To me it was obvious, to others completely bonkers. But I was convinced there was a gap in the market for an evening venue where men and women could meet and talk. At that point, it didn’t exist.
The year was 1986. Margaret Thatcher was approaching her final term as PM; interest and unemployment rates were high. Then (as perhaps again now, for different reasons) the country was in need of a stiff drink.
But at the time, the options were limited to rowdy pubs or snooty hotel bars. I thought it was nuts. Women might like beer. Blokes might like wine. They might want to meet in a place where they can socialise in comfort.
Instead of insipid music dribbling out of the ceiling, a gentle piano accompaniment might further enhance the atmosphere, along with table service, leather sofas and pitchers of beer.
I decided to call it Pitcher & Piano and I knew it would work, because it would fulfil a fundamental consumer need. The problem was getting anyone else to back it.
Having worked for in branding and design for Wolff Olins and Fitch, I’d recently started my own firm Piper, at that stage a consumer-focused strategy consultancy. So we approached the big brewers and asked if we could develop our idea for them. No chance.
‘How about you give us an old pub and let us have a go ourselves?’ I asked. Forget it.
Potential investors were equally dismissive, with nearly everyone trying to undermine the concept of a female-friendly bar. ‘How are you going to make it a success if you don’t have fruit machines?’ one asked. ‘We don’t want them,’ I replied. ‘That’s exactly how we’re going to make it a success.’
The first Pitcher & Piano opened in September 1986 on the Fulham Road, West London. On day one, it was filled with family and friends. On day two, it was packed with people I didn’t know. Word had spread within hours, decades before the advent of social media.
One night I took a well-known company chairman to see the place in action. ‘OK, I get it now,’ he said. ‘You just need more of them.’
Over the next few years, we opened sites across London and further afield, before selling the business to enable Piper to invest in and grow other consumer-focused brands [Tweddell and Piper have since invested successfully in businesses including Boden, Be At One and Bottlegreen.]
Of course, like all first-time entrepreneurs, we made many mistakes along the way. We became briefly distracted by another business, which promptly fell apart. We dabbled with a fancy gourmet menu only to find our guests simply wanted burgers and chips.
But we never lost site of our founding principle: to create a place to meet and talk. And, as competitors entered the market, we never stopped focusing on the consumer and trying to be different and better than everyone else.
Looking at today’s eating and drinking sector, it’s impossible to imagine a landscape without bars catering for both sexes. And brewers gradually began to accept that pubs shouldn’t merely be hosepipes from the end of their breweries. If nothing else, they realised it made commercial sense not to alienate 50 per cent of the population.
The industry also started to do something that, despite being a consumer facing sector, it had rarely done before: think hard about customers. Who are they, what do they need and how can it be delivered to them?
Today these questions are so obvious they hardly seem worth mentioning. But even now, it still astonishes me how regularly consumers are forgotten – sometimes by the world’s biggest players, almost always at their peril. BlackBerry saw this with phones, Tesco with groceries, BHS with clothes. The list goes on.
The thing is consumers change, their tastes evolve frequently. As David Cameron joked when bowing out in his final Prime Minister’s Questions: ‘I was the future once.’ No brand ever wants to hear those words. Standing still is not an option.
In some ways, launching a bar or restaurant is easier now than it was in the Eighties. Marketing costs can be kept down, social media is able to reach a vast audience and consumer approval (or vilification) can be swift and decisive.
The biggest change of all is in financing. Investment companies are falling over themselves to back new ventures in a way that simply wasn’t the case back then.
We were fortunate to be able to invest funds from our consultancy practice to open the first Pitcher & Piano. Had we been forced to wait for external backing, it would never have happened.
But money alone is no guarantor of success. Today too many financiers blithely throw funds at enterprises, lured by the prospect of fast growth, multiple units and an easy return on investment.
The result is a lunatic overheating of the market where certain operators are vastly overvalued and waiting, often in vain, for a big buyer to gobble them up. Many are backed by what I call ‘unthinking money’ – money that isn’t doing what it should be to enhance the business. I suspect a lot of these wild punts will end in tears.
Worse still, the tendency of City money is to derisk everything. To force average rather than better.
This contradicts just about everything an entrepreneur should stand for. The most successful, from James Dyson to Steve Jobs, have an unwavering determination to deliver an extraordinary product to customers.
That’s their only goal. They’re never governed by risk, otherwise they’d be too frightened to get out of bed each morning. Risk is precisely what makes a good business truly great.
Anyone can play with numbers on a spreadsheet. It proves absolutely nothing. Be close to the customer, be innovative and do it now. That’s what I learnt 30 years ago – and it still guides me today.
Crispin Tweddell is chairman of Piper, the specialist investor in consumer brands.