Tag Archives: Our Lockdown Life

The Pig Guide: where we’re at

Around 10 weeks ago (March 22, to be precise) I published a Pig Guide news story that, looking back on it now, was actually a cry for help for me, for you, for all of us who where were suddenly watching the world around us shift and change in a way that none of us had ever seen it shift and change before. Pretty much anything else on the agenda for the ‘normal life’ that we all so blithely took for granted had literally locked down, literally overnight. How would we cope? What was going to happen next? What shall we do?

Scroll forward 10 weeks…

While our everyday lives are still about as far removed from life as we knew it at, say, the beginning of this year, a new kind of rhythm and energy gradually began to replace the ominous feelings of downbeat dread that dominated those dreadful days at the end of March. Community spirit, perseverance, support, determination and kindness came to the fore and, in my little world, a whole new modus operandi was launched.

The Pig Guide’s Lockdown Larder – which started life as a tiny little bulletin aimed to support six local businesses who simply refused to lock up shop – grew, throughout April, to become the regularly updated 5,000 word behemoth that it is today, viewed and shared by almost 26,000 people to date. The Our Lockdown Life series was a natural spin-off from the Lockdown Larder; the personal stories shared by five local businesses (Thoughtful Bakery, Larkhall Butchers, Yak Yeti Yak, and both The Grapes and Chapter One pubs) served as an inspiration for individuals and other local businesses alike, and again attracted thousands upon thousands of click-throughs that sent the stats for this little local business into a tailspin. Meanwhile, at the personal PG HQ cliff face…

With so much time on our hands and no restaurant bookings to punctuate the week, dinner time became even more of an event than ever before. As food sources became increasingly problematic, I became a mistress of the art of the ‘foraged feast’ (I wrote a little feature for The Bath Magazine on this subject towards the end of March – you can read it here, if you’re interested.) And then, as grocery delivery services became more and more established and supplies began to stabilise, I attempted to replicate familiar restaurant experiences at home (“This evening, Mr Pig, we are dining Marlborough Tavern/Clayton’s Kitchen/Yum Yum Thai/Chez Dominique style, etc etc”) to varying degrees of success… or otherwise.

Fortunately, a handful of pro kitchens came to the rescue – in click’n’collect/home delivery format at least. Over the past few weeks, we’ve chowed down and tucked in to a fabulous Tasting Menu (the Tour of India feast, no less) from The Mint Room, glorious fish and chips from The Scallop Shell, Jimmy Muffins from Eveleigh’s Cafe, pizza from The Pizza Bike, Nepalese curry and momos from Yak Yeti Yak and a ready-to-go Sunday roast from Homewood. And while not eating…

I took care of my 91-year-old dad and delighted my agent by writing almost all of a short story collection (45,000 words to date.) I found ways to cope and deal with a family tragedy at a distance; I found other ways to help others cope and deal with similar experiences. I celebrated my birthday in fine, lockdown style… but still haven’t mastered the arts of yoga, sourdough or cleaning the bathroom. And despite grim thoughts I may have harboured to the contrary, The Pig Guide remained open all hours; as the weeks rolled along, it became clear that we wouldn’t be closing our doors anytime soon.

A whole host of businesses we supported and promoted on The Pig Guide Twitter feed and in the Lockdown Larder pledged to sign up for annual membership on fully reopening – a heartwarming bonus that we never once asked for, but gave us further impetus to keep calm and carry on.

Our ongoing collaboration with the Bath Echo went from strength to strength as our regular weekly Pig Guide column – in online, subscription newsletter and, as of a couple of weeks ago, back in print again (good work, guys!) – further expanded our reach.

Ellie – proprietor of The Grapes on Westgate Street – instigated a virtual pub quiz, hosted by MC extraordinaire Matt Donovan (many of you will know him as the supervisor at The Raven), raising much-needed cash for Thoughtful Bakery’s COVID-19 fund and featuring a Food and Drink round hosted by this little piggie (if you want to join the fun, it takes place every Monday evening at 8pm – DM @TheGrapesBath on Twitter to pay the £1 entry fee and collect your Zoom sign-in link.)

Lovely Somer Valley FM presenter Richard Burgess offered me a regular slot on his Drivetime show (every Monday between 4-6pm) – as anybody who knows me personally can probably imagine, I keep Richard talking for far longer than he originally envisaged; who knows where this will lead?

And it’s clear that there’s more – not less – to come. The tiny green shoots of recovery are sprouting fast (some say too fast, but only time will tell) as, following in the footsteps of takeaway outlets, coffee shops, ice cream parlours open air markets/farm shops and delis are slowly but surely (and safely) opening their doors, and the once-deserted highways, byways and thoroughfares in and around the city centre are poised to welcome fresh footfall.

So: we’re all where we’re at, and the world did – and does, and will continue – to turn. Hang on in there, Piggies! And remember…

  • Shop local: support as many local businesses as you can, as often as you can

  • Keep yourself updated on all the relevant information

  • Be kind, stay safe, look after yourself and other – we’re all in this together.

Our Lockdown Life: Sarah Gurung, Yak Yeti Yak

In an ongoing Pig Guide series publishing the thoughts, concerns and plans of local hospitality businesses during the lockdown, we’re putting Sarah Gurung – co-owner of Bath’s longstanding Nepalese bistro Yak Yeti Yak – in the spotlight.

Can anyone honestly say they didn’t see this coming? We all knew lockdown was on it’s way, and we all had thoughts of what it would be like; I thought we’d be staying at home slipping into bankruptcy with a bottle of gin and plenty of time on our hands.

We knew we were in for a tough time when I phoned our insurance back in February only to be told that we wouldn’t be covered as Covid-19 wasn’t a named virus on our policy – so much for insurance after 16 years without a claim. The way we closed was bizarre; when the public were told not to go to restaurants, it left us in limbo. Most of our staff have been with us over 10 years, so to see them facing the prospect of redundancies was heartbreaking; when the official closure and furlough scheme announcement was made it was a massive relief, for all of us. No matter what tough decisions will need to be made, we’ve dodged the toughest of all.

Sitting still wasn’t an option: we had to face things head on. We started cooking meals for the RUH staff, and it’s been great to see inside the kitchens at the hospital and meet some of the people working there. Our first effort to cover our fixed costs was a failed attempt at doing takeaways – we had to rethink that one, and decided to offer ready meal deliveries instead, which is already doing well enough to pay the bills. But I’d be lying if I said we nailed it straight away. In the beginning, we totally miscalculated the amount of time we’d have to queue to buy ingredients, and then we bungled a few orders (apologies to those on the receiving end!) – and it’s not so easy to fix a mistake when you’re several miles from the kitchen. We’re getting better, though, and who knows? We may have stumbled upon something we can take into the future with us.

On the home front, things have been great. It feels wrong, somehow, to say that but it has! For the first time in years we have time: time to eat together everyday, not just once a week; time to get on with writing up recipes for the cookery book we’ve been talking about doing for years; time to dig up the garden. It seems the pigeons that moved from Bath centre are now living in the tree above our veg garden; they sit there day after day patiently waiting for a juicy new shoot that the slugs missed to emerge and then, when no one’s looking, down they swoop and peck it to pieces… so we’re still unintentionally feeding the pigeons.

Working in the restaurant right now is an eerie experience: no busses thundering past, no singing from Jeevan doing the daily cleaning jobs. The smell of roasting spices is still there but much fainter now – just enough to remind us of life before lockdown.

The next hurdle we have to face will be re-opening: we’ll have to cover 100% of the costs but with social distancing measures we estimate business will be only 30% pre Covid levels. It’s going to be quite a challenge to get ourselves to the other side of that; we’ll get there, but how we write the next chapter is still a mystery.

Maybe I’m lucky, maybe not, but life in Nepal set me up perfectly for coping with what’s happening now. In Nepal, I had years of experience of natural disasters and civil war even before the earthquake – as bad as Covid-19 is, it isn’t worse than some of the things I’ve witnessed. I know this won’t last forever because I’ve lived through some pretty scary times before and people always have a way of bouncing back.

Sarah Gurung, 2020 @yakyetiyakbath @sarahskichentravels

Our Lockdown Life: The Grapes

In an ongoing Pig Guide series publishing the thoughts, concerns and plans of local hospitality businesses during the lockdown, we’re putting Ellie Leiper – co-owner of the The Grapes – in the spotlight.

What a strange old time we’re all having! I had to think long and hard about writing this article as other businesses in this series have been so inspirational. I have to admit that at times, it’s really hard.

Up until the last couple of days it’s felt a bit like the most surreal, endless holiday on earth, but inevitably tinged with fear and sadness for the almost unspeakable volumes of people who have lost their lives already and the devastation this causes for those left behind.

This time last year we got the keys to The Grapes. Having been engaged with the landlords for a good nine months to get to that stage, we were mentally strung out already… and then the real work started. What with jumping straight from being a builder to getting the business on its feet and then this, it’s been quite an intense year.

The fact we’ve been in lockdown for six weeks already is staggering and in some way feels like an age. What feels even more strange is that it was only two months ago we headed to The Assembly Rooms for the annual Bath Life Awards, to come back to a bustling bar in the throes of a lively Irish Folk Session with the coveted prize of Best Bar. The weekend before we had our best Saturday ever. Within a week, news from Italy and France had us washing our hands constantly, leaving all toilet doors open to limit people touching surfaces and asking customers to either wash their hands or use sanitiser before ordering.

The paranoia set in very quickly and by the time the PM ordered lockdown we’d already decided to close as we couldn’t in all conscience open the bar over the weekend when more people would potentially be in close proximity to each other. It was a relief….not least for our hands which where red raw, flaking and painful from all the washing, wiping down and disinfecting we were all doing.

That last week was very emotional. Knowing that we were going to have to shutter the business we had only just started was visceral and when customers started to come in to put ‘money behind the bar’ for when we reopened, it had us in bits. Our first priority though, was to our staff. We’d started financial planning for lockdown three weeks earlier and it was with relief that we were able to close the doors knowing we could continue to pay staff for what we hoped would be a couple of months of lockdown.

The first couple of days were a mad flurry of cleaning, sorting and basically turning a commercial premises into a home, organising where food was going to come from and when. I was completely manic if I’m honest. I started out by announcing we were going to put on a virtual pub quiz and thought that work restoring a staircase would start within a day or two – you know, to make the best use of ‘time’. Yet time is our greatest commodity at the moment and, after a few days of freaking out everyone close to me with my level of mania, I crashed.

We’ve cooked a lot, and slept a lot. The new normal means instead of weekly yoga, Pilates and life drawing classes and the fabulous Budō Bā up in Pococks Living Room, the family now has somewhere to hang out [see pic]. I do yoga most days and seem to spend forever cleaning and washing up, but in amongst the rollover of Groundhog Days there’s a change coming – our energy is slowly creeping back and we’re getting our heads around the increasing possibility of being closed until winter.

One of the strangest things about our ‘new normal’ is city centre living. Without the tourists, there aren’t many people around. We’ve never heard Thursday’s Clap for the NHS because there’s no real community, no front or back gardens neighbouring onto each other, no sounds of nearby trumpet players or cellists to ‘cheer everyone else up’. Sometimes it just feels like us and the seagulls, though I hear even they seem to be moving to the suburbs in search of food as there’s nothing for them in town.

Bath has been a busy meeting place for centuries. There’s an enormous sense of weird privilege that comes with having such an historical city, to all intents and purposes, to ourselves. In the most part, the only experience we have of it at the moment is in noise reduction as we rarely venture out, but the photos on social media of all the empty streets and blossom has been a real joy and reawakened my love of plants – there are seeds and cuttings now occupying the majority of our windowsills.

We’re incredibly lucky regarding food and in some ways, our local small and indie producers have become part of our very much reduced community. From having hundreds of people to see each week, our daily lives consist of spending time up on the roof, occasionally making forays to get our weekly bread from The Thoughtful Bakery or to visit Dan at the fruit and veg stall on Kingsmead Square. Meat comes courtesy of the fabulous folk over at Larkhall Butchers and occasionally, we get in the car to get eggs from MacDonalds Farm or head over to White Row Farm Shop for ingredients for an ever more inventive list of recipes, with a stop off at Avellino’s on the way back.

In the middle of all this routine, excitement is making a comeback. We’ve been lucky with the government support to maintain the small savings we made thanks to the Christmas Market. Our suppliers are up to date, the staff have all been retained – man, I miss them so much! But that’s a whole other story.

The news last week of the governments 100%-backed Bounce Back Loan scheme has us making some exciting plans, though the rug got pulled out somewhat yesterday when we spoke to the accountant. He has ample anecdotal evidence that the banks have not been at all supportive of pub businesses on the previous 80% CBILS scheme, and has warned that this may still be the case even with the 100%.

In an ideal world though, we’d use a loan to bring forward our plans to increase the floor capacity of the pub by restoring and fitting out the cellars. It’s the ideal time to make dust and noise at the moment, but even in the worst-case scenario, if we didn’t get the loan, we can keep ourselves busy by stripping all the old walls back to bare rubble and limewashing throughout, which is a pig of a job and 95% of what needs to be done. It’s just a shame the other 5% is where the costs come in as well as making the space legal, useable and absolutely freaking awesome. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Either way, this pandemic isn’t going to beat us. We might need to put something on the website in a couple of months time encouraging some of our loyal customers to support us in the interim by putting a ‘drink behind the bar’ or buy one of the custom t-shirts I’m planning with newly-purchased lino printing materials (eek, exciting!) But either way, we will be opening those doors again in the future and welcoming you back because this is not only our business but our home. Failure is not an option.

In the meantime, let me know @TheBathLandlady or @TheGrapesBath on Twitter or Insta what day you think would be a good day for that Virtual Pub Quiz and let’s make it happen. The Pig Guide is planning to do something special for it too, making it perfect for all you new foodies out there.

Ellie Leiper, April 2020

Our Lockdown Life: Thoughtful Bakery

In an ongoing Pig Guide series publishing the thoughts, concerns and plans of local hospitality businesses during the lockdown, we’re putting Duncan Glendinning – proprietor of the Thoughtful Bakery – in the spotlight.

When the government announced the lockdown I had a tough decision to make: close, like the majority of Bath’s businesses, knowing that staff would have to go on furlough and our future would be very uncertain because of the rent and other bills we would still need to cover while closed… or stay open.

Very quickly, however, I felt the decision was taken out of our hands – bare supermarket shelves and lots of our customers and other Bath residents in a desperate situation at home and with no food meant I felt an obligation to continue to do what we do and help be part of the solution.

With huge thanks to my incredible team in the last two weeks (and an incredible chap called Julian who magicked up a website for us in less than 24 hours) we’ve completely repurposed the business. We’re now taking orders online for either collection at the bakery or home delivery, and the response has been great.

Our cafe seating area is now a stock room. We’re working closer than ever with our suppliers to stock and shift items that might otherwise go to waste, and every day is a new fight for us to keep our offering fresh and competitively priced produce and products. Don’t get me wrong; I would help any of those we are currently competing against for those all-important orders at the drop of a hat if needed, but otherwise it’s business as usual, with a finite customer base and a growing number of businesses offering similar initiatives to us.

But the ‘new normal’ for us has been so very odd – meeting people in a car park for them to collect their orders; spending early mornings freshening up our fruit and veg stocks to keep the standard of our produce high; driving here, there and everywhere to pick up stocks from restaurant kitchens. And just around the corner, every day… our hospitality industry is in tatters. I was shocked at just how many businesses closed their doors and how many of my restaurateur, bar or cafe owners and producer friends had to put their hands up and call time out. It was heart-wrenching to watch most of what made the Bath food and drink indie scene so great bottom out almost overnight. But it speaks volumes that so many of the big guns are prepared to show their vulnerability by expressing their huge concerns over their future; if all those outfits with all their venture-capital backing are worried about weathering this storm, what hope for the future do us indies have?

The high street will be a very different place when all this finally blows over; the costs of this pandemic are almost impossible to tot up. Okay, so wages are covered through the government employee retention scheme but there’s still rent to pay, and landlords are still for the most part very much looking to collect. Then there’s insurance, stock and wastage to think about – all the other costs are mounting up with no footfall, no bums on seats, to help pay for it.

But sometimes, in the most difficult of times, you see the most generous gestures being made and I have seen a huge sense of camaraderie grow immensely since the lockdown.

Those in my crew that have stayed on have been exemplary in ensuring the work in hand gets done: Mike who runs the Savouring Bath tours, Stuart who owns Sunkissed Campers, Mark (head chef of the Pump Rooms) and Nick from Seven Hills Chocolate were quick to step up and have been volunteering their time to deliver to our customers. Eddie from Roundhill Roastery dropped off a filter coffee machine to keep my team and I fuelled, and there’s been so much support from my fellow local business owners keeping us buoyed up through the long, tough days.

We also started our Covid-19 fund at the start of the crisis. To date – thanks to the generous contributions from our customers – we’ve committed to supplying over 400 meals to the RUH’s NHS front line heroes so they don’t have to go to bed on an empty stomach.

I still find myself tearing up when I watch the news and I’m reminded of the huge tragedy and personal losses people up and down the country are facing. But right now, it feels so good to be doing something. As for the future… only time will tell.

Duncan Glendinning, April 2020

Our Lockdown Life: Larkhall Butchers

As part of an ongoing Pig Guide series publishing the thoughts, concerns and plans of local hospitality businesses during the lockdown, we’re putting Peter Milton – proprietor of Larkhall Butchers – in the spotlight.

My concerns about supply actually started weeks before the lockdown, around the first week of March. At this point we could see that disruptions were inevitable and we started to plan ahead accordingly. I devoted a little time to thinking a few moves ahead at this point and broke down possible outcomes into phases, based on the ‘Italian model’ a phrase I found myself overusing. Of course, I didn’t realise just how extensive the disruption would become.

As the days moved on, it became apparent that restaurants, cafes and hotels would have to close. These businesses make up around half of my business, and there’s still great uncertainty as to what will and won’t be recoverable. Obviously, I have large worries hanging over my head, but I’ve had to focus on the continuation of my business as best as I can.

There was also the added complication that I already had huge amounts of stock of niche items destined for restaurants. Many things could be broken down and used for other things – sausage, mince, etc but there’s a limited market for people who want to buy pigeon! I was able to freeze some stock, but I donated the rest. We felt that, with all the panic buying that went on at the start of the lockdown, there may have been a shortage of food going to groups that rely on donations (although I’m pleased to say I was informed by Julian House that I was wrong!)

With the shortfall of stock in the supermarkets, the pressure was put onto us to fill the gap in the market. I cannot fault the supermarkets for dealing with their own impossible battles too – there’s no easy way of changing whole operating procedures overnight for companies that big, and this is something that we’ve had to do multiple times a week.

With the catering side of my business missing, I was confident that the increased shop trade would initially keep us all busy and counterbalance some of our losses. It swiftly became apparent, though, that the increasing social distancing advice meant that the shop trade would start to steadily decrease.

My business already operated a small home delivery service, as did the Larkhall Farm Shop, just across the road from us. The joint delivery service that had begun as an idea between us some six months or so previously with a plan to gradually include other traders in the village became the obvious solution to the larger issue we faced. So, instead of waiting to iron out all the details we decided to run with it and fix the smaller details as we went. This allowed us not only to set up the hugely popular Larkhall Delivered service but meant that, by the time lockdown was in full effect, we had already ironed out many of the faults in the service and provided an option for people who could otherwise not receive food whilst socially isolating – bear in mind too that supermarket home delivery services had a three-week waiting list by this stage. By the end of March we saw a turning point where home deliveries outgrew shop walk-ins, but we had our busiest Easter period to date!

With the massive numbers we were now processing between us and the sheer time and space needed to produce over a thousand orders a week, there was obviously a huge amount of pressure on; fortunately, I have an amazing team who stepped up to the challenge. The first few weeks in particular were the hardest – I’d made the conscious decision not to have a cut-off point on the numbers of orders per day and to maintain a next day delivery service, albeit adapted to certain areas of the city on certain days to make it more feasible for our distribution.

Due to so many businesses closing down, there were large numbers of professionals who had been ‘let go’ who were able to help us – and we in turn helped them by providing a somewhat stable income. We also had a huge amount of volunteer helpers coming forward; this was fantastic to see, but I favoured using paid employees who really needed the income wherever possible. Being in a position to help, and not being a charity ourselves, I felt it our duty to do what we could to help the local community and the economy a losing battle perhaps, but every pebble makes a ripple.

Fast forward a few weeks and we have an army of trained staff helping us supply the city of Bath. I have a team of chefs who work late into the evening preparing orders for the next day, not to mention the Uber drivers, hairdressers, estate agents and others who help with the logistics of the operation. My original butchery team follows on from the chef’s shift beginning at midnight, meaning that the shop runs all but 24 hours a day to keep up with demand. Spreading the shifts like this has the advantage of giving us more space to work in at any given time. There is, of course, the worry that were someone in the shop were to get the virus, or even symptoms of it, everyone would have to self-isolate and the shop could grind to a halt. By splitting the workforce down and minimising contact between shifts we’ve been able to minimise this risk and create the ability to isolate just one team at a time, effectively turning each shift into a ‘household unit’ within the workplace.

I think that my team will agree with me in saying that, although we’re tired, stressed and sometimes feel like we can’t go on, the essential work we’re doing makes it all worthwhile. Being able to see the direct results of helping people who have been struggling to get essentials, speaking with people who are over the moon with having us there to help… my job fulfilment has never been higher. We’ve been thrust into a position of enormous responsibility and we’re trying our hardest to make this ordeal easier for everyone. I like to think that we’ve all risen to the challenge, but only time will tell.

Peter Milton, April 2020

Our Lockdown Life: Chapter One pub, Bath

In the first of a Pig Guide series publishing the thoughts, concerns and plans of local hospitality businesses during the lockdown, we’re putting Emma and Michael Heap – who refurbed, rebranded and relaunched Chapter One pub (London Road) in 2016 – in the spotlight.

As a wet-led (non-food) pub, our main concern is that we have no idea what the government’s plan is for exiting lockdown; if it’s as chaotic at the end as it was at the beginning, we’re in for an even bumpier 2020 than we could ever have imagined.

Within five days, we went from ‘we might have to close for a little bit at some point’ to people being told to avoid pubs, theatres, etc… and then being instructed to close that night. As it happened, we’d already made the decision to close so our timing was spot on – but to shutter a business in five days is extremely problematic. But, like everybody else, we did it, and so far, we’ve managed to get by.

The next hurdle we have to face is the possibility of even more chaos on the easing of lockdown conditions; it’s almost impossible to make any strategic decisions, there are too many variables. While we understand that there are many unknowns for the government too, they’re employed to be the leaders, so they need to show leadership. A firm, staged plan is needed so at least if, for example, you’re a business that’s allowed to reopen during stage three, you know you need to be ready to reopen six weeks after stage one is completed – and of course, they’re all totally random numbers as we don’t know any more about any of this than anybody else does. All we do know is that as a wet-led pub we’ll be one of the last businesses able to re-open,

So far we’ve chosen not to offer any kind of retail service as there were others in the local market already filling that need and we wanted to use the time to work on some other projects. However, we’re still having to work on contingency plans because if we’re still closed in six months we’ll desperately need a form of income.

I think we’re in the same boat as everyone else, really – trying to stay busy and not worry about the things outside of our control. While we’re being very careful with our limited funds, we’re trying to support local businesses wherever we can and celebrate the creativity and community spirit that’s sprung up in the crisis. We’re also having our first break of longer than a few days since we got the keys to this place in December 2015, so there have been some lazy afternoons and epic cooking sessions. We have a lot of concerns about friends and family getting sick, the economic and sociocultural fallout of this pandemic, whether the government will forge ahead with their Brexit timeline potentially compounding those issues… and if anyone in charge knows what they’re doing. But in spite of all that, we’re okay for now; we’re focusing on a future when we can hang out with our customers again, shout to the world about amazing independently produced booze and pat ALL the doggos!”

Emma and Michael Heap, April 2020