Robin Honhold made a name for himself creating cocktails, building venues, developing products and running projects around the world alongside one of the World’s most awarded bartenders – Ryan Chetiyawardana aka Mr Lyan. Then to much surprise, right after Dandelyan won World’s Best Bar, he left. It seems Robin has been quietly making plans for a new kind of consultancy – one focused on profound consumer experiences. Having worked with the best names in the biz, I made time to find out just what itch he had to scratch.
Inside the Cask: Previously, you worked with the Mr Lyan team. Tell me about what that was like and your role there.
Some of the best years of my life, for sure. Dandelyan won Best Bar in the World shortly before I left, a fantastic testament to Ryan, Iain and all of the team across the venues as they all fed into each other in various ways. It’s a melting pot of support for often meandering, always purpose-driven creativity with a structure to harness this into inspiring drinkable & eat-able stories. All layered onto deep respect for what a bar or restaurant is really there for: having fun and being looked after. Summed up – there was A LOT of disco and many a madcap exploration. My role was Head of Operations for the Hoxton venues and the global consulting business, meaning lots and lots of delicious “Heaps Mad Shit” creativity and lots and lots of spreadsheets. Shout out to the Lyan fam for all the Lyan love.
Inside the Cask: I’m sure you’ve experienced some amazing projects, what is one that really sticks out and why?
There were so many! We worked with many amazing people and businesses.
The one that probably sticks out the most was a project that started out as a cocktail-wine fermentation project whose DNA ended up becoming a fully-fledged restaurant.
This wine, and the relationship it created with Doug McMaster (of Silo London & the famous “Waste is a failure of the imagination” quote) were the building blocks laid for what eventually became CUB & Super Lyan – themselves award-winning venues alongside White Lyan & Dandelyan. Or rather, in place of White Lyan as the thread of the story runs through closing a bar and re-opening two venues in its place over the course of 6 months, with much of my blood, sweat and tears involved.
The reason it sticks out so much is the many many lessons it has taught me about the links between creativity, collaboration, relationships and the vastly under-represented storylines that hide beneath the surface of any significant project, the threads that tie it all together. It’s one of the main reasons I’m so intrigued by the human stories that form the backbone of literally any product you buy, but are even more unique for something like an 18-year-old whisky that’s been through countless pairs of hands.
Inside the Cask: Your perspective on the industry is unique, what lessons do you think brands can learn from innovative venues?
It’s been my fortune and pleasure to work with and be taught by brands from the moment I stepped behind a bar. Necessarily, it’s almost impossible for there not to be some form of symbiosis between brands and the channels they sell within. Great venues deal primarily in relationships, however brief that may be.
The best innovators see problems and put an option in place as a solution. Venues often do this as a point of difference, to represent what they believe in and deepen the consumer relationship: tangible action that improves the experience.
And, it works! As long as it tastes good. The lesson we can teach from hard-earned experience is that no matter what you’re saying; if the product is no good, or the experience is lacking, you’ll constantly be looking for new consumers rather than building a loyal fan base. Venues intimately know how important regulars are, because they see precisely how much they spend.
Inside the Cask: You’ve recently launched A/O, where does the inspiration come from and what does the business do?
Mark Jennings & I came together through a mutual passion for brave, delicious products and a desire to feel emotionally invested in them, in the same way that an athlete is to Nike, say. This style of connection can be built when a brand maintains a relationship to the consumer at every touchpoint, is there for their needs all the way through. This is a big challenge for CPG brands and it’s something that we’ve practised endlessly in our careers: being mindful of and taking care of the consumer journey from end-to-end for maximum experience points.
We have both worked on and been party to activations channelling the standard angles of attack. There are ingrained reasons to go back to them although more and more pressure in traditional channels makes them incrementally less effective (eg. see discussions around PPC advertising). However, there’s a rich territory in enhancing the consumer experience that isn’t explored nearly often enough. It’s one of – if not the most – valuable mechanisms for building trust, loyalty and advocacy in the consumer’s eyes. As a strategic consultancy, A/O focusses on building profound experiences for brands wanting to take brave steps toward the consumer.
Inside the Cask: What is your goal with A/O, what do you hope to achieve?
My fascination has always been with how much more a drink or a product could be. How it could taste better, how it could add more, what enrichment it can bring beyond refreshment or sating a desire.
In a venue environment, you have an opportunity to inspire the people that come through the door and those who follow your progress. However, at times it feels like a small snapshot. Working with brands is an opportunity to create for a much larger audience, to take care of the consumer on a bigger scale with projects that continue to do more for them. Whether it’s a product, a technology, or a business partnership, the work we do with a brand is designed around one thing – continuing to improve what a brand can do for the consumer and the world around them. When brands focus on the consumer’s experience of their product before and after purchase, and by extension the brand, they are starting to explore these sort of opportunities.
If the consumer has a problem tangential to a product, and the brand steps up with a solution, the product creates more value and the experience is improved. We, Mark & I, have been “hosts” for venues and digital experiences for many years so we know first hand how much loyalty providing more for the consumer creates. Doing this with brands helps us create value for consumers and for the producer at the same time.
Inside the Cask: Across your career to date, what are you most proud of?
This might seem strange, but I’m most proud of working primarily with those who are endlessly trying to make a positive change in the way that they can. The mentors I’ve had, the teams I’ve been a part of and led, the venues. They all have this in common and by proxy, I feel like I’ve positively contributed to a number of important conversations.
Inside the Cask: You must have had an opportunity to taste some amazing things, and by the sounds of it, create some amazing flavours. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve tried and how does this experience apply to the work with A/O?
The most interesting things I’ve tried have invariably involved fermentation of some sort. Really, it’s almost impossible to choose one singular thing! I don’t even know where to begin…
As a product, the single vintage Eaux De Vie distillations by Capreolus are something beautiful to behold; the very essence of craftsmanship. Lacto-fermented fruits are also an incredible delight, watch this space as I foresee some seriously tasty stuff appearing as the West rediscovers salty fruits that Eastern cultures have been all about for generations.
As a young bartender, a good mentor will drill into you very early on how to precisely “balance” a combination of ingredients, and that a drink is only as good as how delicious the customer thinks it is.
No matter how lateral or niche the inspiration was, the value of a creation is moot unless it’s hands down delicious. Otherwise, you’ll be pushing a very shiny, but very dead, horse. That’s the core experience that carries with me: it’s incredibly important that the product of our work is based first and foremost on being valuable on a very basic level. As Action Bronson says, “F*ck, that’s delicious”. Start from this sentiment with any product (food, drinks, cars, sofas, anything) and the overall message is amplified.
Inside the Cask: Things are in a very strange place right now for the drinks industry, how best do you think producers and venues could work together to support each other?
Things are in a strange place indeed. Brands rely heavily on venues as a sales channel, while venues take support from but don’t normally rely on brands except to have something to sell. There’s always someone else ready to step into the breach! What venues need more than anything is footfall, as long as it is managed in a safe and responsible manner.
It may already be happening, however brands leveraging their community networks with initiatives to drive revenue to partner venues could be very welcome, even to one of the many newly-digital venue offerings. Particularly for independent operators, or those with few enough venues that the parachute effect is stifled. This is all about brands creating a path for their consumers to walk down that leads to a venue and ultimately their brand, giving them direction in a way that is mutually beneficial to all parties.
Inside the Cask: Finally, tell us something we would not know about you.
The tattoos and hospitality background pair seamlessly with an uber-geeky maths degree, and my sport as an adolescent trouble-maker was target shooting (that I was a bit of a dab hand at). A “rounded” set of life experiences!
You can find out more about A/O on their website https://www.brave.it.ao/