Meaning: To enjoy some of the best drinks and company a neighbourhood bar ever had.
Just down the road from NCASS HQ is an unassuming high street which is the heart of Stirchley Village. By all accounts, Stirchley has been synonymous with junk shops and curry houses for many years but most recently, many of the empty units have been transformed by some of the best independents in Birmingham. If you don’t know Birmingham then you might not have heard of Couch (yet) but believe us when we say, this is one that you’ll want to drive the M6 and cross the wilds of Spaghetti Junction for.
Katie and Jacob, Couch’s founders, worked together for years in the drinks industry in Birmingham city centre but felt that the city was severely lacking when it came to neighbourhood bars, so they went on a quest to bring this opportunity to Stirchley. They had been looking for a bar for years whilst still working in their respective jobs, Katie running Crushed & Cubed, a drinks specialist company and Jacob opening new bars around the city centre. One Wednesday evening, they decided to take a trip into Stirchley, all the independents were full – from craft beer houses to the local pub and there was a great atmosphere. They saw a gap in the market for what they wanted to create and so decided on Stirchley for their own bar, Couch; a small, community led venue with quality drinks but with that local pub feeling.
Couch opened in November 2019 and is now a team of 5; Katie, Jacob, Tommy, Danny & Matt. When I asked what Couch meant to the team, Jacob told me that the thing he is most proud of is that “we’ve created a comfortable space that’s a home away from home, it’s about community, a space that people can escape to and where they get to experience something different – it’s a high-quality bar and cocktail experience that’s very inclusive”.
They wanted a bar that was from Birmingham for Birmingham, Katie added “the city is 3 or 4 cocktail bars away from becoming a destination and with a few more independents, we could be as big a destination as Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool. If you look at Birmingham city centre and the individual boroughs around it, there are some great places, but we do get overshadowed with chain venues – Stirchley is independently led, and it is really wonderful being part of it.”
When it comes to their menu, this sits at the heart of what they do. They develop the drinks together and this has given them the opportunity to be creative, to work without restrictions and to collaborate with the other businesses in the area such as Verbena and Sweet Meat who make some of Couch’s garnishes. Their opening menu was based around all things music and their next and current menu is around films. What the team love most about the menus is that it’s a point of conversation and gets their customers, who may not know each other up until that point, chatting about their favourite films.
‘Our menus so far have been based around pop culture, more specifically music and then movies. This was a considered choice as it meant guests, locals and staff all had a point of conversation because who doesn’t have an opinion on their favourite song or film. For us, it was a tool to initiate socially because that was bars are to me.’ Jacob
Curating a team is no mean feat and it seemed that Couch got their timings spot on when it came to theirs. Tommy came from a hotel bar management background; Danny had spent years in independent venues and “it feels like Matt who worked in bars across the city centre has been at Couch since day dot”. Katie, Jacob, Tommy, Danny & Matt have all worked together before, they share collective vision and values about the bar and wider hospitality sector, and they are the generation that can teach people who are up and coming in the industry what the best of the bar trade is all about.
Couch were open for just over 4 months before the Pandemic closed the industry down, so when it comes to challenges that was certainly up there. Covid-19 aside, “when you become a bar tender you don’t ever think you’re going to have to juggle builders, project management, procuring and managing suppliers and bills along with everything else” noted Jacob. “We’re all experienced operators but ownership was a completely different challenge,” Katie added, “the drive and determination needed as an owner-operator is another level of responsibility, you are solely in charge or your venue and the well being of everyone in it, you’re in charge of your reputation, everything you do inside and outside the venue reflects on your business.”
On challenges within the industry as a whole, the difficulties women in hospitality face is still very real, “it’s very male heavy and a lot harder to be taken seriously in the industry,” Katie commented and it doesn’t stop there. Danny went on to say that “sometimes you have customers not wanting your opinion because you’re a woman”. “Some women have fallen out of love with the industry, so they’ve moved to brand representation or management when they actually wanted to make bar tending their career.”
Matt added that “there aren’t many bar tenders from the LGBT community, it’s really difficult to get into the wider industry. This something Matt is really passionate about and is looking to bring more LGBT professionals into the world of cocktails.
Tommy went on to say that they are part of the new age of hospitality and represent “the way that hospitality should be going, breaking down the stereotypes – inclusivity shouldn’t be something that is forced, it should be celebrated.”
‘We’ve had a generation before us who have always done things in a certain way, we’re now at an age where we can change things, we want to do things differently and that’s really important for the new age of hospitality’ Team Couch
On to the good stuff, the team all agree that getting to know the locals and “having regular customers that you’re really excited to see and catch up with, those customers either have a favourite drink that they’ll enjoy on each visit or want to try something new each time, it’s a pleasure to experience, they really make this journey worthwhile.”
Coupled with their customers (and their dogs!), it’s about creative freedom, “chains don’t give you much freedom – working within the limitations of someone else’s vision, we’ve all built our knowledge within others visions but it is a whole new exciting prospect to be able t build your own vision and build it from the ground up.”
So, what gets people coming back to Couch?
“The whole brand, every element of the bar and the concept comes together,” said Tommy.
Katie continued, “You can’t expect to have returning customers in the long run unless every element reflects your business and it’s concept, we work very hard bringing all these elements together and work very closely as a team to do this.”
Katie highlighted that they don’t shout about themselves as much as they should which is something they’re working on, but their community does it for them and being listed in the top 20 best bars to visit in The Telegraph didn’t hurt. Because they take great care of them, every business around them has a Couch menu that they like to share with their guests. “We all like to shout about each other because every one of our businesses is a passion project and the more people that experience it the better. At the weekend it’s a lovely circuit of businesses, someone might go from Verbena or Eat Vietnam to Couch or start with them and go on to one of the independents that surround the bar.”
Future Couch plans to look out for include a new menu coming out in September, as well as more takeovers and collaborations with different chefs and bartenders. For Katie, it’s also about “staying on top the game – we want to introduce people to small spirit brands and also I’m obsessed with Agave and want to share my knowledge of it and the wonderful family run plantations it comes from.”
When I asked what they loved most about the industry, the responses were all about people “we love seeing people have a nice time, that’s why we work in hospitality…seeing someone enjoying the drinks and the environment is why we do it.” Danny went on to say that “it’s a very selfless industry – to know someone’s had a bad day and then see them leave with a smile is special.” With everything Couch do, they want to make people happier than when they arrived, people trust them to have a real conversation and this goes back to the team and “knowing that we are people who all just really care.”
And now for part two of our interview with Couch, it’s NCASS’ 20 (not literally) Questions:
Best drinks experience?
Katie & Jacob: Little Red Door in Paris. We walked in to such a warm welcome, sat at the bar and felt extremely special. The menu was inspired by artwork by local artists, they had an incredible playlist, Jacob even rang his Mum to tell her how great that playlist was. We chatted to the team and other customers and didn’t realise that 6 hours had passed.
“Daiquiris, tequila, incredible mixed drinks and Bruce Springsteen – they got every element right. We went in for one drink and stayed the whole night.”
Danny: Endorphin in Japan was like walking into someone’s world, it felt really personal, even better I went back 7 years later, and he remembered us! The bar is built like a comfortable living room, with their own large collection of vinyl, in which you could select music yourself and pass to the bar tender, who was also the DJ.
Tommy: I love going to bars and trying new things. The sign of a great bar is that it’s good fun, the drinks are delicious and the music fits with everything else. There’s too many to mention, I just love when these great elements come together.
Matt: Swift in London is one of the bars I got introduced to when I first joined the bar tending scene, it was a warm welcome to the industry. They’re in the top 50 best bars for a reason.
Food & drink heroes?
Katie: Clare Smyth from Core – delicacy in everything that she makes, nothing is done half-heartedly, and in a male dominated industry, she has 3 Michelin stars.
The team at Lyaness, they are experts in what they do, with no pretence, they joined us in 2019 for a take over event and were a complete joy to bar tend with, I couldn’t recommend them more highly.
Matt: Mine are Holly Jackson & Brad Carter, I get to chat with them regularly and they are genuinely lovey people and great at what they do. I take big inspiration from everyone around me at every moment I can. There is always something to be learnt from everyone you meet.
Your favourite drink?
Jacob – Whiskey Ginger
Tommy – Pint of Stella and an Adonis
Matt – Clover Club
Danny – Gimlet
What do you do when you’re not working?
Danny: Real Housewives, hanging out with my dog and watching too much true crime.
Katie: Making Ragu whilst listening to Sheryl Crow with a big glass of wine! Swimming, absolute film buff and cuddling my two cats.
Matt: Love reading, I’m a gaming geek, I like walking, baking blondies and more importantly, Britney Spears.
Tommy: Spending time with my wife Erica and our dog Guinness, cooking, cycling, gym, Skateboarding, drinking stella and playing dominos.
Jacob: In quieter moments, I like to read, lololololol, Call of Duty and guitar.
Product or piece of equipment you can’t live without?
Everyone: A Kettle
Favourite film quote?
Matt: ‘We need to accentuate the nipples, eyes are the nipples of the face’ – House Bunny
Tommy: ‘Scotch and yes’ – The Watch
Jacob – Robert Deniro and Al Pacino’s entire conversation in Heat
Danny – ‘You want it clean don’t ya’ – Boogie Nights
Katie – ‘He’ll be crying himself to sleep tonight on his huge pilla’ – So I Married an Axe Murderer
Have you got nicknames for each other?
Jacob is Count Smashington
Danny is Oh Danny Boy
Katie is Hairy Rouse
Tommy, no need for one – he’s a legend
Matt is new, we’ll get back to you
Who would you like to go for a beer with?
Matt: Erica – Tommy’s wife, Billie Porter, Dolly Parton, Britney Spears
Tommy: Vince Vaughn
Danny: Emma Thompson, Barbara Streisand, Jaffar from Aladdin
Katie: Robert De Niro
Jacob: Slash and Brian May
Everyone: Patrick Stewart
What do you do when you get home from work?
Tommy: Lie on the floor and play with our dog, Guinness.
Katie: Have a cup of tea with the cats and ask them about their day.
Matt: Play video games till ungodly hours of the hours of the morning and then complain about how tired I am the whole of the next day.
What do you love about each other?
Tommy: We all hold each other accountable for everything we do, have high standards, and we all take our turn having one of those days, knowing some one will pick up your slack.
Matt and Katie can look each other and have a whole conversation in a single stare without saying anything at all.
Danny: I love how close we are, we’re a dysfunctional family.
Jacob: I love Matt’s shirt.
Favourite drink on the menu?
Matt: Breakfast Club
Jacob: Count of Monte Cristo
Danny: Carlito’s Way
Hardest drink to make?
Everyone: Ramos Gin Fizz, it’s simply timely
Best drinks references in film / tv?
N.B: In most films, Katie critiques the back bar, drinks etc – why don’t they just get bar consultancy?
Danny: Beer tops flicked on the floor when people open bottles and having to step all over them when you’re working
Everyone: Cloudy Ice
Katie: When people in hospitality avoid eye contact with customers
Matt: Too many people on the bar, NEED MY SPACE
Tommy – Messy bar tenders and music on after closing, I need silence
Jacob: Anything that makes me lose rhythm and sticky bottles
N.B: Danny loves when you fill a glass of wine from the last wine bottle and it’s a perfect measure : )
Any advice for people getting into the industry?
Matt: Find a good mentor
Danny: Stay away from toxic environments, hospitality doesn’t have to take over your life
Katie: Work with honest good people
Jacob: Take care of your mental health
Tommy: A Pina Colada is the best drink on earth, it’s not embarrassing to like sweet flavours
To find out more about Couch, visit them in Stirchley and before that if you want to do a little research, have a look at their website where you’ll also be able to find their menu: couchbar.co.uk