Lonely island: How Hoylake’s Vanilla stays afloat in a sea of empty units
“So long as something does move in there, and it’s business orientated, that will help us. Empty units are not going to help us. It makes Hoylake look derelict.”
We’re between reminiscing and lamenting. As the last train pulled into West Kirby the other night, The Quadrant and Albert Road looked more miserable than it has in years. The terrible weather was probably a factor, but this corner of Hoylake wasn’t always this gloomy, was it?
We’re talking with Kate Verdin-Walsh, owner of Vanilla Lounge in Hoylake, about the old Jack Rabbit Slims site (we never really took to it as Flat Foot Sam’s). There’s a skip outside, while Bodega looks like it’s just discovered a new U2 album in its iTunes folder.
There’s a glimmer of hope in the bubbly Kate though, who has managed Market Street’s Vanilla Lounge for the past eight years. She’s been in a better position than most to see her neighbours come and go, and is still standing strong amongst an abundance of empty units.
Vanilla’s going well thanks to a solid core of regular customers, but Kate’s had to work for them to stick around. “We really have to work hard on getting our regular customers in, and making it a really good night when they do come so they feel like they don’t miss the other bars.
“I’m probably working around 100 hours a week at the moment. Over Christmas, 120 hours. There are a lot of hours with not much financial reward but job satisfaction is second to none.
“We’re trying really hard to keep live music going. The music scene is dying down a little bit at the moment, though… It’s important, it does bring an atmosphere that you can’t get otherwise, and the vibe about it is fantastic.”
Looking around outside it’s a shame Kate’s infectious enthusiasm can’t be found throughout the surrounding units. So what happened to what once was a colourful, lively staple of the nightlife scene in West Wirral?
“The next pub along from us now is Wetherspoon’s (Hoylake Lights). Shakers has now become a tea rooms but closes early evening, so we are pretty much an island on the bar scene at this end.”
The 2006 Open was supposed to herald a new dawn for Hoylake. The masterplan for it and West Kirby’s economic regeneration drafted in 2004 “[represented] a major investment opportunity and [would] act as a catalyst for [Hoylake’s] regeneration”. Although not a blueprint, it was “essential” the masterplan was actioned “as soon as possible”.
Over a decade on you’re more likely to see more Christmas tree lights in January than Clooneys in the Ship. Even when the Open returned in 2014 numbers were said to be lower than 2006’s memorable event. Maybe Hoylake just isn’t destined to ever be a consistent tourist destination.
“We can’t live on one week’s worth of business. I don’t think the tourist market comes back when the golf isn’t here, it just didn’t happen.
“[The 2014 Open] was a fantastic week, people were in such high spirits and there was no trouble at all. There was a mass of people. The overheads of that week were extortionate though in extra staff, plastic glasses, and security.
“We did a wristband offer for regulars and locals. We pretty much stayed on-site; we opened first thing in the morning and didn’t close ‘til late at night and went to sleep upstairs in the meeting rooms above the function room. We were going to customers’ houses to get showers; it was a great community effort.”
It would be easy to blame the golf for the area’s empty units. Perhaps the planned Jack Nicklaus resort will pick things up, or it may cause more problems than it solves depending on what side of the fence you sit on.
A lot of the problem could also be down to a bar-crawling generation made up of millennials growing up fast.
“I think we’ve had a decline in the bars because people’s habits have changed a little bit. It’s not the case people – not everybody – go out every weekend anymore, I think it’s more once or twice a month now.
“We’ve seen from when we first opened, the same people that were out every week are now married with kids. We’d see some meet each other in the bar; now they’ll maybe come in on a Sunday afternoon with the kids. Habits do change.”
One thing’s for sure, you probably won’t realise just how expensive it is to run a bar unless you’ve actually owned one yourself. Something that the recently closed Django in West Kirby has discovered; Grange Road is also another area that appears to be in constant transition excluding the Wro. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when The Dee changes hands…
“I liked Django and the concept of it,” Kate sympathises. “We know ourselves, the rents of places around here are extremely high. You have to have a high turnover of people to help pay those rents.
“There are other things that people don’t understand bars need to pay for. You need to pay for your licence to be open, your music licence, your gas and electric, your water… the overheads are massive.
“A thing that small businesses like ourselves need to be aware of is that the minimum wage is going up again to £7.20 if you’re over 25. So, if you’re quiet in the daytime and consider you need to pay your staff costs plus your overheads – it’s a lot of money to pay out before you start to see any kind of profit.
“Everyone gets paid before I do, sometimes I have to live off the tips I get from the bar! But I do this because I love it, I love the vibe we’ve got around Vanilla.”
That vibe has been captured because of an insistence on standards and attracting the right crowd. “We are holding our own here, we’re sticking with it. People can’t get rid of me! It’s a tough job, and the thing that we have to be consistent about is building and keeping the right customers who will always come back.
“It’s hard to wave bye to 18-year-olds in tracksuits who will put over a hundred pound in the till; it’s awkward. But keeping our standards high has worked for us so far, we’re still here eight years on.” It may be a 100-hour-a-week post but Kate wouldn’t change it for the world.
Music sounds better with you
Surely those neighbouring empty units surrounding Vanilla would help take some pressure off by bringing more people to the area?
“Hopefully there are plans bouncing around. The thing with Hoylake is that it’s very residential. You have to bear in mind that we are surrounded by residents. You’re not going to be able to create a club-type scene in Hoylake because it’ll just annoy a lot of the people around you.
“We’d love to see any kind of business. What we wouldn’t want to see is something like the Jack Rabbits unit becoming residential. Though it would bring a couple of people to the area it wouldn’t help this end of Hoylake business-wise.”
Rumour has it Domino’s Pizza is set to move into the area, and it sounds like it would be a welcome move if visitors stuck around to explore Market Street. Kate hopes they’d stay and find Vanilla; her enthusiasm not just for Vanilla but the Hoylake scene is contagious, and it can be seen in the social, community-based events she brought to the bar when she took it over in 2008.
“We tried to change the feel of it and what it was about. We made the upstairs bar into a function room and use it for private parties and events. The downstairs we made into an over-21s bar to start off with, had live music on Friday and Saturday nights, a DJ and karaoke on a Sunday so there’s something for everybody.
“Wednesday’s open mic night; a lot of people that come to that who are decent, we’ll try and get them on for a Friday or Saturday, too.”
Live music was something offered by some of the local bars, too, but they’re all gone now. “Unfortunately, the majority of them have closed down. When we came in 2008 there was ourselves, Tides, La Bodega, Eskimo, and Jack Rabbit Slims. All of them were open, we all fed off each other.”
Eskimo brings back a lot of memories, as does Tides. “This used to be a bar called Cuba. Cuba closed down and was empty for a little bit. We came along and took it over in 2008, just before the recession hit, and changed it to Vanilla,” Kate tells us.
“Before I was here I was running nightclubs in Liverpool so am of the view that when you have a few bars together you can all work together and help each other out. There’s no competition; you can all bring a different clientele in for what you offer.
“People like to move about, they don’t want to go out and stay in one bar. They want to bounce between a few bars, it feels like they’ve had a full night out.”
The Candice Colly Foundation
Vanilla Lounge as well as Thornton Hall along with other sponsors have helped host a number of fundraisers for Candice Colley. Kate points to a picture of Candice on the wall; Candice used to work here but sadly passed away after a four-year battle with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. Hers is a truly harrowing story.
“Candice who used to be a barmaid here. Unfortunately, she died and her family set up a charity called the Candice Colley Foundation and they raise money for cancer patients and their families.
“Their motto is ‘Making Life a Little Easier’ and helps pay with amenities such as car parking fees and TV card fees; the things that pile up that families may not necessarily have the money to pay for.
“We did a Valentines raffle and managed to raise over £100; little things like that help us give back to people and keep us involved. It’s great to get the opportunity to give something back.”
So, with Vanilla still flying the flag for this end of Market Street’s bars, what next for Kate?
“My plan when we first came here was to have a second bar open within two years but obviously that didn’t happen because of the recession.
“It may not be the right time to open another after seeing other bars decline on the Wirral. Maybe, if we were to open up, we may look somewhere like Liverpool with a more consistent tourism industry.”