There will be few events venues in London with a more remarkable history than the Tobacco Dock building in Wapping.
The building, which was completed in 1811, was meant to be used as the tobacco warehousing of the London Docks, but tobacco was never actually its main commodity. It was more wine, Madeira, port and brandy.
With its cobbled floors, brick archways and exposed metal girders, a walk through the tunnels and open-air spaces really is a walk through a different time.
Now, Tobacco Dock is London’s fastest-growing events venue, hosting 130 events and some 750,000 guests annually. But it hasn’t always been plain sailing.
Extensive bomb damage during the Second World War meant its demise was in line with rest of the London docks and it eventually shut for good in 1968.
In the late 1980s the Docklands Development Corporation spent some £80m restoring it, with a vision of making it into the ‘Covent Garden of the east’, but it was wrong place, wrong time and it closed again within two years.
Jonathan Read, commercial director of Tobacco Dock, picks up the story.
“The building was then bought by a Kuwaiti property investment company, our freeholder, and they sat on it but didn’t know what to do with it for a while,” he says. “As a branding agency, my business partner and I, we were approached about creating a destination brand for another business, but we came down, saw this building and enquired immediately.
“We put a proposal together, heard nothing for two years, then got a call in January 2012 saying that they quite liked the ideas.
“We knew that the Olympics would shift London on its axis and help to refocus what east London was all about. So we took the opportunity, relaunched it in October 2012 and, five years on, it is still growing.”
TOBACCO DOCK FOOD
The birth of the venue’s in-house catering firm Tobacco Dock Food in 2015 came as a result of a partnership between the venue and renowned caterer the Eventist Group and its Best Parties Ever brand.
“Tim Stevens (managing director of Eventist Group) was originally a client operating doing Christmas party runs in here,” explains Read. “But we had a list of approved caterers at the time and we had also started using Tapenade, another Eventist catering brand.
“Eventually we decided that we would dispense with that list and bring the catering in-house, so we opened up discussions about whether we could do it as a joint venture.
“It was a competitive tender process initially. But we decided that the fact we could do it as a joint venture with Eventist Group and establish it ourselves, with Tim’s catering background and us understanding the building really well, we felt we could do it.”
An integral part of the tendering process was that whoever won the contract would need to put a significant investment into establishing a kitchen on-site – not an easy achievement in a Grade I-listed building.
“It was pretty tricky,” says Stevens. “It’s a listed building, so putting a production kitchen in this space had its complications. The offer of a five-year contract meant we were willing to put that investment in and build the kitchen and begin.”
Now housed as a building within a building, the production kitchen is discretely enclosed next to one of the largest events spaces. You would almost never know it was there (bar the teams of service staff running in and out) – not an easy feat given the metres of vents that take the hot kitchen air out of the listed structure.
The Dock Street Bar has also been created in the underground passage, housing a stylish all-day dining and drinking venue, which tends to be frequented by staff and patrons of Tobacco Dock.
“There is some 40,000 sq ft of co-working shared space, and about 80 businesses operating downstairs,” explains Read. “That creates the demand for small meeting rooms, of which we have nine. It has been great to see micro-businesses developing there and taking up full-time spots.”
Stevens says: “The Dock Street Bar runs into the evening; it’s where many businesses meet clients to have a coffee or a drink and something to eat.”
Read adds: “There isn’t too much else close by in Wapping. So Dock Street is both an amenity and a clubhouse effectively. But you can’t walk in off the street and use it… yet.”
Tobacco Dock Food employs a full-time team of 15, including three chefs, though more are on the way.
“Like much of the events industry it can be feast or famine,” says Stevens. “Fortunately, it is more feast for us at the moment and it is going from strength to strength. It is the quality of events that it is attracting that is the real success. The team seems to grow every month and we are recruiting again at the moment.”
Tobacco Dock has been attracting some pretty big names to east London, with the likes of Google, Facebook, IBM and Hewlett Packard all using the space.
“We love the variety of events coming here, which is important because the building is so diverse, too,” says Read. “Commercially, the events that make sense for us are tech companies who want an architecturally interesting backdrop to their event.
“They really buy into that. Google said that their offices in San Francisco were very similar to this building.”
Biggest capacity, depending on configuration, is 10,000 delegates, while the biggest Tobacco Dock Food has catered for at one time (so far) is 6,000.
“We have 41 different spaces,” says Read. “Every nook and cranny can be used. There will be breakfast, lunch, coffee breaks, afternoon tea and all sorts of stuff going on at one time.
“Consumer shows like Hype Japan or Taste bring in about 9,800 people during a session. There were five sessions across four days for Taste, so some 40,000 people coming through during that period.”
There are some key spaces that tend to get used particularly for awards dinners, the Great Gallery, for example is the largest single space and is default for corporate and awards inners.
The Little Gallery often gets used as a reception and catering space, plus there is a courtyard between the two that gets used in the summer months for catering.
“Probably every space here has been used for catering at some point,” says Stevens, “all the way through to the roof of the multi-storey car park for day raves!”
Its conversion to a shopping centre in the 1980s has helped, with two loading bays being created.
“When you are working around large events, with deliveries coming in, it is testing for the operations team,” says Read.
“When there are ‘just in time’ deliveries, local sourcing and fresh food, it can be hectic, but it all makes a difference to the quality of the output – you have to factor all that in.”
In terms of logistics, the spaces and the catering have to be flexible for each client.
“There is one main production kitchen, but in terms of passes or serving points, that can move around depending on the event and the space being used.”
One of the feathers in the cap of the Tobacco Dock Food facility is the purpose-built Tasting Room, where potential clients can visit and experience and plan what they can receive should they opt to pick the venue as a host.
“That emphasis is on being bespoke to the client,” says Read. “For example, for Lush, we do a couple of events each year. So they start off buying a package, but then the real brief will emerge saying that it has to be vegan, and they will ask us to work with their development chef to put the menu together.
“The answer is yes because it is a really interesting challenge for our chefs in process. Churning out conference package catering is a logistical challenge but not a creative challenge for the chefs. So the team really enjoys having a curve ball!”
By going in-house with its catering, Tobacco Dock does run the risk of alienating clients who have a preferred caterer to work with on events, but Read doesn’t believe that is an issue.
“Five years ago the strength of the catering brand was very important and there is definitely brand loyalty from clients to caterers, and you see that in museums and other places,” he explains. “But the opportunity here was that because the venue was so unique, it wasn’t about catering by a particular brand, it was far more compelling than that.
“We pretty much went out and hand-picked a team from all the London caterers to assemble and establish Tobacco Dock Food as a brand and that was a really great way to go.
“The reality is that we deal with so many overseas clients in this building that they don’t have any brand loyalty as such to a London-based caterer. They like the quality of service and products, and the fact that a bespoke menu can be created for their event, and they can have a tasting prior to it.
“They can be taken through all the options available, and that is a better approach than having a recognised brand.”