He’s the man behind the scenes, the unseen business partner working in the shadows, sourcing venues and tinkering with the lights.
Andy Bird’s name is associated with a string of highly successful and internationally famous London bars, most prominently Happiness Forgets and its sister venue Original Sin, and yet you’ve probably never heard of him.
What’s changed? While he’s happy to chalk up the success of Happiness Forgets to co-owner Alastair Burgess, Andy has finally been shoved into the limelight with the success of his own venue, The Chesham Arms and his new venture, Fanny Nelson’s.
The Chesham Arms wasn’t Andy’s first foray into the world of pubs (and whilst he says he likes cocktail bars he loves pubs) but it was his first real ownership and success story – the local he rescued from the hands of the big bad developers and restored to its former and much-loved glory.
“Punters were shocked in October 2012 after property developer Mukund Patel boarded up the 150-year old pub in Mehetabel Road, Homerton, and went on to rip out the bar and turn it into flats and two offices without planning permission,” wrote the Hackney Gazette at the time.
In a tale of hero-of-the-hour Andy stepped in, took the lease and turned to venue back into a local pub, which has since won CAMRA pub of the year.
“It was interesting to be on the side of the residents,” says Andy. “It’s unusual in this business to feel like you’re fighting the good fight.”
Going in to do the refurb was by no means a simplistic return to what had once been. Andy wanted to make a great local with his own particular stamp and atmosphere. Even though he had fought on the residences and council’s side, he made the decision to keep them at arm’s length when overhauling the pub’s inside. “I hope that they have liked what we did,” he says.
Drinks at Original Sin
“We proved that you can take the basics of good beer, good conversation, lighting, ambience and you don’t need a quiz or to be a gastro pub to survive – you can just be a good pub.”
The Chesham Arms is now a model for a good drinks menu in a pub. Investing in an interesting and modern wine offering, Noble Rot complied the initial list. As a pub, however, beer was always going to be the focus and the venue has a strong connection with the London brewing community. With a knowledgeable manager, Joe Gooding, at the helm the beer offering is incredibly democratic with real ales, approachable brews and the odd challenging sour.
“We proved that pubs are not dead spaces or relics but there is heart to them, they are a focal point for the area,” Andy says. “Pubs should be a refuge from the world, timeless.”
With The Chesham Arms off to a roaring start, Andy has turned his attention to his new site just off Columbia Road – Fanny Nelson’s. Set to open its doors later this month (March) the space is a small pub with plenty of intimate corners and an atmospheric downstairs. When we arrived to meet Andy the builders were still in, fitting vintage tiles, lights and creating what will surely be a gem to the area.
Locals protest the closure of The Chesham Arms
“We try, without too much pretentiousness, to aim for excellence in offer and service, like at Happiness Forgets. We just serve the products we think are good.”
Fanny Nelson’s will be a bar on the weekday evenings and offer a full brunch service on the weekends. It will also be headed up by Marta Gronowska, ex-general manager of Happiness Forgets, who Andy describes as “my favourite person in the world. She cares and she’s good at what she does. With the venue I engaged her from the ground up. It’s how I try and do business, I’m not good at running bars. I trust having good teams around me.”
The bar is just far enough away from Shoreditch to escape the mayhem and yet close enough to other nightlife spots to have a steadily clientele. With nice food and good drinks it’s set to do very well indeed.
After Fanny Nelson’s has opened Andy is hoping to rescue other pubs who might share the same fate as The Chesham Arms was facing. He believes the pub cull across London is over, enough old boozers have closed and now it’s time to save the ones that are left.
“It has levelled out, enough pubs have shut now. I want to get as many as possible, join up with resident campaigns to take endangered places and get financing. I’m by no means fixed east either, and am currently looking at sites in Kentish Town and King’s Cross.”
In a city where cocktail bars are at saturation levels more fabulous pubs like The Chesham Arms will certainly be welcome. Andy Bird may have just found his niche.
Locals enjoying their newly refurbished pub