Seema Dhiman, Co-founder of Brotherhood – on bars, brand and building a business

Seema Dhiman is a woman running a sports bar. It’s pretty much the main message of every feature that’s been written about her. So we agree to get this question out of the way first when we meet at Brotherhood Leeds one Monday afternoon.

“The woman angle comes up a lot, yes – but I opened Brotherhood because I love sport! I started thinking about this around the 2004 World Cup, because none of my friends knew where to watch it. I was working for Arc Inspirations at the time and kept thinking about the concept, but still no one did it. I enjoy drinking good whisky in a nice environment and it just seemed that there was a gap in the market to do this and watch sport.”

The Brotherhood name gets a lot of attention – and to explain its origins? “It was a piss-take to be honest! But it does have a few meanings – it’s our society, about a group of people. In sport there’s definitely this feeling that it’s a society. A couple of bottles of whisky in with my friends, we thought up the name. We took some flack for the logo as well as the name with the all-seeing eye, but we were really just taking the piss with it.”

Hugely likeable, warm and fun, it’s clear that Seema is at home in the hospitality industry. Seema moved from Leicester to Leeds to study in 1996. She says: “Yes, I was that cliché that studied hospitality business management.” Ask her about moving back to the Midlands though – as a fellow Midlander myself, it’s a question that comes up – and we have a very similar response: “No! Leeds is a fabulous city. It has everything. It’s compact, it has great shops, the independent bar scene is awesome here. The Northern Quarter’s a great location and the arena has definitely boosted the trade for us. Although I work for Mojo (Seema is operations director for Mojo Leeds), I absolutely adore them – I’ve been going there since 1998 and I only joined them in 2014! I also love the Hedonist and Wax bar.”

Leeds is clearly a great place to work in the hospitality industry. But the question of gender equality does come up. I ask for Seema’s take on her sector: “It’s a problem. It is male dominated. I’m a huge advocate for girls, but it shouldn’t have to be that way. I’m 41 years old and I have to say that my generation is worse – the younger ones are more respectful. But I truly believe that you can have whatever you want, regardless of gender.

If you’d told me the year before I opened Brotherhood Leeds that I’d have done it, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible. I sold my house, borrowed money – which I’ve now paid back! But I did it because I thought I never would otherwise. I had to do it for myself. I just thought: if I go bust, at least I’ve given it a go. If you can and you have good business sense – understanding cash flow most importantly – then do it!”

The risk has more than paid off. Brotherhood Leeds has just celebrated its third birthday, and a new site in Manchester launched in the summer. Seema says: “We’re 12 weeks into Brotherhood Manchester and it’s a learning curve. There are differences to Leeds – we get more suits in the bar there due to the location. But there’s still the same great atmosphere. Watching sports together gives camaraderie. Ultimately, if the brand’s values are strong and consistent, it will project wherever we go.”

Seema has 20 years in the bar trade and worked for Arc Inspirations for 11 years. She became known as the woman who launched Trio bar in Headingley.  I ask what’s changed since the Trio launch back in 2002: “Social media is obviously really important. Brand has definitely become more important – no one talked ‘brand’ then. Today brand really is vital across all areas of a business. I’m also the operations director at Mojo, and they really taught me everything I know about brand, as theirs is just phenomenal.”

Are there any common misconceptions about working in hospitality? “People always think that it’s a laugh running a bar, and that you become a millionaire overnight, but that’s just not true – it’s tough! I loved consultancy – after I left Arc I set up Demon Consulting – but I missed the operations side.”

On the day that we meet, Seema is just finishing up a staff appraisal for one of the Brotherhood Leeds team. It’s clear to see that she is hands-on, and I ask where her passion for people management comes from: “It does come naturally to me, but I really believe that you can’t get a good product, quality or service without it. Appraisals are important; people need praise. What’s recognised gets repeated – it’s an old management term but it’s true. In Manchester it’s harder, as I’m not there every day but that’s why I spent a lot of time with the general managers. They’ve been with me since day one, so they know the brand and they’re great. I have 50 staff across both Brotherhood sites now, but I work to the same simple values. Respect the team, service is very important and ultimately the product has to be great. Our food and drink is good – it’s all made on site. I’ve always run bars this way, with passion and energy.”

You can’t escape the number of new openings in Leeds that have filled 2017 and this trend looks set to continue into 2018. What does Seema think of the bar and restaurant scene’s growth? “Of course I welcome new bars here – we all have to keep stepping up and that’s a good thing. The best will survive. It’ll always be like this with competition. We have a niche here at Brotherhood right now, but I’m under no illusion that someone could do something similar in future.”

Brotherhood is a growing movement. What’s next? “We’re planning a refit for Brotherhood Leeds. The Manchester site is fresh and I want Leeds to look equally as great – it’s my baby! We’d like 5 bars in time. I still love the brand at this size. I’d hate to lose touch if it got too big – I enjoy it so much. I come in, shake hands and chat to people.”

I see this first hand, as when Seema and I are chatting, there’s a couple sitting
near us who Seema has been talking to, who are watching the horse racing. “We put the horse racing on for them; they’ve been here all afternoon. We can also offer people headsets so they can listen to the sports as well as watch them. We’re independent, so we can tailor the experience very much to our clientele.”

So what are the most popular events? “Everything really, from the 6 Nations that’s coming up to the Superbowl and Wrestlemania. It’s not just football, although that and rugby will always be our bread and butter. I love to put on a show – we have laser lights, smoke machines, stadium lighting. We replicated the spotlights for the last AJ fight!”

With so much going on, I ask what life outside of work looks like for Seema: “I try to go to the gym – I’ve lost 6 stone this year. It’s hard to keep it up, working in hospitality. I try to take Saturdays and Sundays off, but I will still be in touch with the business, although I don’t always work in it on these days. I will come in to watch a game though!”

At the end of the day, Seema lives and loves her brand, and that appreciation undoubtedly extends to Leeds. In her own words: “I travel all over and the independent bar scene in Leeds is bloody awesome. Nowhere’s better.”

Brotherhood takes bookings for major sporting fixtures, corporate events and private parties. Visit http://thisisthebrotherhood.com/

  • Written by

    Emma Streets

  • Photograph by Jazz Jennings