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Looking Back, Forging Ahead Q&A: Owen Morgan, Bar 44

Published:  04 August, 2023

Midway through 2023, Harpers is taking stock of yet another turbulent year for the drinks trade, with plenty of highs and lows, so far. We continue our series with Owen Morgan, owner of the Bar 44 tapas group, to find out how the year has gone so far, and what the remainder may bring.

How has business been for you in the first half of 2023 and how do things compare to where you were last year?

It’s been an incredibly tough period for the group. But, we are trading really strongly. So that may sound a bit contradictory on the surface of things. We are having to have full bars and restaurants 24/7 (or the hours we are open) just to stand still and cover our overheads. I’ve never known anything like it in 21 years of operating. Comparing to last year, labour is still a challenge on many nuanced levels, trading revenue is positive, but our bottom line is teetering because of external factors beyond our control. Cost of sales has spiralled and the decision of what to try and absorb and the consumer tipping point for deciding if they visit or not, is always in the mind. Energy has by far been the most crippling factor though – mind blowing. The fact that brokers and suppliers of energy are not being held to account is quite astonishing.

At the moment though it is all tempered at least by the pleasing fact that the appetite to carry on drinking and dining out is still there on a weekly basis. Opening a boutique hotel in Wales’s capital (Parador 44) in the last year has really helped us also. Something very unique for Cardiff, and sitting above one of our restaurants (Asador 44), has provided new revenue streams and us tapping into the gastro tourism market. It has meant that Asador 44 being able to go back to seven days a week operating as well and being full on a Monday night suddenly, a lovely thing. This has been a particularly pleasing move for us.

    • Read More: Looking Back, Forging Ahead Q&A: Vanessa Stolz, Restaurant Pine

How has the cost of living crisis played out across the year and what – if anything – have you been able to do to mitigate that?

It has had a massive impact. With people having less disposable income, coupled with the fact our fixed costs are rising at a rate of knots – labour is up 10% – it’s a perfect storm. I have restructured all our menus, looking at new fixed-price lunch menus that offer incredible value, but with the same world-class produce, and in the tapas bars including a glass of wine in the fixed lunch offer so that people really do know what they are going to spend per head before going out. Transparency is key.

I’ve reworked menus based on a number of processes and which equipment is used to make dishes. So less overnight slow cooking sadly, which we are well known for, because of preparation time, but more importantly energy costs to produce those kind of dishes. So you will now find sharper menus in terms of size, slightly fewer elements on the plate, more ambient dishes too.

Wine suppliers have helped where possible, offering us small amounts of stock to do seasonal promotions to give the guest a superb pairing of food and drink at a price they would normally have paid double for. So having good loyal relationships in times like this really does help. Post Covid we trimmed the number of wine suppliers we work with, out of necessity. We have kept to this, helping teams with their ordering and keeping on top of stock and vintages, making it easier and creating lists that help the guest navigate sometimes what is a tricky subject at the dinner table.

What are you most proud of achieving this year? Have you managed to achieve any specific goals?

Still being here! I may jest, but it’s true, we’ve had more sleepless nights in the last year than ever before. So we are quite proud of that. Without particularly expanding, we have grown the team back up to pre-Covid levels, so have around 130 staff again. We are a family company and our teams are just the most important thing to us. So we are still developing from within, putting staff through qualifications, giving them the tools to succeed and climb the ladder. The hotel which is coming up to its first anniversary, is the biggest achievement in the last year. It won UK best city hotel of the year (The Times), which we are very proud of. The restaurants have had wonderful national reviews, which fuel the teams’ enthusiasm no end, and make us want to push on even in the harshest of environments.

And what is the biggest cause for concern?

Energy costs, cost of ingredients, new alcohol duty rates, blinkered government – they are all extremely concerning. Brexit, too, continues to be awful for the UK in so many ways. Everything mentioned is hurting hospitality to a point it has never been stretched to before.

What are the biggest drinking trends at the moment, and how do you expect that to change going into the autumn?

Cocktails are booming, especially returns to things like classic margaritas or seasonal variations on them. Simple serves and spritzes are also extremely popular. On the wine front, we are finding the lighter unoaked reds are still growing hugely in popularity, but conversely, with whites, people are asking more questions about something with more complexity and texture than previously. Pleasing signs, for me personally anyway.

Is Covid now a distant dream or are you still seeing lingering effects?

We are still seeing effects on people's behaviour, how they like to plan and book, and how they are less spontaneous with their plans. In some of our venues, if we get a no-show, there’s way less chance these days of a walk-in to fill the space. It’s still costing the industry hugely, even with deposits or no-show charges, which pale into insignificance to what a table of four (for example) would have spent.

Any predictions for the second half of the year?

Hopefully a slowing of ingredient cost increases. I think we will see more local as well as high-profile casualties sadly, and nothing will be done from the top to help. As an industry people will look to somehow offer value at certain times of the week despite high overheads, to keep bums on seats, so to speak. Outside of those offers, eating and drinking out will also become a lot more expensive, and people have to realise this. If people supported operators that do things the right way (by their staff and the way they produce their product) rather than others, it would be very pleasing to see.

Apart from that, I’m hoping Wales makes a strong showing against the odds at the Rugby World Cup, and we are looking forward as a group to celebrating 10 years of sherry week in spectacular fashion.

Quick-fire questions…

Old World or New?


Cocktail or slow sippin’ spirit?

Slow sippin grown up cocktail

Vermentino or Vermouth?

Spanish Vermut!

Low or No?


Three-star or bistro?


Best variety/wine style for pairing across a multitude of dishes?

Dry sherries, without question

Desert island tipple?