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