Opening in a pandemic: Hospitality operators on how they did it

Millie Milliken

Millie Milliken

10 October 2020

Opening a new venue during a global pandemic is surely something no sensible person would do? But hospitality operators don’t always play safe, which explains the swathe of bars and restaurants launching now. Millie Milliken asks a handful of operators to tell us how they did it

Jack Wakelin, co-founder of Bench, Sheffield 

Opening: early October

The new standalone communal drinking and dining concept from Public’s former GM Wakelin and chef Tom Aronica may have been a long time coming, but the business lessons they’ve learned are invaluable

L-R: Jack Wakelin, Tom Aronica
L-R: Jack Wakelin, Tom Aronica

‘The biggest challenge for us has been timescale. The council went to a limited service, which meant the planning department missed their deadline by almost 10 weeks. We also had objections to our licence, which we had to go to court over via Zoom – an experience I never thought would happen.

‘We were about to sign the lease two weeks before lockdown. The decision to hold off ended up being the right one. A huge positive that has come from this is having the chance to re-negotiate the lease to include a pandemic clause, whereas beforehand it would not have even crossed our minds.’

Bart Miedeksza, co-owner of Crossroads Cocktail Bar, London

Opened: 5 August

Experimenting with homegrown produce during lockdown has had an unexpected impact on the cocktail menu at this Camden newbie

L-R: Monika and Bart Miedeksza
L-R: Monika and Bart Miedeksza

‘All of the cocktails we have on the menu were created during the long and boring lockdown, with supply lines for ingredients severed. That’s when I looked to my garden for ingredients. I found some beautiful jasmine and elderflower, which we converted into liqueurs. Because we didn’t want to go out shopping too often I would also turn away from using fresh citrus towards more sustainable and shelf-stable acid solutions and vinegars.

‘This had a massive impact on our menu. Once we decided to open Crossroads I looked at my recent recipes and realised that not only was there a full menu, but also it was super sustainable and zero waste.’ 

Sam Boulton, managing director of The Pineapple Club Cocktail Bar and Beer Boutique, Birmingham

Opened: 19 September

The team at mead-focused The Vanguard spent lockdown surviving off their strong brand. They took the lesson and applied it to their brand-new venture

Sam Boulton
Sam Boulton

‘The main thing we’ve learned is that rather than just thinking of us as a bar, we should be thinking about us as a brand. When lockdown hit, we instantly did takeaway drinks [at The Vanguard] and they went well as people knew we offered quality. People trusted us, so we knew that’s what we needed to build [for The Pineapple Club].

‘Whatever we sell is value for money as well as good quality, and if we can’t do both of them then we won’t do it. Building that brand also means that if anything was to happen in the future, we could launch a bottled cocktail range and people will know if it’s from The Pineapple Club it will be good quality.’

Kevin & Nicola Tickle, co-owners of Inn with Rooms, Cumbria

Opening: autumn 2020

Former Michelin-starred chef Kevin and front of house Nicola are set to open their new venue this autumn and are grateful for the chance to recharge and plan

L-R: Nicola and Kevin Tickle
L-R: Nicola and Kevin Tickle

‘There are quite a few questions in the background, such as would we be eligible for any support funding given that we opened after February 2020? Will there be another furlough scheme if there is another lockdown?

‘We really feel there are more positives than negatives. The first positive is that we’re the only employees. We can start small and grow as required, instead of having to lay people off should there be another lockdown.

‘We’ve also had months off work to recharge and get everything sorted in our heads. With both of us working in hospitality that’s something that we’ve never had before and probably won’t have again!’

Mia Johansson, co-founder of Swift Shoreditch, London

Opened: 18 July

As the original Swift in Soho shut its doors temporarily, the team was preparing to open its second outpost, and staff health has become even more important for its founders

Mia Johansson
Mia Johansson

‘Everyone went on furlough and we did a pay top-up to make sure everyone was on a living wage. Since we’ve opened the new site we needed a few more staff and everyone knew that if we needed to close down again or cut hours, we would put the people who could go back on furlough back on it – not new staff who would then have to start from scratch again.

‘The number one thing we’re focusing on is mental health. Swift and London are hectic worlds and it is easy to get caught up in this crazy rhythm which can take a toll, especially if you live by yourself. So something we are taking away is making sure we’re taking care of each other.’

Daniel Warne, managing director of Shelter Hall Raw, Brighton

Opened: 4 July

The ex-Deliveroo UK & Ireland MD is well-versed in applying tech to hospitality, but it is the human touch that has helped his new venue thrive

Daniel Warne
Daniel Warne

‘We were very fortunate because of the nature of Shelter Hall Raw. It’s highly democratic, and we only use Brighton restaurants and suppliers. There was a lot of goodwill from the community.

‘One of the nice things about the space is how the restaurants can help each other. From the likes of Fatima Pizza to brand-new businesses like a vegan burger concept which only started during Covid-19, we have close collaborations between the different partners – from sharing labour to prep, they can symbiotically help each other.’

Francois O'Neill & Ed Wyand, founder and front of house (respectively) of Maison Francois, London

Opened: 14 September

The new brasserie and wine bar in St James’ was due to start trading in May 2020, but Covid-19 delayed its opening and has also brought with it some financial challenges

L-R: Matthew Ryle (head chef), Francois O'Neill & Ed Wyand
L-R: Matthew Ryle (head chef), Francois O'Neill & Ed Wyand

‘During the crisis we all agreed to take a pay cut to lessen the burden of payroll. In regards to our opening team we have had to make reductions in anticipation of a slower marketplace, but hope to grow into the original as soon as we can.

‘How we manage our finances will also change, as a result of the uncertainty. I think that
lending in the industry will be harder to access and will result in companies making more conscious decisions on expansion.

‘The wine programme we have created with Daniel Illsley, our wine director, is highly original and caters to all tastes and budgets, as is fitting with the times. We are keeping stockholding tight without sacrificing choice in order to stay light on our feet.’

Ed Mason, managing director of The Five Points Mare Street Taproom, London

Opened: 24 July

While the principles of hospitality remain the same, risk planning and the move to cash-free have had the biggest impact on the east London brewery’s new taproom

Ed Mason
Ed Mason

‘Opening in a pandemic is the same, but different. You have to open in absolute compliance with government rules and licensing requirements and most importantly, you have to be customer-focussed and sensitive to their needs.

‘We will all be even more careful about risk planning, the fine print of our insurance policies, and what a “worst case scenario” might prove to be! The hospitality industry seems to have moved overnight to a cash-free economy and I think that will stay – and people will want to drink and dine outside as much as they can.’

This article was first published in the 2020 autumn issue of Imbibe.

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