Manchester’s Black Dog: so much more than just a bar
It’s not often that a Manchester bar chain gets compared to arguably the world’s greatest football team, FC Barcelona.
It’s not often that a Manchester bar chain gets compared to arguably the world’s greatest – certainly the most romantic – football team, FC Barcelona. But much like the team of Messi, Cruyff, Guardiola, Xavi and co, prides itself on being more than just a football club (hence its motto, ‘Més que un club’), the Black Dog Ballroom isn’t being unduly arrogant when it states that it’s more than just a bar.
Across its three venues – the original Northern Quarter site underneath the city’s iconic Afflecks (previously Affleck’s Palace) indoor market; the second venue on New Wakefield Street and the more recent Dog Bowl – it offers a variety of enticements over and above that which an identikit bar will present.
Pool tables, bowling lanes, nightclubs, delectable food, quizzes, acoustic nights, event TV screenings, cocktail masterclasses and, naturally, showing sport all play a predominant role in this most modern of bar chains. If it’s true that the best bars and pubs have adapted to the realities of the 21st Century and offer more than just somewhere to drink, then Black Dog Ballroom is leading the charge against the constant industry threat of bar closures.
We paid a visit to its New Wakefield Street (NWS) branch to talk Winston Churchill, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho pizzas and Game of Thrones.
Opened: The first Black Dog Ballroom (NQ) opened in 2009; NWS followed in 2012. Dog Bowl rolled out in 2013.
General manager: James Horrocks
People that come here are looking for a premium experience. I think that’s why we do so well, because we offer a premium experience. We’ve got so many things going on here. We’ve got great food, we do great cocktails, we show the football – not many city centre bars show the football. And it’s such a large venue as well – we can get in a large audience.
Winston Churchill. It’s called Black Dog because the two directors couldn’t decide what to call the business. As a homage to Winston Churchill they called it Black Dog which was Churchill’s nickname for his manic depressive state during World War II.
The Black Dog. Shortly after the Northern Quarter site opened one of the directors got a Patterdale Terrier and named him Bruce. He became the mascot for all our venues.
Black Dog NWS is much more booking-orientated. These bookings can vary from students to those coming to watch the football. Then there are those coming to our nightclub downstairs, The Underdog, and the Private Ballroom, our private venue space that can cater for hen dos, stag dos and birthday parties. It’s a much wider demographic that we appeal to (as opposed to Black Dog NQ).
We pride ourselves on being more than just a bar. Because we show football, because we have pool tables, because we serve great food, we offer much more to our customers.
Having add-ons, like bowling and pool, definitely enhances the experience. You’re not just serving food, you’re not just serving drinks, you’re giving customers an experience. You’re entertaining them. So hopefully they’ll leave thinking ‘I had a really good time there, I had such fun, bowling or playing pool, rather than just having a cocktail.”
When we (Black Dog NWS) first opened we didn’t actually show football in the way we do now. It’s only been in recent years that we’ve realised how important it is. We regularly get large crowds in – especially for the Manchester United and Manchester City games. Over time it’s become a really big deal for the bar. It’s brought in a new market and a new demographic.
Showing sport definitely helps bring in new customers. People might not have been here before, but when they come here they will see that we’ve got the nightclub downstairs, they can play pool. And all of that integrates well and helps bring more customers to the venue.
The atmosphere can be really good. The interaction between different fans is good too. Football fans often get a bad rap, but we’ve never had any issue. Everyone is respectful and that’s something we embrace in encouraging different supporters to come to the venue.
We’re not exclusively football. We’ve started showing NFL (American Football) games. For Thanksgiving recently we had 40-50 people up here watching the games until the early hours of the morning.
Showing different sports brings in different crowds. We’ll show the big rugby games, the NFL, when Wimbledon is on… we try and show whatever is topical. Just last summer we showed the Olympics on all the screens.
We use social media quite a lot. We’ve got Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… everything. We employ a separate company to run our social media channels. We regularly run competitions on there to get new people in. We ran a student competition back last September for the freshers arriving for university where they could win a MacBook. It was all about encouraging the new students to sign up for our email and social media services.
We use social media to highlight the differences between the bars. Each bar has it’s own character. So we use social media to target different people for the different bars that we have.
I have weekly marketing meetings. These involve the company that we work with on social media. We always plan well in advance so we know what big games are coming up – we feed this through to the social media people so they know what to push and gives them time to create a plan to publicise these games.
Working closely with an outside company means that we get their expertise. This helps drive more custom because they know how to target the right audience. It also allows me and other managers to devote more time to running the venue and ensuring that customers get a great experience.
If you look at the trends, the bars that tend to do well and get great custom do have a great social media platform. So people that aren’t using social media to its full advantage are definitely missing a trick.
Getting the tone of voice is very important. Particularly for our three venues. Each has to employ a different approach. For example, the Dog Bowl tends to attract more families so we need a family-friendly approach. For our venue depending on what we’re pushing, whether it’s trying to attract students or people to our cocktail masterclasses, again the approach needs to vary.
Of course fixture social media assets are available free to download from the Managers office.
Diversifying the menu and doing specials helps promote the football, as well as pushing our food at the same time. At the start of the season we did a Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho pizza, which was half Spanish chorizo and half peri-peri chicken. Those offers tend to go down quite well. It’s a nice little gimmick. It’s something different for people to enjoy.
We offer food that’s based on the New York speakeasy-style. That’s pizzas, hot dogs and burgers. We do them well, and at a reasonable price, and we find that works really well with the audience we attract, especially when it comes to the football. They want quick food, but good food.
We’ve got great offers. Half-price food on Mondays; two-for-one pizzas on Tuesdays; free pool on Wednesdays; great student offers. There’s a lot here that appeals to a lot of different people. I think that’s why it works so well. We can appeal to all the demographics because we have so many unique selling points.”
We offer student Dog Tags. When you sign up you receive a little plastic card that you can put on your key ring. That gives you 25% off food at all our venues. It also gives you free pool here from Sunday to Thursday and half price bowling any time at Dog Bowl.
The Dog Tags are very popular. At the Dog Bowl they have several hundred redemptions every week for the half-price bowling. We get a lot here for the free pool.
We offer free pizza at half-time. It’s something we do in the larger games. Not only does it give something to the fans, it also whets their appetite and encourages them to order more food from the bar.
We pay attention to the games, particularly the bigger games. So when we place our drinks orders we’ll look at what football fixtures are on that week to make sure we have enough alcohol in to serve the customers. We offer five bottles of Corona for £12.50 or five bottles of Tuborg for £10 throughout the games. So for big games we need to make sure we’ve got enough of those drinks in and that the bar is fully stocked.
Game of Thrones is big for us. When Game of Thrones is airing we get up to 100 people up here on the Terrace and in the main bar watching. We have plenty of different offers that attract different people.
Music is very important. We try and diversify it and appeal to lots of different audiences. Friday and Saturday nights here on the main bar we have DJs that are playing all sorts of different music. We try and showcase Manchester music because it’s such a massive part of our heritage.
Table service. Offering table service definitely enhances the experience for the customer. For no extra money they’re getting a full service where people come and take their food and drinks orders. It means they don’t miss any of the action onscreen – they don’t have to waste time going to the bar to order food and drinks.
It might sound like all the different things we offer are difficult to balance, but we find it isn’t. Everything works well together and appeals to different people. In truth having so many different offers works well. People come to the venue for the football and then they might realise we have a karaoke booth. People come for a game of pool and then realise they can have a bite to eat here. People come for a great cocktail and realise there’s a nightclub downstairs. It all works really well and it helps promote each aspect of the venue.
We’re always looking to develop and keep up with new trends. We have a head office team that are constantly searching, directors constantly go to different cities and different countries to see what trends are big at the moment. Here when they opened it they noticed that pool tables were becoming quite a big thing in bars so that was made a central feature to showcase the bar.