Game of Hyde and seek for new clientele

THERE are some things that, if you think about them logically, you really would never do.

Chucking out last year's snow shovel in the belief that surely this winter won't be as bad as last - perhaps.

Chucking billions of pounds of public money into a tram system that's going nowhere fast - maybe.

Opening a bar in the middle of a recession in a part of town that's been to the pub trade what the Bermuda Triangle has been to yachting - definitely.

Indeed, the idea of opening a stylish new bar just as licensed premises - pummelled by the smoking ban, a national financial meltdown and tough new drinks promotion laws - are calling time faster than a barmaid can lock up at closing time on Hogmanay, could well seem the ultimate act of drink-fuelled folly.

Chuck in the fact that the pair behind Edinburgh's newest venue are barely old enough to sup in a pub themselves, and the logic behind it all seems to have left the building along with their bar's previous, ill-fated, occupants.

Yet here we are overlooking the Union Canal, Edinburgh Quay on one side, on the other, a large, flattened ugly hole in the Fountainbridge ground waiting patiently for development and next to it, a view straight to the desk tops of staff at legal firm Frank Knight.

A chic makeover, with expensive dcor and lavish fittings, and what used to be Embargo is now Hyde Out.

At its helm are possibly the city's least likely independent pub bosses - two recent Heriot-Watt University graduates, one of whom would have been working in finance and banking if the industry hadn't plunged into freefall, the other with a sideline business in supplying hair extensions.

As for the location of the venue they've just opened - tucked away from passing traffic on the quiet banks of the canal - well, that's already been the downfall of one previous owner.

With 1 million of family and friends' cash at stake - the banks, not surprisingly, didn't bite when fresh faced Rory McWhirter and Rowan Milne (pictured right) came calling for some of their money - and there can be few new businesses under more pressure to succeed.

Thinking logically, it all sounds like it could have "flop" stamped right through it. Rory, however, is upbeat and determined.

Smooth and well-dressed, he sails dangerously close to oozing the kind of self-confident swagger that gets candidates on television's The Apprentice the sharp end of Sir Alan Sugar's tongue.

Yet the fact remains that, while his fellow students ate cold baked beans from a can and hung out at the student union, he was cutting his teeth in business running a mobile phone recycling company, Electric Shed.

"It was a fairly simple idea - I could buy phones in bulk for a ridiculous price and sell them on to a firm that recycled them and make a profit," he grins. "It was a good little money earner."

As a job in a crisis-hit banking industry looking unlikely, he joined forces with fellow student Rowan, whose own enterprising spirit had led to her setting up her own hair extension company, and the pair set about raising funds for a new bar at a time when banks were busy taking funds back off people.

A stroke of luck, then, that Rory's father Alan is an Aberdeen businessman who had a few hundred thousands pounds to invest along with a string of friendly and equally well-off contacts.

Sixteen months in the planning, and Hyde Out finally opened two weeks ago to a vicious blast of gale force winds, which immediately damaged the large umbrellas on the bar's first floor outdoor patio, leaving them twisted and battered.

Hopefully for the pair, it's just a temporary ill-wind and not a portent of troubles ahead.

"Had a bit of damage," Rory nods. "But these are the kinds of things you never think of when you start something like this. Actually, there have been so many angles we didn't think of covering. Silly little bits and pieces and finding the time to do them all, it's impossible.

"Like trying to order things we needed and making sure they got here on time - which is still a problem actually."

For example, he's frustrated by the underground car park attendants who refuse entry to his delivery trucks, sending them all the way back to Newcastle, having informed them there's no such place as Hyde Out and that the bar that was at 2 Fountainbridge Square, Embargo, is long gone.

And he's irritated that some of the clientele, such as the group of noisy blokes sitting at a window table in distinctly non-designer clothes, have failed to embrace the idea that this is supposed to be a "style" bar - with ludicrously expensive, hand-designed pink toile wallpaper featuring quirky Edinburgh scenes, a fancy vintage wine glass chandelier and a massively expensive sound system that regulates its own noise levels - and not, indeed, the local pub.

Nevertheless, along with general manager Rowan, he's talking of defying the recession and a licensed trade in crisis to hit a 600,000 turnover in their first year with a master plan of launching similar venues across Scotland in the years to come.

The fly in their Champagne cocktail, however, could well be the curse of Edinburgh Quay.

A few years ago, the regenerated Lochrin Basin area was floated as an emerging "must-do" area of town, a potential Little Venice, where cafes and stylish bars would rub elegant shoulders with smart office blocks and slick new homes, where tourists and locals would promenade by day and gather at night.

Then plans by house builder Mactaggart and Mickel in 2006 to create nearly 150 new homes in the area were shelved as the credit crunch bit.

Office blocks were painfully slow to fill. And as trade failed to materialise, Embargo shut up shop and nearby Cargo - which benefits from an on-street location - shifted down a gear and trumpeted cut-price deals to lure in clientele, many of them largely hard-up students.

So was launching an upmarket bar in an area that by day is populated by office workers and by evening becomes a ghost town really a logical move?

"We're taking business from places in the city centre like Tigerlily," insists Rory. "And if all this works, we'll be able to single-handedly raise the whole area."

Rowan shares his gritty determination, adding: "We have no plans to go down the same route as Cargo. We don't want to do ‘deals', we feel they'll cheapen the place.

"We don't think it's the area that stops a place here doing well - we're sitting under office blocks, right in the middle of the financial district of Edinburgh."

And if anyone underestimates the money which still flows through Edinburgh even in times of financial shtook, they only have to look at Hyde Out's Champagne bar, where bottles of gold Veuve Clicquot sell for 450.

Four flew off the shelf last week when a birthday party group rolled in for the evening, while downstairs, bottles of vodka with 100-plus price tags are a favourite with some of the nearby office staff.

So can the new kids on the block, with a combined age 46 and still finding their way in the licensed trade, really grow to be the next Montpeliers - the firm behind a string of city bars, including Tigerlily and Indigo Yard?

"It's got to do well," laughs Rory, "Otherwise I've some serious explaining to do to my dad."

sdick@edinburghnews.com