Johan Öberg Larsson FCSI was tasked with bringing a taste of the Caribbean to Sweden. He tells Jamie Fullerton about a singular project at Stockholm's Cane Rum Society
Suggest to Duane Shepherd that 2020 was not a great year in which to launch an expensive new restaurant and bar concept in Sweden, and the co-founder of Stockholm’s Cane Rum Society will return a hail of analogies.
“Out of the fire the phoenix rises,” says Shepherd, who opened the rum and Caribbean food venue in September with F&B entrepreneur and fellow rum obsessive Niklas Blomquist. Then, in November, much of Sweden’s restaurant industry experienced an economic nosedive following new government advice to avoid eateries due to the latest rise in Covid-19 cases.
“Out of every bit of s**t there’s a diamond found in the rough,” says Shepherd, adding that Cane Rum Society’s revenue dropped by 80% in the three weeks since the government advice was issued.
Such figures sound stark, but Shepherd and Blomquist have big plans for their inaugural Cane Rum Society venue and brand once they get through the dark winter of Covid. In the first few months of opening, Shepherd says, it was running at capacity on weekend nights, quickly gaining a reputation as Stockholm’s swish spot for rum lovers.
Johan Öberg Larsson FCSI, owner and CEO of Stockholm-based foodservice consultancy Storköksbyrån, picks the 150-person capacity venue as one of the most interesting of the approximately 300 F&B projects his firm worked on in 2020. “We’re the only bar in Stockholm with this range of rums, and the only restaurant in Stockholm that does Caribbean food,” says a steadfast Shepherd. “We’ve chosen the right time.”
Shepherd, who was born in Trinidad and worked as a drinks consultant in London before moving to Sweden, is known as the Stockholm bar industry “rum guy”. Blomquist owns perhaps the largest private rum collection in Europe. Their brief to Larsson was a venue with more vibrancy than a lounge, with much focus on a large bar, plus a section for rum classes that became the Rare Rum Library, holding over 1,200 rums.
Larsson welcomed the clarity of vision. “Duane and Niklas had a goal for this project, and it’s easy to reach that goal if we have customers who know their needs,” he says. “It’s not often we have that kind of customer. I work with the Google main office in Stockholm; they know what they need, but it’s hard to work with them because they have so many people that think in different ways.”
Cane Rum Society opened in Hagastaden: a fast-developing area home to much of Stockholm’s life science industry, providing an increasingly populous and well-heeled customer base. Alongside a café and patisserie named RC and Indochine, another restaurant, Cane Rum Society comprises a trio of openings spearheaded by Blomquist in a new build connected to the Karolinska Solna Hospital.
Larsson, who works as part of a team of 14 consultants at Storköksbyrån, consulted on all three venues, as Blomquist secured some of the best F&B spots in the area ahead of an anticipated rise in Hagastaden’s worker population. Larsson designed a small open kitchen for the Caribbean food plus a large bar designed to encourage a host bartender-driven vibe. The bar is manned by Shepherd, who is something of a local booze influencer.
Shepherd says that the brief was to create a “Caribbean paradise” in Stockholm. Beyond the food – Jamaican-style jerk chicken and Trinidad-style lamb curry are on the menu – Alexander Wolfe, architect with Guringo Designstudio, brought Caribbean style with wooden furnishings and vibrant color.
The kitchen proved challenging for Larsson. The owners wanted an open island-style kitchen with no areas hidden from the field of vision from the guests’ bar area. Although Cane Rum Society was the first occupant of its space, the building was largely designed for office rather than F&B use.
This meant staff movement paths had to be designed to flow around a designated ventilation room in the bar/restaurant that could not be moved. Installing the nitty gritty of electricity, gas and ventilation for this kitchen style was also fiddly. Larsson says that if he could work on the project again, “I would try to get in earlier, to find better solutions from the start [of the wider building’s design and construction]. So maybe that [ventilation] area could be put behind, instead of in the centre [of the Cane Rum Society site].”
To prevent unsightly rubbish bags being on view Larsson put in a waste disposal system for food, to be used alongside a separate non-food bin deposit – although this made fitting everything in the kitchen even more challenging. So did Shepherd’s cocktail demands – his insistence on using elaborate (or “crazy”, as Larsson calls them) Tiki cocktail glasses meant a separate glass washing machine was required. Initially the bar had its own glass washing machine, before it was taken out of the design as it would be too noisy for customers.
Designed for Duane
The main bar, which can seat around 18 customers, was also a challenge. “Every piece of equipment needed to be fitted in exactly the right place,” says Larsson. “If bar staff begin putting things on the bar top it will create quite a messy feeling, so we had to have a solution where everything is put inside the bar area.” Bottle storage areas were mirrored rather than replicated further along the bar, as they would in a more conventional design.
The design hits Shepherd’s briefing points, but the meticulous storage design and bottle layout is unique. “This bar is made for Duane,” says Larsson. “It’s his way, how he works with Caribbean drinks. If they change the concept in two or three years, the bar won’t fit. As long as Duane works in the bar everyone will be happy, but if they change people… it’s not flexible.”
There are no signs that this will prove a problem in the near-future. The owners have invested a huge amount of time and passion into Cane Rum Society, with Shepherd running tastings and masterclasses with brands such as Diplomatico and 1423 World Class Spirits.
Covid travel restrictions have forced innovation. For the 1423 event, customers gathered in the Rare Rum Library after the 1423 experts shipped the booze to the venue and led the tasting via Zoom. “That was four hours long,” says Shepherd. “We did 11 rums. We had to take a break as it was getting to be a bit much.”
The owners have ambitions to scout new potential Cane Rum Society locations elsewhere in Sweden plus perhaps in London and Hong Kong, once the pandemic is over. Shepherd, salesman-slick, has a final analogy for the bar’s intended vibe: “Like Cheers, where everybody knows your name.”