As I enter the packed out Orange Tree’s 20th birthday party it’s clear to see the level of affection the bar-turned-company has, with former staff members, independent business owners, regulars and the bartending ‘community’ all coming together to celebrate. People love this bar.
Born from what was originally an idea between college friends Gareth ‘Pugsy’ Smith and Ben Hings to open up a bar in Goa, the Orange Tree has grown to become one of Leicester’s favourite hangouts, popular for its extensive cocktail lists, wide range of craft beers, versatile food menu and glorious beer garden; and for being one of the first of its kind in the city.
Ben explains: “When we decided to open the Orange Tree we had a firm idea of what we feel was both lacking in Leicester at the time and what we personally wanted from a city centre pub. Mis matched furniture, great music, fresh food, local art on the walls. Believe it or not 20 years ago this was very much lacking in Leicester.”
Since opening Ben has seen a shift in the industry: “We have some great independent operators now and I believe Leicester is becoming less of a poor relation to the likes of Nottingham or Leeds. Independent operators are what makes a city or town different from elsewhere.”
Its clear that the staff are a huge part of what makes the bar special. Despite working in one of the busiest bars in the city, the staff ooze fun, friendliness and genuine passion for their place of work. You don’t realise the effect of a great team of staff until you walk into an establishment like Orange Tree and chat with whoever is behind the bar.
Ben agrees: “Without the right staff Orange Tree wouldn’t be where it is today. They are part of the furniture and part of the whole ethos of this company. They need to feel part of the family and be encouraged to play an active role in how the group venues present themselves and what we put on offer.”
Former Orange Tree staff member Becky Finlay expressed her love for the bar: ”The Orange Tree is one of those places that feels like a familiar friend, so warming and comforting. Leicester just wouldn’t be the same without this gem!”
In its most recent years, the Orange Tree has become widely known for its excellent food menus; hearty meaty meals and outstanding vegan options from a range of cuisines and even hosts their own vegan nights under Veeg Inn. The bar also hosts payday BBQs, bank holiday parties and the annual charity music festival Glastontree.
After its successful first year back in 1997, the pair expanded and opened Orange Tree Loughborough the following year and went on to open another seven venues in its 20 years so far.
Ben reflects on expanding: “We had no real game plan to grow beyond our first venue. We have grown depending on opportunity, money and personal infrastructure at the time; all three needed to be right before we embarked on taking on additional sites.
“We have a very mixed bag of venues. Some food led, some food and drink, some late bar/club so a good plot across the hospitality ‘spectrum’. If I had to choose a favourite I will always have a soft spot for Leicester’s Orange Tree, it was our first and it’s where it all began.”
So what’s next? Truth is, they don’t really know. But the ethos of the company will remain the same going into the next 20 years.
“Making people happy; that’s what it’s all about and if we can make a few quid along the way then bonus.”