Granite city scene is coming back to life

SLTN Award-winning cocktail bar is upbeat about the year ahead as customers return

THERE’S an air of cautious optimism in the granite city as business owners hope for a more positive year of trading in the course of 2022.

That’s the view of Martin Farmer, operations director of Monkey Bars, which operates two venues – Orchid and Ninety-Nine – in the city.

Farmer told SLTN that he reckons confidence is returning to Aberdeen, with bookings increasing and customers coming back into the city centre.

A recent event – the Spectra Festival, which saw lighting installations displayed around the city centre – drew crowds back into the city, with Farmer saying the event helped to reinforce his own optimism over 2022.

“The streets were full,” he told SLTN.

“I went with my family and the kids and thought ‘this is good’.

“It was all walks of life and all ages. It shows that people are now ready to go out again.

“It gave me a really good sense of confidence going into the next six or nine months of this year.

“I think we’ll be in for… not the year we want… but definitely we’ll be busy and it will creep up there.

“We’re enthused with the year to come, I think.”

Martin Farmer with Orchid’s Nick Gordon.

Both bars are in good shape in early 2022, said Farmer, with Ninety-Nine having recruited additional staff and Orchid in the process of looking for new bartenders.

For Orchid, in particular, the recruitment process is not without its challenges.

The small, six-strong team at the venue, which was named SLTN Cocktail Bar of the Year for 2021, in association with Bombay Sapphire, means it can be tough to train new recruits.

“Orchid is a place where you can’t really carry many staff,” said Farmer.

“You’ve kind of got to be at a good level to come in and be able to push out our cocktail menu.

“Because of the past two years, we don’t have those 18, 19 year olds that have been working in busy bars and realised they like cocktails and want to do that.

“We’ve lost out on that. So it’s hard trying to find members of staff to come and join the team.”

But, as is typical to the creative cocktail bar, the team has a solution.

Farmer said they are considering a short-term tweak to Orchid’s cocktail list that would temporarily shift the focus away from the bar’s more experimental drinks to concentrate more on classics until new recruits were up to speed.

And it could be just the time for such a move, with Farmer saying many customers are opting for classic cocktails in the wake of the pandemic.

It’s something Orchid has seen particularly through its online orders, said Farmer.

Like venues across the world, Orchid launched a home delivery cocktail service during the first lockdown, continuing the service when the bar was trading under restrictions (during the worst of which, Orchid’s capacity was cut from 150 to around 24 people).

However, even with restrictions eased and people returning to venues, the team is continuing to offer cocktails for home delivery.

In fact, Orchid has introduced a cocktail subscription service which sees subscribers delivered a pack of four cocktails on the third week of every month.

Farmer said the service is “growing slowly but ticking over nicely”.

“I use myself and my wife as an example,” said Farmer.

“I can make the drinks at home, but if someone sends me a cocktail, pre-made, then I’d rather drink that than make a Daiquiri or an Old Fashioned – and they’re the easiest drinks.

“So I feel like the demand is still there.”

As well as providing an additional revenue stream for the business, the takeaway service has had an unexpected effect, said Farmer.

He explained that customers who, in the past, may have been put off by the idea of a ‘cocktail bar’ were more open to trying cocktails in their own homes.

And, having sampled Orchid’s wares, some of those customers are now venturing into the bar.

“Takeaway cocktails really opened up a different market for us,” said Farmer.

“People who wouldn’t necessarily come to Orchid.

“When you’re a cocktail bar of our style there’s a level of people who think you’re pretentious.

“We’re not. We do our best to break that and be very relaxed. Yes, we’re very anal about our cocktails.

“We want to make the best drinks. And they are more expensive, and they are smaller – a Daiquiri you get from us is smaller than what you’d get at [a mainstream bar].

“But it’s truer. And it opened up that market and you’ve seen walks of life coming into the bar since we’ve reopened that would never have come into the bar.”

And there seems to be plenty of enthusiasm within the trade as well.

Farmer said a recent training session for Patron tequila held at Ninety-Nine attracted more than 40 hospitality workers from across the city.

And he reckoned there is a role Monkey Bars can play in helping to revive and encourage Aberdeen’s hospitality industry.

“For us as a company our goal is to try and build the trade again in the city,” he said.

“Try and get more training sessions, get the young blood coming in and learning about products and finding a passion in whatever spirit or category and then, hopefully, we can find some staff within that.

“When the city does well with all the bars then everyone is happier, which means people want to go out.

“If everyone’s sad and gloomy and the service isn’t good in a few bars then it puts people off.

“The goal is to try and raise awareness, push as many training sessions as possible, and try and get the city lively again.”