Ex-City lawyer sets up bar empire
Jonathan Downey has been described as a “clubland visionary” who “sets style standards” - quite an accolade given his origins as a corporate lawyer in the City. He owns three Match bars, Sosho, The Player and Milk & Honey in London, The Clubhouse in Chamonix and he is a part-owner of Milk & Honey in New York. He now has 150 employees, his bars have an annual turnover of over £10m and there are plenty of new international sites in the pipeline. We spoke to him about his legal background and how and why he moved away from it.
mtl: Hi Jonathan, tell us about your legal career.
Jonathan: I trained at Simmons & Simmons, including a seat in Hong Kong. In 1994 I was seconded to the Abu Dhabi office for two years, where I did corporate and insolvency work and had the use of two speedboats! I came back with a chunk of ex-pat cash and bought a flat in Clerkenwell at a time when nobody else seemed to consider living there.
I used to walk to work and one day I walked past a site which I thought would be great for a bar. I decided to spend the rest of my savings on this idea and it became Match EC1. I put in £25k, raised another £50k from another four people and borrowed £75k from a bank.
At the time I was working 100 hours a week at Simmons & Simmons and spent the rest of my time setting up the bar. I literally dug out the kitchen in the evenings and chipped off all the walls down to the bare brick in there myself. It took nine months and £143k from first seeing the site to opening the bar.
At about 6 years’ pqe I left Simmons & Simmons to work for Weil Gotshal. I spent a year there which was great. However, by this point I had acquired the site for a second Match bar on Margaret Street in the West End. It was tough trying to do both jobs. Although I was the head of insolvency and restructuring in London, I was in fact the only insolvency lawyer in the UK practice. I didn’t enjoy the lack of colleagues or dealing with the US partners.
I had a reality check when I missed a meeting with the managing partner and a top client because I had gone to sort out an emergency on the new site during my lunch break. I had a £2.5m turnover by this time on the bars, as well as my first kid and I had re-mortgaged my flat to pay for the second bar. I decided it was time to give in and do my own thing completely.
Law, Liverpool University
LPC, College of Law, Guildford
Trainee, Simmons & Simmons
Corporate / insolvency assistant, Simmons & Simmons
Opened Match EC1
Insolvency assistant, Weil Gotshal
Opened Match, West End
Left law to run bars full-time
I specialised in a niche area and Weil Gotshal offered me a fantastic deal to keep working part-time doing 10 hours a week for them. I only did it for two weeks because I was so busy with the bars and that is a major regret. Life would have been a lot easier with the money from the consultancy work as the following year was a complete nightmare. I had no resources, colleagues, PA, or email. I was a new dad, with a new business and no income.
mtl: Had running a bar been a long-term dream of yours?
Jonathan: Not at all. I never got into it on purpose – I just wanted my own business. I didn’t know anything about bars, food operation, licencing or property law. All I knew was that there was nothing in Clerkenwell that could call itself a bar at the time or anything in London that could really compete with the bar scene in Manchester, where I’m from. I knew what a bar should be like and I cared about the quality of the drinks and the training of the staff. As a professional, I wanted it to be a professional enterprise.
I was lucky because I had previously met Dick Bradsell. He was one of London’s most capable bar tenders at the time and he came and helped me set up Match. He also introduced me to a chef and found me a manager. He gave me my introduction to this world and was the technician behind it.
I also think that by the time you get to 30, if you are reasonably personable you will have met everyone you need to know to do anything you want to do. The network of people that I knew gave me the confidence that I would be able to do it, plus I had a lot of determination to make it succeed.
We won the Evening Standard bar of the year award in our first year which helped. Also, the Met bar opened at the same time and got a lot of press about its fruit martinis, which we were also “pioneering”. The late ‘90’s was the period of Cool Britannia, with new Labour, and a number of new bars such as Home, Alphabet, Met and Momo were opened by like-minded people.
mtl: What does your job involve on a day to day basis?
Jonathan: Interviews! In the mornings I spend 2/3 hrs in my office at home writing emails and making phone calls. Most afternoons involve site visits and meetings about new projects. I spend a lot of time working on new projects. For example I have just been away on business to Australia and I also regularly visit Ibiza (where we are just about to open a new Match bar), New York and Chamonix.
I have just agreed heads of terms in Australia on three sites in Melbourne and hopefully a further two are in the pipeline in Sydney. We have brand clout now which is great. One of our Melbourne sites will be a 50 bedroom hotel called the Melbourne Steamship as a sister for The Clubhouse in Chamonix and will include a lobby bar and a members bar.
I love opening new sites as there is a real sense of team spirit and everyone gets stuck in. It is also very nice to win awards and we have won them all. It is also great walking into one of my bars and seeing hundreds of people having a good time. The low point is dealing with local authorities and the ensuing bureaucracy. Apart from financial services, I don’t know of a more over-regulated industry than this business.
There is a general malaise that comes with working in an industry that has so many people watching it all the time. For example, in London you have to have substantial food available when serving alcohol. There is a “pizza patrol” by the police at 11pm to check that kitchens are still open, which I think is such a waste of time. I also miss working with clever lawyers.
My background in law has been very useful and I am able to do quite a bit of the work myself, though I farm out the property and tax work. The attention to detail, the ability to think and plan ahead, and to consider in advance what can go wrong, are all very useful skills. I have found it quite difficult to find an enthusiastic, effective, commercial, client-focused business lawyer to help me who can provide really good advice – although I think I have found that now at Dickson Minto.
mtl: Do you have any career change tips for our readers?
Jonathan: Get yourself a partner with different skills to you, so probably not another lawyer. Don’t go into a new business with your other half if money will be an issue – it will kill the relationship! Never deal with idiots or billionaires! You can’t negotiate with either of these.
Register your trademark! I have had lots of problems with that - people nick your name when they see you doing well. There are Match bars all over the place now. Remember that everyone is lying to you about everything all of the time, so be skeptical all the time and at every step of the way.
I have been very lucky but now I would say don’t move from security without good advice from a sound business mind. We don’t live in a business-friendly, entrepreneurial environment in this country. Make sure you try to have some capital to get started with. Being under-capitalised leads to a lot of stress. Although my bars were a great success and took loads of money, we still had no money at the end of the first year and didn’t make much money for a couple of years. I haven’t found banks particularly helpful and although lots of people might promise investment, few actually deliver.
Now, ten years down the line we are doing well but the tax burden is phenomenal, as is the indirect tax burden such as paying the congestion charge. You will at some point no doubt have to rely on the outsourced skills of architects, designers, printers, lawyers, etc. and you can spend years trying to find reliable ones who will do a good job at a decent price.
Aim to be the best at one thing or one aspect of your business. That way you will attract people who want to work for the best – whatever it is. I was also once told that people always pay for quality and from day 1 we have e.g. used juices that are freshly squeezed in-house.
Always try to stay friends with people. I have been generous with my time and help over the years and sometimes the people I help become a fantastic opportunity in the future. If you invest time in people, are good company and a good friend, you will find that it pays off.
I have a fantastic life, spending 8 weeks a year in Ibiza and 9 weeks a year in Chamonix. I have four children under the age of 8 and get to spend loads of time with them. I haven’t cashed in yet and I would like to do that one day. I would have more money in the bank as a lawyer but less “wealth” for the future and less time outside of work. If I ever regret my change of career, then I walk down Moorgate at 9am and see how miserable people can look!
mtl: Thanks for your time Jonathan.
Click below for more information about Jonathan’s bars:
Milk & Honey (London and New York) - www.mlkhny.com
Match bars (London) - www.matchbar.com
The Player (Soho) - www.thplyr.com
Sosho (London) - www.sosho3am.com
The Clubhouse (Chamonix) - www.clubhouse.fr
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.
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