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From a cocktail connoisseur with a social conscious to a vintage specialist wanting to give up the day job, the new Spark development in York is giving a leg up to the county’s entrepreneurs.   

I f you want to know the kind of person who sets up business in an old shipping container, spend a few minutes with Alex Cronin. He’s young, ambitious and as well as being slightly eccentric – his moustache is a work of art in its own right – he also has a social conscious.

Alex is the brains behind the Four Swings cocktail bar, one of the first wave of start-ups in the new Spark development in York which has turned 23 shipping containers on the edge of the city centre into a hub for bright young things and a tourist destination in its own right. 

The 29-year-old arrived in York from his home town of Virginia in 2008 as part of a trip around Europe. However, he liked the city so much he ended up staying and began working in bars to pay the rent.

A few years ago Alex launched the pop-up cocktail business Speakeasy Libations and has built up a bit of a reputation for his slightly off the wall creations – one cocktail currently on the menu uses Hennessey cognac which has been infused with duck and another comes with a toy dinosaur as decoration.

His small but perfectly formed bar at Spark is similarly leftfield. There is artificial grass on the walls, a giant garden gnome at the entrance and inside there are four wooden swings to sit on. However, the business isn’t just built on gimmicks.

“Bar tenders are generally treated pretty poorly,” he says.  “Many are still paid weekly in cash and because they are encouraged to set up their own bar tab they can often find they have spent half their salary before they even get it. I guess this is my way of proving it doesn’t have to be like that.”

While he is still continuing with the pop-up business, at Spark Alex has a staff of three and all are paid more than the living wage.

“It’s what I call a ‘really real living wage’ and once I have paid off all the start-up costs of opening this place I’ll be introducing a profit share scheme,” he says. “It’s about making people feel valued and recognising that this is a skilled job. I want my staff to work behind a bar and still be able to put a deposit down on a flat.

“I could never have afforded to take on a city centre bar, the refit alone would have cost half a million. I’ve always thought there must be another way and Spark has given me the opportunity to do just that.”

It’s the kind of philosophy which is music to the ears of Spark co-directors Tom McKenzie and Sam Leach, who want the development to become a blueprint for how best to nurture new businesses.

“York has a lot of things going for it, but if you are a start-up finding affordable space is almost impossible,” says Tom. “Spark hasn’t solved that problem completely, but we hope it has shown what’s possible.”

The birth of Spark didn’t go entirely smoothly.  A number of residents who live close by objected to the plans because of fears of increased noise from the roof top bars and restaurants and even once the council had given its backing the opening was delayed due to various unexpected costs.

However, the doors did finally open on May 4th, which was one of those gloriously sunny spring weekends made for roof top drinking and when the sun continued to shine it became the place to go to watch the World Cup.

With nine food outlets, five shops, four bars and one café, Spark hosts a weekly DJ slot which begins at 5pm each Friday, a Tuesday quiz night and as summer gives way to autumn a roof  will go up to ensure it can operate as a year-round venue.

“The idea is that the businesses which are successful will grow too big for us,” adds Tom. “They’ll move on and that will create a space for someone else. Our waiting list is already huge and I think that says a lot about what else is out there.”

On a midweek afternoon the place is gently buzzing and there are plans to turn a couple of the empty containers into a hot desking hub for digital nomads but more than anything the team at Spark want it to be a place where people can try out their business idea without risking everything financially.

“I’ve always had a side-line selling vintage clothes, but this was a chance to see if I could make it work as a full-time business,” says Anna Lewis, who runs House of Wax along with her partner Phil Waines, a vinyl record specialist. “What I’ve learnt so far is that retail is massively unpredictable.

“You can’t think, ‘Ok each day I’m going to take £200’, because sometimes it can be much more and sometimes it’s nothing. I might have to get another bar job, but this is something I’ve always wanted to do and I will never regret having given it a go.”

As a temporary development, Spark was given planning permission for two years, but everyone involved hopes it will be extended.

“York already has a rich history, but it has to be forward looking,” says Tom. “There has to be places where talent is nurtured and where the priority isn’t just making a huge profit.”

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