Last month, bars and restaurants across the UK unlocked doors after nearly four long months. But for some venues, July meant planning a (socially-distanced) grand opening. What’s it like to launch a new bar during the coronavirus pandemic? We spoke to Swift co-founder Bobby Hiddleston to find out.
Ask anyone at team MoM and they’ll tell you that one of our favourite locations to imbibe at is the award-winning cocktail bar Swift in Soho. I frankly don’t even want to find out how much money I’ve spent on their lovely Irish Coffees. So when we heard that a second London venue would open in Shoreditch in late July 2020 at 93 Great Eastern Street, we were delighted. Brunch-style dining? The kind of apéritif-style cocktails we know and love from the Soho site? Even more Irish Coffees? It sounded perfect.
However, the opening of this second location was anything but. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a severe toll on the global hotel industry, putting jobs and livelihoods on the line and many treasured bars and restaurants on the brink of collapse. For the husband-and-wife team, Mia Johansson and Bobby Hiddleston, who founded the Old Compton Street institution in 2016 with the backing of fellow couple and Nightjar and Oriole founders Rosie Stimpson and Edmund Weil, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Opening a bar brings enough challenges at the best of times, but trying to establish a new venue during the midst of a global pandemic adds a whole other level of difficulties and complications.
We wanted to find out what the process was like for somebody who has been through it and Hiddleston was kind enough to join us to talk all about it.
Master of Malt: How have you been affected by the impact of Covid-19?
Bobby Hiddleston: Like most businesses, we have been massively affected in almost every way. Things take longer to get done, people are more wary, and there is certainly no guarantee of trade. We’ve had to change our methods of service to keep everyone safe, but also make them comfortable enough to still enjoy themselves. It’s all a bit of a tightrope.
MoM: How does opening a bar now differ from opening a bar under typical circumstances?
BH: It’s difficult. Footfall on the street is way down so we’ve had to adjust all of our predictions. Being unable to fill the bar completely also means people’s first impressions are going to be different, so it’s too early to tell how that will play in the long run.
MoM: Was there enough support and guidance for the hospitality industry?
BH: The hospitality industry has been really good at supporting bartenders and owners alike. We all know how drastic this situation is worldwide, so it seems like petty differences have fallen by the wayside and everyone just wants to help each other out.
MoM: How did the opening day/night go?
BH: Really well – we had a lot of friends come and see us, a lot of whom were venturing outside for the first time in months, so I think it was good for them to see a bit of positivity.
MoM: What has been the response from customers?
BH: Fantastic, so far. We have had so many friends and acquaintances come to see us and wish us well. The few offices that are back to work have also peeked their heads in, so we’re excited to be able to cater to the general Shoreditch community as well.
MoM: How have consumer habits differed compared to pre-COVID?
BH: People are very respectful of social distancing and safety measures. It’s certainly a comfort knowing that people are following protocol. Going to a bar is a luxury and a risk at the moment, so if they don’t feel comfortable going to a venue then they won’t go, but at the same time, I think people are craving a little bit of normality in their lives.
MoM: How have the staff adjusted to the new normal?
BH: So quickly, I’m very proud of our team for getting to grips with what needs to be done so well.
MoM: What measures have worked? Are there any that haven’t?
BH: There aren’t really any measures that haven’t worked. Things that people would never do pre-COVID – taking names & details at the door, keeping safe distances, etc – everyone is following because everyone knows how important it is to follow.
MoM: What needs to change?
BH: For the industry to survive long-term, the 1m rule will need to be relaxed. Of course, that can only happen when it is safe to do so, but many venues simply cannot sustain themselves on 50-60% of regular turnover, like most bars are right now.
MoM: Why was it necessary for bars to open/reopen?
BH: Aside from the obvious attempt to restart the economy by opening private businesses again, it is essential to get hospitality workers back to work. The longer the bars are closed, the less likely they are to reopen at all, so to have an entire wave of people willing but unable to work is disastrous.
MoM: Can London’s world-class cocktail scene rebuild itself to come back stronger than ever?
BH: Yes, absolutely it will, but I also predict that this will also signal a new wave of smaller towns and cities improving their cocktail scenes. Every major city had talented bartenders from small towns go home for COVID and then realise they preferred it where they’re from, so there will be a whole new ecosystem of brilliant people wanting to use their skills more locally. In a few years, there will be many more great bars springing up outside of the capitals, which is a fantastic thing.
MoM: What should we expect from the new Swift?
BH: Swift Shoreditch is an all-day offering, we’re open from 8am for coffee and pastries, and go through to the evenings for our signature spritzes and Irish Coffees. But most importantly, the new Swift will have the same warm welcome as Swift Soho.