” says Nathan, who also runs the Brudenell Social Club. “Mark Young from Sela Bar was enquiring about the space, and we were just having a chance catch up and he said I should come and have a look.” There have been bars in the space before – which is in the same mock-Tudor building as Nash’s Fish and Chip Restaurant on Merrion Street – but it had been empty for a couple of years. “We just thought, between us, we could have somewhere in town that bolsters what we’re both doing and can feed off it.
“We wanted to do something quite easy and wholesome – so the food is stews and soups – and just something really easy overall, that runs itself and is manageable. That was the only idea, to see how it goes and not try and create anything too fancy or with any hype, just do something easy and simple.”
That laid back attitude can be felt after only half an hour on a Friday afternoon in The Social. The enormous windows at the front are perfect for Loop Road watching; the music is low enough to work by and varied enough to be intrigued by; and there are chairs and tables everywhere, a simple gesture that’s often overlooked when bars calculate their takings based on ‘vertical drinkers’ per square metre. Nathan has plans to bring in a bookcase and install a local history section, because when you’re not part of a chain and not tied to a brewery telling you what to do, why not?
“I think it’s the only way to go,” says Nathan. “If you look at bars around at the moment, it’s imminent that some are going to shut. And those are the ones that are part of chains or within bigger groups – anywhere that has a bigger tie or a longer lease. The only way forward at the moment is smaller and more diverse.
“We only did this because we walked in and thought, this is quite a nice room, and it’s a small term opportunity. In three years time, or one year if the landlord says no or whatever, then fair enough, but the opportunity was there and we just thought, go for it. If there had been a beer tie or a longer lease, or something to hold us to ransom, I don’t think we’d have gone for it because it doesn’t give you that flexibility.”
While breweries continue to dictate terms and rents, insisting on national promotions and dictating brands regardless of what local people want, established pubs and bars will continue to struggle to stay afloat. But places in Leeds like The Social and Wharf Chambers are showing the possibilities of doing things in a different, independent way; of finding a space that doesn’t have that baggage, and running it using ground level instincts rather than following corporate instructions. And with Nathan on board at The Social, that means the instincts honed from years of running the Brudenell Social Club can be applied here.
“The main thing we wanted to take from the Brudenell is that there’s no pretence, and no dress code, and no label on it. If you put no label on it, you’re open to anything, and I think that’s all we want to be. As long as you’re a nice person, come in.”
Not all nice people want the same things from a bar, though, and while the drink range at The Social reflects the variety of craft and specialist ales that have found their way onto the bar at the Brudenell, it also reflects the Brudenell’s something for everyone ethos.
“I think a lot of places have gone a bit too far down the craft beer route,” says Nathan, “Where every product you see on a bar is a bit too different or a bit too high end, and no one is catering for the other person. We have got really nice beers in the fridge and cask ales on the bar, but I think there’s that person who might come in with a craft ale drinker who just wants a pint of lager they can afford. If there’s an opportunity there to give an audience want they want at a reasonable price then so be it – we’re not going to be too snobby about the brands.”
Bars are supposed to be about refreshment, and the lack of snobbery or guile at The Social already makes it one of the most refreshing places in Leeds. “Whatever we do while we’re here, we’ll be decent,” says Nathan, who won’t be drawn into looking too far ahead. “Who knows in the future? We’ll just do it like this, and be a nice thing. There’s no plan. It’s just a bar.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 10