Charlie Gilkes is one of the masterminds behind several of London’s quirkiest nightlife venues including stylish speakeasy Barts and ’80s-themed club Maggie’s. Hg2 sat down with Gilkes, one of the most successful under-30s in London, to pick his brain about travel inspiration, his favourite spots in London and New York and his newest venture, bar-pizzeria-karaoke joint Bunga Bunga.
At only 28 you’ve already opened three or four nightlife venues – what inspired you to set up in business on your own?
Since a very early age I was relatively entrepreneurial and was always thinking of ways to subsidise my pocket money during school holidays. As soon as I left school, in a gap year before I started at University, I started organising ticketed events and promoting club nights across London to fund travelling abroad. Duncan [Stirling] and I teamed up and as the promotions company grew, so did our desire for us to open our own places where we could have full control and develop concepts we fully believed in.
Your clubs tend to attract London’s young and rich, yet the focus of Barts was to move away from ‘bling’ and copy the ‘prohibition style’ speakeasies of New York and Tokyo. How would you describe the Inception Group audience today?
All of our venues attract a variety of age groups, nationalities and people from a range of backgrounds. As our places are very conceptual and unique, they have to a degree become quite ‘destination venues’ so people will travel from across London to check them out and we also attract quite a few international visitors. Predominantly we cater for 25-35 young professionals that live and work in London but our places are by no mean exclusively for them.
Imagine you had one of those original speakeasy bar owners from New York coming to visit for a weekend – what would be on your impress-in-London intinerary (aside from your own sites, of course)?
I would certainly take them to see Russell Norman’s places: Spuntino and Polpo being my favourite. I also love the simple Soho tapas bar, Barrafina. For a smarter night out I’d start with a drink a the Connaught bar and then take them for dinner at Scott’s, which are both exceptionally refined and well run. Barwise I love the speakeasy, Night Jar and also the rooftop bar at Shoreditch House. The pop-up Campari bar in Peckham is also a lot of fun as is the mad-Austrian bar/restaurant: Tiroler Hut in Bayswater.
And when you go back to New York – what are your favourite places to sleep, eat and play?
My brother lives in New York so I’ve never stayed in a hotel there but I always hear people saying good things about the Bowery Hotel. Great friends of mine have a fantastic restaurant in Chinatown called the Fat Raddish which I love. You are so spoilt for choice in New York. Eating wise I’m a big fan of L’Esquina, Roberta’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn, Paulino’s Pizzeria, the Fatty Crab and The Macao Trading Company. Drinking wise I love the Delmano bar in Williamsburg, The Radegast Biergarten in Brooklyn and Apotheka cocktail bar in Chinatown.
Bunga Bunga is your latest venture – does this show a move towards restaurants rather than the later night venues? Are you adapting the business to suit your own needs/maturity?
Bunga Bunga has our first major food offering, although it is still a late night venue with a licence until 2.30am and is a bar/pizzeria more than a restaurant. It was good to challenge ourselves by opening a food operation which has been well reviewed for its food, however our sales are still heavily wet lead. Ideas for new businesses do certainly evolve through personal preferences at different stages of life, although we have to make sure we’re appealing to a customer base more than just ourselves.
London is flooded with entertainment options but the Inception Group is growing year-on-year – what do you think has helped the business to stand out?
Each of our venues is very unique and with a firm sense of fun. We try and focus hugely on attention to detail and ensure our service, drinks and food are also of the highest standards. Each of these qualities combined has meant our places have been highly successful to date enabling us to continue expanding.
What are your three top tips for anyone hoping to open their own venture in London?
1. Understand and clearly define your concept- if you don’t, you can’t expect your customers to know what you’re all about.
2. Think outside the box- innovate don’t imitate
3. Think ‘simple’- it’s better to do a menu of ten items brilliantly than 100 moderately well.
You’ve hinted at hotels as the next Inception Group venture – would this be in London, or are there plans to move into other cities?
We’d love to do a hotel eventually. We have plans for London initially but ultimately we’d like to explore international possibilities, although we are aware of the challenges and complexities this can bring.