Interview: Steve Barker, Gin & Juice in Cheltenham
PUBLISHED: 14:43 02 July 2019 | UPDATED: 14:43 02 July 2019
Growing up in an entrepreneurial family gave Steve Barker a head for business. Now he's building a gin empire with the Lucky Onion's Julian Dunkerton
Did you know there is a candy floss-flavoured gin? Or rhubarb and custard? Or even one made from rare herbs foraged from deep within a hidden Mediterranean valley? In fact there are more than 350 different varieties to choose from at Cheltenham's newest bar, Gin & Juice, and many of them are really out there.
From spiced pineapple or savoury thyme and sage to caramelised Caribbean brown sugar and even seaweed, there is something for every taste no matter how weird and wonderful, on a menu that is listed from Beginners to Exceptional, with categories in between including Advanced, Expert and Master.
The innovation of Cardiff entrepreneur Steve Barker and his wife, Charlotte, Gin & Juice has opened downstairs at 131 The Promenade where Crazy Eights used to be, in partnership with Cheltenham's businessman of the moment, Julian Dunkerton.
It's just one in a roll-out of new openings for the Lucky Onion brand, that include two new townhouses on either side of 131, The House and King's House, a totally refurbished Wild Duck, their pub at Ewen, and The Crown at Minchinhampton, opening this summer.
And if all that's not enough, early next year - just in time for the races - the group will open The George in Cheltenham, a 40-bedroomed grade ll listed hotel currently being transformed in partnership with Gloucester international rugby pro Ben Morgan.
But the current shiny new jewel in the crown is Gin & Juice, a hidden bolthole offering different experiences for different tastes. In the daytime it's a sanctuary away from the crowds where people can pop in for a cuppa, breakfast or lunch or settle down to work remotely in one of the cosy little corners.
At night it transforms into a trendy gin bar where you can sample new and exciting drinks from a Tom Cat cloudy mango gin with blueberries and mint to Pink 47 London Dry Gin with lemon and pink peppercorns. There's even a Rum & Fizz bar inside, serving countless rum-based cocktails.
And for those who like to dance all night, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays it becomes the hub of the town's party scene, staying open until the wee hours with DJs playing eclectic mixes of funky beats and retro grooves.
To discover the origins of Gin & Juice, you have to go back to the humble South Wales' valleys and the childhood of a boy who grew up as the son of fashion entrepreneurs, surrounded by a lifeblood of fashion, trade shows, buying and selling.
"It was a bit like a baby who grows up immersed in different languages and just learns them without thinking about it," said Steve. "I grew up surrounded by business and it was the best training programme without me even realising it.
"Understanding how a brand can start with nothing and grow and become the coolest thing ever, go through a period of still being really cool but really mass, and then can die off and become naff, but all the time something new is coming along."
Steve's parents started a fashion empire called Barkers in the tiny South Wales town of Blackwood, eventually growing to eight shops around Wales at its peak, before ending up with the two flagship stores in Cardiff and Swansea. Steve has known Julian for a long time, both being in the same business. Julian had bought clothes from Steve's company for Cult Clothing, and subsequently Steve returned the favour for his stores.
But it was in 2010, at the back end of the recession, that Steve began to realise that the high quality, boutique fashion stores he supplied were dwindling and, in their place, had come the rapidly booming internet market.
"I knew things were changing and it was becoming really risky, so I advised my parents to step back a bit, bought their shop in Cardiff and turned it into a cool coffee bar." Coffee Barker is still one of the coolest cafes to go to in Cardiff city centre, and from that, Gin & Juice was born.
"I called Julian up and said I think we should do a gin thing. There are so many different gins, quality artisan products beautifully packaged, with amazing flavours and such passion behind them, I thought, my God, there's a real opportunity here that nobody else is owning."
Steve bases his Gin & Juice bars on the bars and brasseries he's visited on trips to New York and Paris. "You always make them a bit too small because then you always look full, so even on a Tuesday evening there's always a cool vibe going on. It's like the cool little back street bars in Tribeca in New York, where you're grateful to get a table.
"Everything is always premium and yes, we may be expensive, but it's always brilliantly done, always the best and always aiming way too high and getting the product dead right. Otherwise it's just a gin and tonic."
The pair eventually decided on transforming Crazy Eights, which, although still a cool place to hang out after five years, was looking a little but tired and "confused in what it offered from private dining, restaurant and cocktail bar".
And Gin & Juice has already proved to be a big hit. Opened at the tail end of February, it has more than doubled its takings, improved its margins and reinvented the original Crazy Eight's vibe.
And Steve isn't stopping in Cheltenham. "We are about to open another Gin & Juice in Bristol and are also looking at Birmingham in the near future.
"And we are also really keen to hear from building owners or landlords interested in something that is growing, healthy and good for their area. We are looking for buildings that have character in places like Bath and Oxford, but anywhere really.
"It would be great if people read this and think, hey I could work with that from a business point of view.
"We are very down to earth and solid as a rock financially, and we want to roll them out as soon as possible."
For more information on Cheltenham's Gin & Juice, visit no131.com/eat-drink/gin-juice/.