Unheard Oxford: Will Barker, assistant manager at the Duke of Cambridge

Another view on the dreaming spires. This week, Dan Sutton talks to the assistant manager at the Duke of Cambridge about big bills and espresso martinis

What makes The Duke of Cambridge unique? The owners, management and staff . There are a lot of cocktail bars springing up now, especially in Oxford, but The Duke of Cambridge has been going for 30 years, we have established systems in place and every member of staff is massively passionate about what they do. This is not a stop-gap job for anybody.

Friday and Saturday nights are not when we see the body of our student clientele; we see them Sunday to Thursday, Thursday usually being the main offender. How many do we see? It varies wildly. If we’re at the end of term-time and exams have been done: hundreds. If we’re running a private party for the Oxford Women in Business: again, hundreds. On an odd, quiet Monday night, maybe two or three trying to impress a date.

By and large, students are here for the happy hour content. It’s a perception thing, more than anything else: while they might be happy to spend loads of money on a bottle of wine and a meal, the moment you introduce the word ‘cocktail’ they’re looking for the cheap one. The exception which routinely comes up is an Espresso Martini, which seems to have got out among the student community as the only thing to drink after 11 pm. That’s fine, but it’s expensive.

At the Duke, we rarely have to kick people out. I’ve worked in a number of bars around Oxford, and in my first job strong-arming people out of the door was pretty much a nightly occurrence. The Duke is a little bit rare among late-night bars in that we don’t have any security at all: we don’t employ door-staff, and never have, so we rely on ourselves to keep a happy atmosphere in the bar.

Customers do occasionally rack up huge bills behind the bar. We employ part-time staff, many of whom are students, and sometimes they’ll spend more than they should, and it gets taken out of their paycheck. By and large, however, the main offenders for massive bills are birthday parties. People come in, and they go “I’d like to leave a card behind the bar.”

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And the first thing you do is say, “How much would you like the limit to be?” Then there’s this moment of absolute fear when they go, “Oh no, don’t worry about it.” And I say, “I think you’re going to regret that”, but before long two of their friends are sitting at the bar slamming Martinis for four hours.