The outdoor music festival in Britain has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Once upon a time ‘going to the bar’ at a festival basically meant beer cans passed over trestle tables and money thrown in a bucket. However, the founders of Events Management company Peppermint Alex Brooke and Adam Hempenstall -who started off in Clapham and then Vauxhall- set out to raise the bar, and through storms, mud and recessions, they’ve done just that as they celebrate their company’s tenth anniversary this year.
The duo began event managing at university, hosting student nights at nightclubs while studying at Oxford Brookes. “We held nights throughout the whole week and everyone thought they were all different club promoters but essentially it was just us,” Adam laughs. After uni, while Adam was DJ-ing, the two set up a promotions company and a couple of records labels, which they took to Ibiza and Greece, all the while sharing an office in Borough with industry heavyweight Pete Waterman. However around 2002 when the record business took a nosedive as a result of piracy and MP3 downloads, selling vinyl became a tougher gig. Here Peppermint was born, a collaboration with Mint group, who own Camden’s Koko nightclub and Clapham’s Inferno.
“Our original goal was to take Inferno out on the road,” Adam explains. They tested the waters with the Henley regatta in 2004. “We took Inferno music up there. It was cheesy music and it was essentially 1500 people turning up to Henley, getting extremely drunk on a Saturday,” he recalls. Following on with the nautical theme they went onto Cowes where they took over a boatshed and turned it into a pop-up Inferno. “I think a lot of our success came down to our feeling and that still exists today. There was a huge amount of very mundane stuff going on in the world at the time so when we signed up we didn’t want to do that,” Adam reflects.
Off the back of this, the two were asked to run a bar at electronic dance festival Glade in 2004 as the industry tried to move away from a somewhat corporate, staid reputation. “In London at the time there were a lot of financial backers who were willing to make lifestyle investments and these people wanted to create a much more hedonistic, less structured, more creative experience,” Adam explains. “That’s what Secret Garden and Glade were all about; they wanted to go back to the early days of Glastonbury when it was very laissez-faire with that whole free love mentality.”
He and Alex entered the massive festival market never having worked in a bar before, but insist you couldn’t do this line of work from a pub background. “We still see ourselves as an event management company, even though our core specialty is bar management. Without that background in events we would never be able to do this.”
One of the biggest changes to the festival catering approach was making it more efficient. In 2004 people were still throwing money in buckets across the bar and stocktake systems were non-existent, Adam recalls. He and Alex came onboard with financial systems that were used in Mint nightclubs and an approach to be stringent with procedures and stocktake, as well as raising the bar in terms of product choices and city-style cocktail menus. “Before that it was beer cans being thrown across a table at Reading festival. Our desire was to deliver a trustworthy, reliable service in a marketplace full of chancers and geezers, really,” Alex explains.
The industry remains one of the last cash economies of this scale. “The High St is all paperless to a degree, and most marketplaces now, like restaurants, are about 80 percent credit cards, whereas our business is £14 million a year working with cash. We’re one of the last people handling substantial cash,” Alex reveals.
One of their highlights was designing drinks for the first Lovebox festival in Clapham Common in 2004, before the festival outgrew the area and moved to Victoria Park. “We create a bespoke menu for every festival by working with the festival organizers; often we’ll name cocktails after the headline act,” Adam says.
Logistically the festival scene is a mission in its own right. With ten staff in the office throughout the year, Peppermint employs thousands for the festivals; they have 1200 staff for the Bestival weekend in the Isle of Wight and a staff database of 7000 people, many who return each summer for just three months of work. “When we go to Bestival we’ll have 1200 staff and 30 lorries going over in the ferries, we sell millions of pounds worth of alcohol in three days, we physically set up the bar, fridges, marquees, we hand-make cocktails,” Adam says. Beer is delivered in 44,000 pint tankers connected through a hose to units that pour twelve pints every 30 seconds, with 20 machines at each bar. “We work on a huge amount of data and our forte is getting the product to the customer as quickly as possible,” Adam says.
Naturally, the British weather has been known to rain on their parade more than once, particularly at Glade festival in 2007. “We try to plan and have as much product behind the bar as possible because moving around is really difficult on a crowded site, but when you get rain like we did in 2007 it’s a nightmare to move anywhere,” Adam laughs, remembering: “we had our bar managers up to their waists in water and they were still serving drinks. At one point our catering chef floated past us on a crate, everything we had on a trestle table just floated by. But you just have to crack on!”
And they do just that. “People will be knee deep in mud but it won’t stop people drinking at a festival. It looks like Armageddon but everyone hunkers down and has a good time and it’s a bit of a laugh.”
“As an industry it’s so intense and so crazy but we just want to continue improving what we do.”