Once called Between the Sheets, Three Sheets is one of Dalston’s finest cocktail establishments, offering some delicious delights to all who visit.
The menu is well-put-together, with cocktails containing some interesting ingredients. However, the drinks are seasonal, making it a surprise whenever you visit.
That said, there’s not much more we can say about the offer, since it will probably be different from when we visited.
The bar is open from 5pm until 12:45am every day of the week.
Cocktail bars have always been quick to react and the people behind them creative and entrepreneurial, but it’s not until recent times the sector’s flexibility has really been put to the test.
Such an ability to change and react to circumstances with a positive attitude – no matter how hard it is to conjure right now – is testament to the entrepreneurial skills people such as Max Venning, director of Three Sheets, Little Mercies and Top Cuvée (now Shop Cuvée, but more on that soon), have.
Max, like so many in the sector, saw the lockdown as an opportunity. Not solely a money-making one, but a moment to ensure the survival of the three businesses he is involved with as well as a time to ensure the public can get what it needs and wants during these difficult times.
The entrepreneur and co-creator of Coca-Cola Signature Mixers Smoky Notes, bluntly states this time is a big opportunity, not a holiday. It is a statement he has gripped hold of and pushed into every aspect of the business.
His bars are closed. But closing them didn’t mean time to relax. Before the lockdown announcement on Friday 20 March, he and his business partners had discussed turning their restaurant Top Cuvée into a shop – Shop Cuvée.
“We own part of three businesses,” Max starts. “Two are bars and one a restaurant. The bars are closed and the staff are furloughed, and we’re going through the process of keeping all [furloughed staff] up to date with the support package, which I think is pretty good one.
“We started selling cocktails online, delivered, from Three Sheets and from Top Cuvée, a restaurant and wine bar, we set up as a shop. But it had the potential to get a little messy so we have merged them together so we have a shop and online store. It’s wine, ready meals and cocktails, but not just from us, but the best bars in London, such as Scout and Mr Lyan, and we’re going to launch a few more cocktails from different bars soon.”
Admittedly, Max is a little taken aback with the speed in which things have been turned around, and at the fact he and the team have been able to re-nose the focus of the business. But it was a given that the business, in one form or another, would be open and available for customers.
“It’s been really good for us,” he continues. “We’ve spoken to a lot of people who are doing something similar. We’re one of the few doing everything like food, drink and other shopping items.”
From the off, after discussing with business partner Brodie Meah, a shop that not only sold the brand and product of Three Sheets and Top Cuvée would happen, it was essential. Loyal customers would want to have a taste of the bar and restaurant, but it was also important they could stock up on essentials when ordering, say, a Top Cuvée meal or a Three Sheets cocktail.
“We wanted it to become a full shop that you could get everything for your store cupboard from. It’s working for us now. We’re selling a lot of wine and beer. It’s been a lot of fun and we’re almost certainly going to open a shop when this is all over,” says Max.
“For us, it was born out of necessity and it’s a real horrible time for lots of reasons. We have incredible guests and customers, and we want to keep that rolling. Even when lockdown ends, we don’t know what it’s going to look like and we need to keep this in mind for the future.”
Things are running smoothly now, and the shop has had over 1,000 unique customers since it launched, which is no mean feat. But it would be untrue to say the business launched perfectly. No, things have been learnt and quickly changed as they’ve gone along. One of the steepest curves was learning how to approach an off-trade business when you’ve got an on-trade head.
For example, if a customer gets the wrong order in a bar or restaurant, it can be rectified quickly and at a reasonably low cost to the business. However, get an order wrong on a delivery and it’s not so easy. The customer will have to wait, the business has spent time and money on the delivery and, most importantly, it’s easier to kill off a relationship with an off-trade customer as a result, which could also mean no repeat business.
Of course, the current circumstances didn’t conjure the idea of opening a shop for the first time, it is something the business has talked about before. “We’ve spoken about a shop before but it wasn’t concrete,” he explains. “But for us, the potential to deliver was always interesting.”
An off-trade premises was on the cards before – although shuffled towards the bottom of the deck – and is likely to continue after the coronavirus pandemic has passed. But what about delivery, does Max see it becoming a bigger, more important part, of the cocktail world’s business mix?
“There will be a shift when the country moves forward to drinking cocktails at home, which has been flirted with for a long time,” he explains. “But we think, because of this time period, it will become more normal to buy bottled cocktails to drink at home. We want to be the shop where you come to buy cocktails.”
To a certain extent, there has always been an element of this within the business, as well as the wider economy. But perhaps the reason takeaway and delivered cocktails hadn’t become such a big thing was down to business sense. “People are putting them out at the same margin as you would in a bar and we should be looking at off-trade margins.”
Max continues: “A lot of venues have stopped trading but everyone has carried on drinking and we’re in this bubble where a lot of people have expendable income but they don’t want to spend a ridiculous amount on them.”
And this, Max expects, is a train of thought he expects to continue in the coming months, even post-lockdown when some sort of normality resumes. He believes takeout or delivered cocktails will become part of people’s lives.
But what about the future of the physical cocktail bar, those places consumers flock to for great drinks, served with expertise and theatre in an experience-led environment? “I wish I knew,” Max ponders.
“We’re in a very lucky position in London. If you see some of the reporting that’s come out in the past few days, retail, food and beverage in London will be more protected than the rest of the UK.
“But we see the major cities are always a little more protected. I feel like London will get back to normal quicker and people will get out and use bars and restaurants, but I don’t know what the volume will be.”
However, as with most people currently, Max is in two minds about what to think when it comes to the future of the bar trade. “It could go back to normal but also cocktails at home might become bigger, and bars are going to change and be a lot less busy. Then people may be more wary of going out and, if that does happen, we’re likely to lose more great bars and restaurants forcing a downturn.”
Even thinking about a downturn, the entrepreneur can find a silver lining by highlighting the financial crash of 2008 that destroyed many businesses but also made way for hundreds of start-ups, which have since gone on to become extremely successful. He adds that, in Athens, Greece, the economy was hit the hardest of almost anywhere else in 2008, but now the city has a thriving food and drink scene.
No one knows what will happen next or how the cocktail bar sector will look when this is all over, but it is almost certain Max Venning and his business partners will find a way to not only survive, but blossom and continue to do what they love – creating great drinks and outstanding food in one form or another.