Escapism Bar Group was founded in 2004 by husband and wife team Phil and Mel Harrison. Since the opening of their first bar Mean Eyed Cat, they have gone on to open seven other unique bars which all offer something totally different in Leeds. Paul Andrews spoke to the founders to get an understanding of their journey to date and to find out what it means to start and grow their family business.
What does the business do?
We are a group of independent bars in Leeds. We create memorable moments, inspire our guests and create an atmosphere of happiness and togetherness.
Our core business isn’t to sell drinks – it’s about the atmosphere and the experiences our guests have when they visit us. The clue is in the name – it’s all about escapism!
Each bar brings something unique. They’re each based on a different cocktail genre or era of partying history – from 1920s prohibition at our speakeasy The Maven, to 1950s post-WW2 indulgence in the South Pacific beach bars at Tiki Hideaway, to Johnny Cash in the rebellious Deep South at The Mean-Eyed Cat.
Another bar, Cuckoo, was founded during Brexit. We wanted to create something as far away from politics as possible. We painted the front of the building pink and had zebras running through the walls.
Every part of your experience when you visit an Escapism bar is a little bit unique, whether it’s a tower of beer with a giraffe’s head on top which you can spin around and serve to your friends, drinks set alight, or a six-course cocktail tasting menu.
Tell me a little about the history of the business?
It started with the two of us [husband and wife Phil and Mel], aged 26, thinking ‘how hard could it be to set up a bar?’
We always wanted to have our own business – it’s about being in control of your own destiny. We’d had some rubbish jobs and some horrible bosses, and as we went out every weekend, we became inspired to do our own thing and create something great.
We wanted to create somewhere where all the guests were friendly to each other, and the bar team was a close group of friends. You spend a lot of time at work, so we wanted to make it the best possible place it could be.
In the beginning, we raised money by moving between houses, doing them up and getting the equity out. We didn’t have any inheritance or help from our parents – it was a lot of graft and a lot of painting!
Are there any other family members working in the business?
Yes – in 2014, Mel’s sister-in-law Hayley brought her marketing expertise on board and has been heading that up ever since. Our three children are still at primary school age, so it’ll be a while before they become interested in joining.
What has helped drive your success to date?
Our initial drive came from putting everything on the line. We couldn’t afford to lose. We’d work hundred-hour weeks to make it happen.
When you open up more venues, you’ve got to be able to trust your team to create a good culture. They need to want the business to grow too.
We’ve made every mistake we could possibly make, but just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new goes wrong. That’s just the nature of the hospitality industry and of running your own business.
What values are important to the family and the business?
When we induct new members to the team, we tell them our back story. It’s important to us that they know where we started.
Hard-working, enthusiastic, and a great attitude are all qualities we look for. We also want our team to want to continuously improve. We must, otherwise we will stand still.
The number one thing we tell our team is to host the bar as if you’re hosting a house party. Look after your guests: make sure the music’s right, the drinks are flowing, everything’s clean, you’ve got loo roll in, you’re introducing guests to each other, bid them goodbye when they go and make them feel special!
Do you build the family ownership into the marketing and brand narrative and if so, how?
People describe the bars as a brotherly, sisterly environment. It’s safe and friendly. There’s no pretentiousness or trouble going on – instead, just as if you were with family, it’s relaxed, and you can be yourself.
Anyone who works for us would tell you that it’s like a big family. We do quarterly away days and make sure everyone at all the bars really knows each other.
Our team is really diverse and we hire on personality. We hugely believe in paying everyone doing the same job the same wage, regardless of their age or gender.
What do you think makes working in a family business special?
Trust is massively important. We’re both working towards the same goal, even if we have different ideas about how to get there and may disagree from time to time.
We can build in flexibility for looking after our children, which helps us be understanding and flexible when employees have children too. Work should be as natural as play.
Are there any disadvantages associated with working in a family business?
It can be hard to split the person from the job role. You always need to keep in the back of your mind the job description of the actual job you’re doing.
We split the work between us by keeping an awareness of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. If you can do that for yourselves, you can do that for the other job roles in the company too.
If you haven’t got defined roles, there can be crossover. It’s like at home – kids will play you off against each other if there are inconsistencies. So, at work, we make sure we know who deals with each area.
Have you taken any particular steps to help protect the business for the future?
Covid’s an obvious one when thinking about the future. We’ve been very agile in changing how we operate. 88% of our business used to be between 10pm and 4am. So, when the curfew was introduced last summer, we had to become a daytime brunch place. People used to arrive in taxis at midnight, now they’re ordering drinks at noon!
If you could talk to your younger self before you joined the business, what would you say?
Just go for it!
A lot of people do all the hard work and research and then don’t have the guts to take the final leap. We’ve never really regretted taking that leap.
The only other thing would be to read more and learn more. All the knowledge is there, you’ve just got to find it. Personally, I’d probably learn more about the figures. I tend to go on gut instinct and day-to-day figures, rather than long-term financial planning. But sometimes the numbers right in front of your eyes are the most important ones.
If you concentrate on each day, the year will work itself out!
If you could sum up the family business in three words, what would they be?
Togetherness, happiness and escapism!