Local heroes: Birmingham and West Midlands venues during covid-19

Millie Milliken

Millie Milliken

16 April 2020

In the first of our regional series, we caught up with venues in the West Midlands to see what they're up to during the coronavirus crisis

It’s been nearly a month since the UK hospitality industry went into shutdown (a milestone none of us thought we’d be reaching as we came into 2020). Pubs, bars and restaurants across the country have closed; some boarded up to deter thieves, and some with notes to their customers adorning their doors, explaining that, until further notice, they will not be operating as normal.

But there is a new ‘normal’ emerging as businesses try to adapt to the coronavirus crisis. From deliveries and community hubs, to sommeliers taking the time to indulge in their DJing passion – more on that soon @Imbibeuk – pub, restaurant and bar owners are constantly innovating to protect their businesses, staff and the industry at large.

And while the capital has been the focus of a lot of these initiatives in mainstream media, businesses large and small across the country are doing their bit to combat the pressures they now face. 

In the first of a regional focus series, we (virtually) headed to Birmingham and the West Midlands to hear about what our friends from the home of Black Sabbath, Worcester Sauce and Bathams beer (now that’s a combo) have been up to.

Hop Lord’s Taproom & Bottle Shop, Worcestershire

A taproom and bottle shop in Worcester town centre has been providing the fine folks of Worcestershire with the likes of Woodland Creatures from Left Handed Brewing and Track Brewing Co. pale ales, straight to their front doors.

‘I could see what was coming,’ Hop Lord’s owner Mathew Pugh told Imbibe about the period just before the government’s announcement. ‘I got concerned that in the event of a lockdown, I’d lose a lot of IPA style beers due to their short shelf-life… Hop aroma and flavour fades quick, especially if not kept cold.’ 

While Pugh’s initial concern was simply to shift stock, popularity among customers means that his efforts have far extended beyond what expected. ‘I’ve had to order more stock a few times already and I didn’t expect to two weeks ago! I’m going to keep going for the time being.’

I’ve actually found it easier to get beers I want

Mathew Pugh

While suppliers fight to remain in business, it's business owners like Pugh who are creating demand. In fact, he's found it surprisingly easy to reorder his much-needed stock.

'My friends at Deya Brewery in Cheltenham have shortened their brew length, but are packaging all output into cans so there’s plenty if I want it... As for wholesalers, I use one in particular for most Belgian and German beers and they’re still delivering on a weekly basis to me. A few other wholesalers I know have almost closed down but are doing full pallet deliveries. I’ve actually found it easier to get beers I want.'

It's a happy tale and since Imbibe spoke to Pugh, the shop is seeing customers (one at a time) come through its doors or pick up and its webshop has launched. And considering Pugh offered a home delivery service to a lacklustre response before the lockdown, perhaps it's a service he should offer once restrictions are lifted.

Pugh isn't so sure: 'Who knows if there’s going to be a demand for it when this blows over. My guess is not – everyone will be in the pub.' 

The Vanguard, Birmingham

While venues like Hop Lord's have been racing to set up ecommerce offerings, Sam Boulton, managing director of mead-focused The Vanguard in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, had started the process nine months ago.

'We specialise in mead and the one thing we've found is that nobody was able to buy it easily anywhere. [When the government announce the lockdown] we had the luxury to turn our bar sales into online sales really quickly,' Boulton told Imbibe. And when he says 'quickly, he means two hours after Boris' announcement.

Sam Boulton
Sam Boulton

Now, the team are spending their days sending out products (when I speak to Boulton he's waiting on a delivery of stock) and delivering personalised services when demand requires it – Boulton recently held a FaceTime event with two regulars to help them curate an experience from home using supermarket products. It's been a welcome move for the local community.

'It’s been really welcomed, partly due to Birmingham having a very big scene for independents and local media wanting to support them... A lot of our core clients have reordered weekly, and we're also reaching further afield.'

While initially the service was picked up by locals, a few enquiries from London means that the team are branching out quickly. And Boulton is keen to impress that they will be continuing to adapt to the situation. 

With online retail numbers on the up, he'll be looking at how he can convert the new customers ordering stock through the website into ones who will come into the bar when it reopens. Will it be business as usual when it does? 'I think there will be changes to the business,' he replies thoughtfully, 'but I'm not sure how things have worked [yet].'

The Fitzherbert Arms, Staffordshire 

Part of the Cheshire Cat Pubs group, destination pub The Fitzherbert Arms has joined its sister venues by opening the Pub Hub, an online portal which allows its regular guests (and newcomers) the chance to order its food and drink to takeaway.

Converting the business was easier than expected. 'Once all the government guidelines on distancing and one in one out systems were set up and communication to the public was clear then it all flowed well,' says Tim Bird, the group's owner and operator.

'It has been amazing… we are supporting local suppliers and delivering via local taxi firms who have no business anymore.'

We are supporting local suppliers and delivering via local taxi firms who have no business anymore

Tim Bird

Both the pub's general manager and head chef live in the pub, 'so they are working hard to make it work just the two of them... They are enjoying the challenge and want to do something to help.'

As well as delivering the likes of steak & stout pie, fish & chips and Sunday roasts, the pub is also offering customers the opportunity to buy wine from its Wine Shop and order beer in pint takeaway containers (£2 per pint), as well as freshly brewed cask ale, bottled beers and ciders, bottles of gin, and tonics.

It's an offering that Bird believes can continue post-lockdown. 'We used to do fish & chips to go before we had to close, so now I do believe we can add a few things to a home offer.' He does, however, share Pugh's sentiment: 'I get the feeling when this is all over being at home is the last thing people want to do for a while at least!'

The Wilderness, Birmingham 

But not everyone had gone down the route of taking their services into people's homes. 'My food and drink isn't designed to be enjoyed while watching Love Island,' Alex Claridge, chef owner of renowned The Wilderness restaurant, states. And that was one of the tamer visuals.

'With the things that we are doing in the short term, we have to ask the question: 'If we bring what we do to the masses, what are we doing to the industry [in the long term]? Pattern forming doesn’t take that long.'

With staff furloughed, Claridge is instead spending time working with a homeless charity to raise funds and support. He has also set up a crowdfunding page for the restaurant which to date has raised an astounding £15,518 of its £20k goal. Contributors will get rewarded on future visits when the restaurant reopens – it's testament to how highly his guests regard their experience at The Wilderness.

Sonal Clare, The Wilderness
Sonal Clare, The Wilderness

'We try to focus on the experience,' he explains. 'It's the sum part of a restaurant... We’ve always had guest experience at the [fore]front, we don’t have food or drink that you can have at home.'

For Claridge, whose bartenders 'we treat like chefs' and sommeliers have always been industry-recognised (Sonal Clare, previously of Purnell's, is now general manager and the doyenne of the restaurant's wine offering), the bars he tries to create are ones that speak to the customer on 'an emotional level'.

'There is a poetry to bartending and cheffing that we’re trying to preserve. The sound of the shaker going is beautiful, the way it feels to be presented with a drink [by a bartender] (not by your partner who’s trying not to commit homicide).'

Instead, Claridge thinks this is a time for reflection. 'It's a really interesting time to reassess the essentials... Luxury is going to be redefined by this.'

There is a poetry to bartending and cheffing that we’re trying to preserve

Alex Claridge

He doesn't think that the fallout is just a result of the pandemic either. 'This is not the winter of our discontent, this is continuation of pressure on minimum wage, this is years of Brexit dumbf***ery, this is just another f***ing thing.'

But despite his cynicism, Claridge reveals that he is in the process of opening a new bar as well as moving the restaurant. He's also excited about what Clare is doing with the wine list, which is hugely driven by music (something that Imbibe is hoping to be involved with in the coming weeks).

He also thinks that post-coronavirus, people might appreciate what part the places they eat and drink really play in their lives.

'More people are realising that venues are not about what you [chefs and bartenders] do, but are where you fall in love, fall out of love, etc. That is really cool.'

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