The skills that one grows and develops as a bartender are innumerable. Applying these skills to other jobs isn’t always so simple. Rebecca Sturt of Pineapple Consultancy in Dubai has found a use for hers. We asked her about how she made the jump from competitive bartending in the United Kingdom to running her own consulting agency in the rapidly expanding city of Dubai. As you can guess, it didn’t happen overnight.
Bartender Atlas: In what year did you start working in bars?
Rebecca Sturt: 1995 officially but I had a full bar set up in my bedroom from when I was 16 years of age, equipped with 2 slot machines and an awesome sound system, my parents were very easy going and my friends used to pop round for a cocktail and a play on the slots. Was a great way to earn pocket money 😉
BA: What style of bar were you working in?
RS: My first ever industry job was at TGI Fridays, so American. I started at Kingston TGI’S and then moved to Haymarket, which for all the time I was there, was the busiest in the world. Back then you had to wait to get on the bar, it wasn’t easy as no one wanted to leave, I remember working as a busser and a door host before I was allowed to work as a barback, and only then I was allowed to train as a bartender.
BA: When did you jump from bartending to management and consulting?
RS: After I won the UK Bartender Championships at 23 with TGI’S in 2000, I took on my first management role running B@1 Richmond.
My first role where I had to build a business from scratch, a new opening, this was great experience to set me up on the consulting ladder, at B@1 we had to continue to build the brand, which was relatively new to the bar scene, develop the concept and fix problems without the use of hired help, you learnt to solve problems rather than calling someone, if something broke you fixed it, you needed to understand more about costs and stock control, the importance of keeping regulars, and driving footfall, everything you really don’t pay attention to in a multinational company.
This role gave me many skills to then jump into my first consulting project in the Middle East, in 2002. Phoenicia hotel in Beirut Lebanon. This was the start of my international consultancy experience. I have gone on to consult in 8 countries to date.
BA: What drew you to Dubai from the UK?
RS: Well in 2005 I had lived in many countries and travelled to many amazing places, Dubai was always on my list of countries to visit, a lot of my friends went over in the early 2000’s so I was very keen to one day get the chance to work in Dubai, but the roles and pay were very poor, obviously the bar scene was tiny. Whilst I was working at a bar in Soho, my current boss got the offer to come out and open a few bars for a company called MMI, he asked me plus two others to join him, I came for one year and I will have been here for twelve in January.
BA: You travel a fair amount, how much influence do your travels have in your advice when consulting for bars in Dubai?
RS: Massive amounts, I can’t explain how important it is to see the world and to visit as many bars, distilleries or bar shows, understanding not only trends, but seeing the world from different viewpoints is priceless. In the last 2 years I have visited over 100 bars in more than 20 countries. I am the sort of person that will try anything from the local pub to the upmarket cocktail bar and everything in-between.
The cocktail inspiration, the stories of fellow bartenders, the trials and tribulations of opening new bars and trying to fix those that don’t work, speaking to barbacks, bartenders, managers, owners and investors, they all give you different ways to look at the same situation. I think travelling has really helped me come up with my own unique ideas and concepts, bar designs and training. I feel privileged to have tasted so many amazing cocktails and been amazed by the creativity of bar menus from all over the world
The one thing I get approached about the most by hotels / bars is what’s happening out there, what’s new? But my reply Is always the same “well what’s new today will be old news tomorrow, use the insights to develop your own tomorrow otherwise you will always be looking in the past”
BA: How has your journey in Dubai changed or developed the bar scene?
RS: When I arrived in 2006, Dubai was all about hotel bars, the odd Irish pub and a few, well let’s say interesting, nightclubs. There wasn’t really a bar scene here, hospitality staff were not paid a great deal, and generally they all worked 6 days a week, they got given a uniform, transport to and from work and meals. They didn’t have the money to socialize in each other’s bars, this is all pre-Facebook, that arrived around 2007 in Dubai. Social media in general didn’t exists, Time Out was one of the biggest publications to know what was going on in Dubai.
In 2007 I was tasked by MMI to build a training Academy, my goal was to bring bartenders and hospitality staff together, to share knowledge, experience and skill in a place that didn’t cost them money. A hub for bartenders and the like. For the first 3 years I would visit the hotels with a suitcase of training material and a suitcase of booze, 8 hotels a week for 3 months, same place, same time 4 times a year. Once this was over we would hold parties and seminars so my trainees could meet and bond. We set up some of the first ever bartender competitions. There had been one in 2000 but that was it, so bartenders were new to competing. I have never seen so many drinks with grenadine and orange juice in my life but this was great. A platform to start a change, to build something, to educate and to inspire bartenders to think beyond those two ingredients and all the other drinks that were over sweet and unbalanced.
In 2009, I was given a space at head office, a place where I could build the first training academy in the Middle East, it was a breath of fresh air, no more travelling to and from hotels with massive heavy suitcases, I had a space that I could call my own, run it like a bar and a place to start to change and develop the Dubai bartender scene in Dubai.
In 2012, we moved offices, which meant I got to build my second academy, fixing the faults on the first one and bringing more detail to the second. This one was a beast, we trained on average 2000-4000 members of hospitality a year, ran numerous cocktail competitions and hosted global ambassadors, master distillers and industry experts. We helped develop the bartender scene by providing up to date training, cocktail development and bartender skills. Owners and investors would ask us to design their bars. Bartenders would visit to gain inspiration and knowledge and brand teams would look to us to bridge the gap between brands and consumers.
In 2015, after nearly 10 years of helping and developing the bar scene in Dubai, training over 10000 hospitality staff, holding over 25 competitions, hosting over 80 international visitors I went out alone and started Pineapple Bar Consultancy. In the last 2.5 years I have travelled the world, consulted on numerous projects, designed over 15 bars, and help develop concepts from plan to build all whilst running the Dubai Bartenders Club. I have been privileged to watch this city grow from a desert into a metropolis of bars, restaurants and entertainment venues. I have watched young bartenders grow into management and seen the development of the bars serving bad drinks into creative and out the box concoctions.
BA: If you weren’t in Dubai, where would you be?
RS: Hmmmm tough question, I love New York, if I could, I would be there tomorrow 😉
Big thanks to Rebecca for taking the time to answer these questions for us.