Notting Hill Carnival is the second largest carnival in the world after Rio, originating as a way for Afro-Caribbean communities to celebrate their own cultures and traditions. Today’s procession welcomes up to 2 million attendees every year, plus 40,000 volunteers and 9,000 police. It contributes around £93 million to London’s economy.
As the huge crowds descend on West London this bank holiday weekend, Sly Augustin, owner of small business and cocktail bar Trailer Happiness, describes how he plans for the busiest time in his business’ calendar.
Notting Hill bar owner Sly Augustin has only been in the business for four years, but has learned a thing or two about how to keep punters happy during one of the biggest street processions in the world. An intimate lounge bar, den and kitchen on the bustling Portobello Road, Trailer Happiness usually serves cocktails with a Tiki twist, alongside Polynesian style food day-to-day.
“The bar has been in existence for about 13 years and I was a regular customer until I heard the place was up for sale,” says Sly. “I had to go for it but it was really challenging getting involved in a business I had very little knowledge of, particularly as the bar was already so well known in the industry.”
“The spirit of the festival is a real feel-good moment for the team”
Sly runs a small operation of around 10 staff, but over Carnival weekend the bar sees a whopping 500% increase in customer numbers. To handle the rush, Sly is careful to put plans in place early to keep cash flow healthy. “As we’re primarily a cocktail bar, it’s relatively easy to plan for increases when we have an idea of where we are with our stock and cash flow,” he explains. “Cocktails are made to specification, so we know exactly how much of what we need for a certain customer number. We estimate a figure and then go 5-10% over, and as alcohol is non-perishable, it’s far better for us to order too much than not enough.”
To prepare for the weekend, Sly switches up everything; from his business’ offering to the way he serves customers. “We change our menus to authentic Caribbean cuisine including jerk chicken and fried plantain, and while we would usually have around 18 cocktails on the menu, we reduce these right down to four or five that we think capture the spirit of Carnival, like rum punch and piña colada slushies. We also operate from a stall in the street rather than in the bar which is great – when the weather is kind to us!”
“The vibe of the day is to have a drink and move on, so our job is to keep customers fuelled and happy at reduced prices”
The Carnival spirit also applies to the prices, which come down over the weekend. “The vibe of the day is to have a drink and move on rather than to stick around for hours, so our job is to keep customers fuelled and happy at reduced prices,” says Sly. “Because of the sheer volume we are able to subsidise the price so the revellers can keep on partying!”
Trailer Happiness extends its hours, working through the day and also has every member of the team working on the same day – the only time this happens during the year. “Everybody is in, but everybody loves it. After Carnival ends we give everyone a few days off and shut down – we use it as a chance to rest and reset.”
“Xero plays a huge part in ensuring our cash flow stays healthy”
As well as a steadfast stock strategy, Sly relies on three primary pieces of business software to keep control – bookkeeping software Receipt Bank, operational data provider NCR Pulse and cloud accounting software Xero.
“We use Xero for everything from our accounts to P&L and payroll, and it’s a godsend,” says Sly. “Xero plays a huge part in ensuring our cash flow stays healthy, so we looked for accountants that are proficient in Xero as it means all our information is stored on one place in the cloud. It’s much easier to collaborate, as there are no changed formats and we don’t have to worry about where the info is being recorded.”
Beyond working with his accountants, Sly relies on Xero for staffing and payroll. “It’s just nice to be able to have a quick look at the numbers whenever you need to – I can have a clear visual of staff holidays or how many hours an employee has worked, and accessing bank feeds is really useful too.”
“We have to make sure we’ve invested in the very best equipment and stock”
For Sly and his team, Notting Hill Carnival brings a vibe like no other. “Our turnover is fantastic and the spirit of the festival is a real feel-good moment for the team. The weekend really connects us to the community too – we love engaging with them and being able to promote our brand to thousands of people.”
The Carnival weekend is not without its challenges for local businesses however, as Sly explains. “The logistics are complicated and large-scale, as your business isn’t used to spending that much in one week – we have to budget wisely. We have to make sure we’ve invested the very best equipment and stock as we can’t risk anything breaking down. And lastly, the British weather is a challenge in itself as it does what it wants! We have to have a plan for every scenario.”
But as a small business in the thick of it during Carnival each weekend, Trailer Happiness has had its fair share of funny moments. “We built our outside bar purely for Carnival, so it stays outside throughout the weekend. Because of where it is we once found someone sleeping in it – clearly it’s a convenient area for snoozing.”
For small business owners in the hospitality business, Sly has three tips to bear in mind:
- Be clever about stock: in the drinks business it is always good to have too much stock than not enough. When you sell out, you have lost money as you cannot give the customer what they want. To have more stock than you need means you are going to have a lower bill.
- Plan for a rainy day: there will always be peaks and troughs in this business, so the key is ensuring your cash flow is comfortable enough to withstand a quiet period. In hospitality, business will even itself out by the end of the year – you just have to make sure that you are always on top of your stock.
- Build good relationships with your suppliers: no matter what the situation is, keep communication regular. Having good relationships means that if you find yourself short for whatever reason, conversations will also be reasonable.