‘I thought my OBE email was spam!’ – Liverpool bar pioneer Elaine Clarke on her New Year’s honour
3 weeks ago
Elaine Clarke first heard about her OBE when a grand-looking email landed in her inbox during a business meeting.
“I was going through them and saw this one that said HM and had the crest on it, and I honestly thought it was spam,” she laughs. “I sent it to my PA and she messaged me on WhatsApp and said, ‘Congratulations!’
“When my partner came home we looked at it together and she said, ‘I think this is genuine’ so we filled it in and within 24 hours I’d had a reply to say it had been confirmed. That was about two months ago but it was confidential and I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone.
“I just felt really overwhelmed by the accolade. I must admit I had moments of disbelief and worry that they had got it wrong, and I certainly felt imposter syndrome.”
Toxteth-born Elaine, who’s been a driving force in the Liverpool bar scene since the early 90s, was awarded an OBE in this year’s New Year’s Honours List for her services for the hospitality industry.
As CEO of Baa Bar Limited, which currently has four Liverpool venues – Café Tabac, Baa Bar on Fleet Street, Modo on Concert Square and Frederiks on Hope Street – Elaine has been a genuine pioneer in shaping the city’s nightlife.
Starting out as a teenager in the early 80s at Tabac, which was opened and then owned by her Auntie Rita, she’s been a passionate advocate for the industry and for Liverpool ever since.
“I started from the bottom and worked my way up. I have no university degree, I learnt what it is to be a leader and a business owner on the job and I learnt through trial and error.
“It’s not like I’m hugely talented but I think what I have got is integrity. I’ve always led with my heart and my conscience. I always pay people and pay people on time, and as long as you treat people properly, you’re on the right path.”
Now 55, Elaine began her hospitality career surrounded by Liverpool legends.
“In the early 80s, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Pete Burns, all the musos from Eric’s and Probe used to come in to Tabac, and all the actors from the Everyman scene,” she remembers. “When I left school at 16 I had four jobs – Tabac, Birdy’s, Kelly’s wine bar on Smithdown Road and Le Bateau in Duke Street. I literally worked 7 days and 7 nights for years, so my life has always been full-on.”
In 1991, she was approached by Urban Splash’s Tom Bloxham to run a new bar he was opening with his partners on Fleet Street. They gave her shares in the business and she took her next big step up the ladder.
“It just grew from then. Baa Bar was the first to get a 2am licence to challenge all the pubs and clubs, then in 1997 we opened Modo, which was called RococoModo at the time, and that was the first of its kind in lounge bars.”
In 2006 Urban Splash sold, but Elaine stayed on and the group ended up expanding to 13 venues, including Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham. That trimmed down after the recession in 2012 to a more manageable five: the Liverpool four and Baa Bar Nottingham.
Covid and the cost-of-living has been a double whammy for the hospitality sector, so the recognition of her New Year’s honour couldn’t have come at a better time.
“It has been hard, especially over these last few years, so when I got that I did feel ‘wow’,” she says.
“I do care about the people I work with a lot; some of my senior leaders in the business have worked with me for more than 20 years and I take that as a sign that I am doing something right.
“My team have been so happy for me for receiving an OBE and I hope this means that the people working for me can see what is achievable and that there are brilliant careers to be had in the hospitality sector.”
As well as shining a positive light on the industry, Elaine hopes the honour will help her to help others too.
“I do want to continue working but I think the next chapter in my life is giving back. That’s my target for the future, to coach and mentor people. I’ve always had mentors, the first one was Tom Bloxham and he’s still a friend, and my present mentor on our board is Roy Ellis, who’s amazing. They’ve been huge guiding lights for me and I believe everybody should have that.”
Elaine plans to make receiving her OBE a family affair, taking her partner, her mum, son and 10-month-old grandson to Buckingham Palace.
“It’ll be such a memorable moment, I had to have all four generations there. When I sit back and reflect on it, I am absolutely over the moon, but I’m still the same person. I’m from a working class family, I’ve always been very hands-on and always worked hard, and nothing will change me.”