BIG READ: Society's success will be a victory for perseverance of hospitality entrepreneur Brett

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 6 Aug 2018

Having forged a career in HR and recruitment after heading to Manchester to study law, Brett Smith returned to his Cleethorpes home town to take some of the city stress away. It hasn’t quite turned out like that - yet - as he has rapidly become one of the busiest hospitality entrepreneurs in the area, underlined by the fact he is this week preparing to open his fourth venue since returning in 2015. David Laister reports. 

Three years on from welcoming patrons to his first venue, Brett Smith is about to open a familiar fourth.

Society, initially attempted close to his launch pad People Bar – itself having had to survive claims of disruption caused by its intimate scale – succumbed to noise issues in the Sea View Quarter, but later this week will open on Cleethorpes High Street.

The music, sport and film themed cafe bar has found a more suited home as a baptism of fire in the licensed trade turns into a fun-fuelling portfolio of differing experiences.

“People Bar opened three years ago,” Mr Smith recalled. “I came home from Manchester and opened up my baby, and it has had three good years. 

"It has paid for everything I have so far. With small premises come small overheads, and I worked in that business for nine or 10 months on my own, doing 100 plus hours a week, with just family friends to help me out.

“Low rates, low rent, low overheads, low wage bill - all added up to being able to sustain itself. People think bigger is better, it is not always the case. I came home from Manchester having frequented numerous bars in Didsbury, Altrincham, the city centre and Northern Quarter. I wanted something like that."

Brett Smith opening People Bar in June 2015.

It nearly didn’t get anywhere though, as soon after opening People Bar was dragged into a row over disturbances, and brandished “too small” to operate – and with Brett having a HR role up his sleeve just in case, it could easily have been a pop-up performance disappearing as quickly as it arrived. 

“Through all the negativity, I stayed positive and defended my turf with facts, passion and determination to not let my dream slip away,” he said. “I wasn’t giving up on something I’d only just dared to step into. 

“The local authorities were excellent, the support from local people around the somewhat bizarre statements was unbelievable, and those who came to People Bar day-in day-out were worth fighting for.

“Three years down the line from opening, People Bar still doesn’t have any aggravation issues – as a theme it introduces people, encourages people to interact, to sit down together, then to have fun."

Brett with pals James Mumby-Croft, left, and Guy Keeble, toast Society's first coming.

So what brought him back? “Cleethorpes had started going up in the world. My criticism was before, it had a small town mentality, and that didn’t appeal to an 18-year-old lad. Cleethorpes now is a lot further forward compared to some places and we need to give it a pat on the back for that.

"Sea View Street has independent boutiques, Daniella Draper, Tilletts and the like - young entrepreneurial businesses, and people getting bought into them. That’s when I decided, it would be my de-stresser. HR, law and recruitment, it is 70 to 80 hours a week, it didn’t stop. People may ring at midnight. My situation was come home, cook and open a bottle of red and settle down. That is when I thought ‘this is what I like doing, why not make a business out of it’. 

His dad works in the trade too, heading up The Queen’s Head at Legbourne. “I had no intention of following footsteps, but I selfishly said ‘we’re going home’. I am one of seven, there is a big family pull,” he added, with young family also now in tow. “Everything is all about family, and I was always going to move home one day. I just didn’t expect the 100 hours.”

In the kitchen of Folk, what became of the first Society. 

Brought up around Sidney Park, he recalls the arrival of McDonald's on Grimsby Road as a "great moment in my life," with a cheeky grin. He went to St Martin’s then Alford Grammar, moving slightly south to follow his father’s work, leaving Cleethorpes for North Thoresby at 16. He went to Franklin College before heading to Manchester to read law.

Recalling the first few of those hours once the open sign was up, he said: "I was a shivering wreck when I opened People Bar because my business life was spent in the safety of an office, dealing with professional issues in big teams of people, or working on a very one-to-one basis with individuals, but not in public. I was so nervous because I had never cooked for anyone other than family and my partner. All sorts went wrong, I vividly remember forgetting to put dressing on the burgers, but I devised a check list and kept working down it, and at the end of the night, I sat down and said ‘this is brilliant’."

Society opened a few doors down, a year later, and this time the noise proved too much, with the decision made to launch Folk – the portfolio’s food focus, which includes a deli , instead.

“Society, offering sport, music and film, was a great place, it brought in a really good crowd with a really good atmosphere,” he said. “There were a few teething problems, and because we do small places, with a certain amount of people there was going to be some noise. We tried everything we could, spent thousands on acoustic boarding and walling, but I didn’t want to battle with anyone, I wanted to bring something different.

“We worked with the council, licensing and planning, and put a deli in. It was a better fit for the local residents, and we looked for a bigger premises for Society, because it was a success.” 

A nod to the neighbours at Folk on Cambridge Street, Cleethorpes. 

In that time the area has welcomed further exciting ventures, including The Counting House, Arthur’s House and Brett’s third venture, Copper - currently closed after a neighbouring flat's water leak did for the lavish interior.  As with Society, he had gone in with a silent partner, the property's landlord on Alexandra Road.

Now, together with 'Richard,' Society returns in the place of the old Topkapi take-away, left derelict for more than two years at the heart of the High Street.

“We first worked together on Copper, he approached me as the building owner to lease the building but after a couple of meetings it soon became apparent that we were meant to do this together,” Brett said. “His ideas are as stupid as mine, if not even more bizarre sometimes and it was refreshing to not be the one having to be reigned in all the time and it went from there.”

Society offers something completely different, and taking a very quick look at what is being created, it appears to build on ideas that work well, while also bringing innovation and current trends - such as street food - into a traditional bricks and mortar environment.

“It’s a great time for Cleethorpes, I said during the People Bar debacle that I’m here to stay and I want to invest whatever I make in new ventures to assist in whatever way I can to push Cleethorpes to the forefront of everyone’s minds," he said - with a feeling this may well be quite a head-turner for the leisure economy.

Work in progress: Society is emerging from a derelict unit, a former take-away, on Cleethorpes High Street.

“My passion hasn’t ever faulted, my teams may have grown and businesses go through changes, but I have stayed true to fresh, local produce from local suppliers to drive the local economy anyway I can.”

It is undoubtedly a step up. Society is totally different. It is twice the length of neighbouring Bobbin and North, if not as wide.  

“We will retain the social aspect, it is not going to become a vast open space,” Brett said. “You have got to constantly be on the ball and changing things. In hospitality you have to be very proactive, and plan ahead, but jump on things that are new too. You can make mistakes, but you can always revert.”

Brett is humbled by the support he’s received from many, but has special thanks for a few; James Mumby-Croft his cousin, and another town exile Guy Keeble, with whom he lived with in Manchester. “They have been ever present from day one, and although they may dip in and out due to their own careers, they are still involved,” he said.

He talks enthusiastically about some of the staff that have been with him since those early moments too. Beth Hunter and Sorrel Vanderweele, and special mentions to those that have given their all to the businesses before venturing onto new horizons – Jacob Denton, Bella Cook, Courtney Tasker and Lisa Wilkinson.

As a three-year appraisal draws to a close, it is clear Brett is as excited now about his new venture, as he was, and remains, with People Bar.

Brett has taken on Poppy Grange, Mark Olgeirsson, Jack Holmes, Jack Chalk and a few others, who collectively boast more than a century’s experience in the leisure market, with the likes of Cafe Valerie, Healing Manor, The Oaklands Hall Hotel and its restaurant Comfy Duck on the CVs. 

And the enthusiasm for what Society can be is retained from the original. “Society in Cambridge Street was all about music, sport and film and this one is no different. We have several large TV screens, a large outdoor projector were we will play classic and cult movies of all genres, have duvet days were we play whole series of box sets such as Breaking Bad, Sopranos or even a classic Friends day! We will have a full food menu with some brilliant twists on classic pub dishes as well as some bizarre ideas that you may not have ever seen. 

“Social Burger Pop-Up is leaving People Bar to pave the way for its new menu and joining us at Society with the dirty burgers, adding pizzas, basket meals and other strange concoctions.”

Society has its own slush machine, popcorn machine, hot pie shelf, hot nut machine and will boast its own frozen alco-icepops “to give you the feel you are at the movies, in a festival field watching a band or at a sports ground watching your favourite team”.

“I cannot wait,” Brett said. “It has taken so much time to get to where we are, long lease negotiations followed by walking into a swamp, finding live electrical cables under the ground and passing numerous prospective opening dates but here we are, almost at the finish line.”

There is further praise for Chris George and his team at CAG Developments for creating his vision and working through many obstacles to get to where they are.

Society will open the doors to the public on Friday, August 10 in time for the first Premiership game of the season – having initially hoped for some World Cup action. A stadium setting has been created in the garden, a design Cleethorpes Town would be proud of. 

As kick off approaches, we doubt the story ends here – Brett is a man with more goals in him, readily admitting he can go from no ideas to 100 and a business plan in 24 hours.

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