Adam Solomon: Trailblazing Saffer entrepreneur – first London, then Davos, now Tokyo

When Adam Solomon relocated from Cape Town to London 12 years ago, he had little idea of the adventure that lay ahead. His food and beverages training at the Cape Technikon opened the doors to an initial six month assignment at The Grove resort north of London – and hard work and some lucky breaks did the rest. Now 33, Solomon owns LiquidChefs, a top end mobile bartending business which has landed assignments all around the world – including handling a staggering 20 events at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. I caught up with him over a sirloin steak and got to hear an amazing story of entrepreneurial endeavour of another London-based Saffer who has made good. Very good. – Alec Hogg

I bumped into some of your people (it must be six or seven years ago,) in Davos for the first time, and it was wonderful to go to the biggest party in Davos – the Google party – and speak to a bartender with a South African accent who said, “Yes, we are mainly South Africans here”. Here we are, meeting the man behind it with an accent, which obviously tells me you’re from Cape Town.

Yes, I think that’s correct. I think it was probably me who you spoke to many years ago, at the Google party in Davos. It’s been a 12-year career changing lifestyle for me, leaving Cape Town and moving to London, although we only started LiquidChefs about eight/nine years ago and since then it’s been going strong.

How did you get that breakthrough? This year in Davos, you were everywhere (and we’ll get onto that in a moment), but how did you get that first big breakthrough for this World Economic Forum where people pay half a million Rand to go and there was your business right in the middle?

That’s a great question. The first event we did out there, we got really lucky. We did it off the back of a very cool party and a favour that we did from a guy that we met many years ago, who used to be the head of events at Google and I used to work at a hotel called the Grove Hotel, which is where Google used to do their annual Zeitgeist Conference.

Where is that?

That’s in North West London in Hertfordshire and we used to do the Zeitgeist Conference every year and we used to design the cocktails for the Google Party and after leaving the Grove Hotel to start LiquidChefs, we called him up and we said, “Listen, we’ve started this business, if you ever need a bar for anything, please let us know and we’ll happily look after you”.

It just so happened, three weeks later he called us up and he said, “Well actually I’m organising a party, it’s a private party for the CEO of Google’s wife’s fortieth” and we said, “Well, listen, consider us on board and we went and at a very reduced rate we did this party and they absolutely loved it and then the next morning we got a phone call saying, “Do you want to come to Davos to do the Google party there?” At that stage we had no clue what Davos was and what the World Economic Forum was, but we were there, keen to go, rearing to go and we absolutely loved it.

It’s an incredible story, but let’s go back a little; you’re from Cape Town originally.

Correct, from Cape Town, born and bred. I finished school and studied at Cape Technikon, where I did a food and beverage management course.

Why food and beverage?

I always loved food and beverage. I think cooking with my mum and spending time in kitchens with her from a young age coupled with loving people and loving to talk to people and interact with people, is probably what pushed me towards going into food and beverage, which yes, I absolutely love.

Then you left South Africa to come and take advantage of that two-year visa that used to exist.

Absolutely, so it used to exist. Luckily I had the passport anyway, but at the time of leaving, I was 21 years old. I came to London, it was the last six months of my three-year course at Cape Technikon, where they call it a ‘placement’ and I came and what was meant to be six months has lasted 12 years.

You met the Google guy at the Grove Hotel that you were working at, but when did the idea come to start your business, because LiquidChefs is also a South African operation?

Correct, so LiquidChefs actually started in South Africa in 2003 and I’d been working at the Grove Hotel for about a year, working in their banqueting department, managing all the beverage side of their events. I came back to Cape Town one year on holiday and I had dinner with one of the founding guys of LiquidChefs. We told each other what we did and the idea arose of bringing LiquidChefs to London as a brand and we exchanged details, we continued and maintained a conversation and it was probably about a year later that I actually moved back to Joburg for three or four months (I can’t remember exactly how long), to do my training, after which I then brought LiquidChefs to London.

What happened from there?

From there it started off very, very slowly as you could imagine any other event style business starting. We did as much as we could, any phone call that came through, we wouldn’t let them go without confirming, no matter what price we were doing it for.

What were you doing?

We were doing just the bar side of events. We were supplying mobile bars, bartenders, cocktails, and all different types of drinks, anything within a bar or beverage remit, we would be doing.

So it’s similar to the South African operation and you took any business that came.

Yes, absolutely any business.

Weddings, Bar Mitzvah’s, whatever.

Weddings, Bar Mitzvah’s, we started primarily in the private market. I would say it was 95 percent private, five percent corporate. Our weekends were filled with all different types of parties, and 8 and a half years on I’m happy to say that it’s almost a complete turnaround. We’re now doing around 95 percent corporate, five percent private, and still absolutely loving it.

That’s quite a journey and every young business has its stumbling blocks. Was it smooth sailing for you?

Definitely not smooth sailing, I think we learnt a lot of lessons along the way, some lessons more expensive than others, but it’s all about learning from your mistakes and I think we did really well in recovering from the mistakes that we made and coming out harder, coming out stronger. There’s nothing major that set us back or anything, but there were the small teething mistakes that were made and changes based on the difference between a South African market and a UK market, changes in logistics. There’s a lot more you could get away with in South Africa than you can in the UK with health and safety laws etcetera.

Adam, how big a difference is it operating this kind of business, food and beverage and particularly the bars in the UK relative to South Africa?

They have lots of different licensing laws with regards to the responsible service of alcohol, but not only that, I would say from a logistical point of view, in South Africa, packing people, packing manpower into vans and transporting them from place to place is fine, whereas in London, you get caught doing that and it’s game over straight away. I’m sure there are in South Africa, but there are many big buildings with lots of history, grey list buildings that require certain types of paperwork to get in, that require just a little bit more foresight and planning to make sure that everything is done by the book before you actually enter the building.

So the logistics here are a lot tougher.

They are a lot tougher.

What about the drinks, what kind of things do people consume here relative to South Africa?

I would say the trends are a little bit different. Tequila’s huge in South Africa, always has been, and always will be. I wouldn’t say it’s as big here. There’s a lot more on offer, I would say in the UK, tons more just based on the size of the market, different styles of drinks, different styles of spirits, different types of wines, different types of beers, craft beers, I mean it’s absolutely endless, the differences, but also it’s the type of people and the mentality of the drinkers that are a lot different in the UK than in South Africa. I also think weather plays a big part in that, in that, when the weather’s bad, people drink when the weather’s good people drink. Overall it’s good for us.

All right, but it’s not the UK where you operate only. You’ve had some fantastic experiences starting off with Davos where this year you had 20 events. That must make you probably the biggest service provider of beverages at the most prestigious business event in the world.

Yes, so I’m really proud. This was our biggest World Economic Forum, this was our biggest Davos, and this was year number nine for us out there. We’ve grown substantially out there from doing our first Google Party to this year we did 20 projects in four days. Logistically, executing something like that in the Swiss Alps, planning from London is definitely no easy feat.

Did you take the bar counters and all the booze and everything with you?

Everything except the booze, which obviously you can’t really cross borders with, but we do have suppliers, we have ice suppliers, we have food suppliers, we have drinks suppliers, we have all types of suppliers in Switzerland and it was a lot of planning, there was a lot of time that went into the planning of the logistics of how to execute, of how many staff, we had 34 staff members travelling from London to Switzerland.

Do you know what, overall, it’s an incredible experience being out there, it’s amazing as a South African company, to be operating out there, and I would consider myself quite lucky to be where we are. There aren’t many suppliers that have free reign to all the different hotels and are preferred suppliers at a lot of the different venues out in Davos, which is something that we’ve built every year from year to year.

You meet incredible people, I can imagine, from the work that you do when you’re talking about Facebook, Salesforce, Google you mentioned earlier, some of the heroes of the entrepreneurial world and you being an entrepreneur as well, can you tap them for any advice?

Do you know what, the people that we meet there are absolutely incredible. It is who’s who in the zoo and the Larry Page’s that we’ve met and the Mark Zuckerberg’s that we’ve served; you know it’s quite special. This year we had Matt Damon at one of our bars, it’s quite amazing. In terms of advice, you know I’m always taking on advice from a lot of people and the only advice I could give would be just to keep your head down, to keep working, and to stay passionate. If you stay passionate in something, it stays fresh and it doesn’t get old, which is one thing that I’ve always tried to maintain and that’s passion for what you do.

What happens to your young bartender ladies when a Matt Damon walks up to them and asks for a cocktail?

Ah, I mean you could imagine it.

Do they ask for autographs?

Weak at the knees, no water glass, it would look a little unprofessional, but yes, it’s definitely weak at the knees. We’ve even had a few bartenders, in fact, last year one of our bartenders didn’t realise who Will I Am was and made a little silly comment and asked why people are taking pictures of him and found out the hard way, but it’s quite special being out there, it’s quite special being able to interact and to be able to say that we operate in an industry like that and doing the styles of events that we do is amazing.

What about you, your energy levels, because every entrepreneur needs to keep them up, how do you do that for yourself?

That’s a tricky question. I try and stay as fit as possible. A healthy body is a healthy mind; I don’t drink, which is a big thing. A lot of people wonder, you run a bar company, but you don’t drink well, sometimes these things happen and I’m happy to say that I find, from within, ways to maintain my high levels of energy, I find it becomes contagious. If this is the way we try and educate our staff to have high energies, to have interactive personalities, it’s got to be led from the front, and they have to see it from whoever created it, it’s important.

You mentioned the staff, how do you select them?

We pick our staff based on their personalities; we try and find staff with as little experience as possible in the bar industry we teach them to work the way we want to work, it’s simple. Youth and energy work together so well, as opposed to picking somebody who’s been in the industry for ten, 15 years, he may be a great bartender, but a majority of the time they’re set in their own ways, they don’t do things the way you like them done and we try and be different, which is what sets us aside.

You do events anywhere from Cannes to Barcelona, you’re going to be doing the big Mobile Conference again. When you have a look at all of these and the logistics that are involved in them, what has been the biggest challenge that you’ve had to face so far? Give us an idea of how many events you might do on one day.

The most we’ve done in a day, I would say is around eight or nine, with around 75 to 80 staff members working on different projects.

Serving how many people?

I think the most we’ve served in a day is up to 4,000 or 5,000 individually at one time for different things. Obviously when you’re not taking festivals into consideration where you have larger numbers, but obviously not everyone’s drinking at the same time, but from a logistical point of view, I would undoubtedly say that this year Davos was the most challenging logistical event that we’ve ever had to look towards, 20 events in four days is not easy when you’re in the Swiss Alps with snow, with 34 staff members all flying in from London, all staying in different places. Making sure that everyone is in the right place at the right time doing the right thing is not easy, but we’ve worked in places like Singapore, we’ve worked in places like South Korea, we’re planning an event at the moment in Japan.

We’ve been out in Cannes for the Cannes Lions Festival for the last seven or eight years, Barcelona Mobile World Congress. I think what clients love about us is our ability to pick up and go and the fact that when they ask us to do an event in another country, it’s as easy as picking up our formulas and going. We manage all the logistics ourselves, we manage it all on behalf of the client so that they don’t need to manage it and one of the big reasons and one of the big USP’s that our UK clients have is that when organising an event in one of these countries, they don’t really want to be dealing with the locals, they want to know that they’re getting the service that they’re used to and that’s why they contract a company like us to come in there. They might pay a little bit more, but it’s important for them to know that it’s standardised and it’s going to be the same wherever they have it.

Tim Ferriss

Adam, I was listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast. He’s very big in the United States and was saying the creative process can be defined by three things, bath, you know, go and take a bath if you want to be more creative, bed, give it in your subconscious and sleep and you’ll get the answer, or bus, which is travel, find a way to travel. How does your creative process work because this is clearly what you do, you need to be creative, you need to be changing?

That’s a great question. I would say, you’ve got to find twists or ways of being different, but using what people are used to and finding a twist to it. You know LiquidChefs is all about something different, flavours that are different, different ways of serving, different ways of leaving people with a lasting memory in their mind of a different type of service that they’ve experienced. You know, a lot of it is all down to creativity.

We have a fantastic place in our office, which we call our ‘training lab’, which is literally our creative space where we have loads and loads of different types of ingredients, loads of different types of spirits, flavours, absolutely everything and we spent a lot of time in there brainstorming, we spend a lot of time in there looking at what people are doing and how they’re doing it and you know I would call this a very good way of doing research and development. In a nutshell, it’s so important, it’s something that we’ve always tried to maintain, is innovation, newness, being different and adding our own twist onto it, but it’s also about finding a way of doing something that not many other people can do, which is what’s important.

You’re getting married soon, how old are you?

I’m 33 now, getting married in just under a month, which is very exciting.

Are you getting married in Cape Town?

In Cape Town, in Suikerbossie, yes it feels surreal. I leave in about ten/12 days to go back to Cape Town to get married under the South African sun with my fiancé, who is Slovakian and yes, there’s no place I’d rather get married than in Cape Town.

Your family is all there, all in Cape Town, but what next? Clearly your phone is now ringing from these exotic locations around the world, you have a global business, where do you go to from here?

Do you know what, that’s a great question? I believe the future for us lies in growth, in the expansion, in finding different areas that we can leave our mark in. Around two years ago we started operating in Mobile Coffee, which has become very big. We found that there’s been a lot of uptake in places like Barcelona, who love the style of service that we portray, so I’d love to say that we would make life easier, instead of transporting everything to Barcelona, to Cannes and to Switzerland to start setting up small offices in these locations, finding local staff that we could train and work with to build our brand. I guess down the line we’d love to build our brand, we’d love to find a way to just get our name around Europe, not only Europe but maybe America, who knows?

Being a Saffer, does it give you any advantages or is that a disadvantage?

Oh, massive advantage hey. Everyone loves Saffer’s, when we work with people, when we work with absolutely everyone, we find South Africans are hard workers, you know we have a lot of South Africans within our team, it’s a different mentality. People who have grown up in South Africa, go in and go in hard. You know, it’s a Saffer thing and I’m proud to be South African, I’ll always be proud to be South African. I’ll always consider South Africa as my home no matter how long I’ve been here for and yes, it’s a massive advantage.

You still carry the flag; you would be what one calls a fighting general. You’re not averse to serving behind the bar.

No, not at all, although, I used to be a lot better behind the bar than I am now, but I’ll still go in first, I’ll still be the last one to leave. I lead from the front; I’m happy to get my hands dirty. In fact, I prefer to get my hands dirty, it’s how you learn, it’s how you develop, it’s how you learn more about the people you’re working with, and it’s how you learn more about your clients, which is what’s so important.