Can a specialist beer bar work in a town with a population of just 50,000?
Steve Taylor recounts the early days of our sea side bar.
As this winter draws to an end, my mind wanders back to this time last year, February 2017. BottleShop: Margate had been open just seven months and for all that time, Stuart and I hosted the venue alone, just one of us each evening, and on Saturdays, both of us together. It was a tough first winter. There were many occasions where we questioned whether we should stay open until 11 considering we hadn’t served a customer since 8 or 9pm. A month later in March 2017, on the back of a very encouraging amount of trade towards the end of February, we would welcome Bea to be the third (full time) leg to a stable table, and that felt like the single biggest leap we would take in 2017. Not only is Bea effusive, effortlessly welcoming, warm and funny, her employment meant we were growing and creating meaningful jobs in Margate hospitality. Creating local employment always ranks up there as one of the most rewarding parts of my job, alongside the vicarious pleasure of seeing child-like amazement in customers’ faces when they taste something wonderful, or hosting customers who bring their parents, or dates.
Financially, we had our concerns from the outset: would enough people want to try new beers in a town where there was no precursor of offering world class kegged beer? Would the £3/pint micropub expectation loom too large over people’s minds for them to consider risking spending more? Would enough people want a bar environment that may make them want to put on some nice clothes, on a date even? Would we survive a winter with the horizontal winds and the empty sea fronts people warned us of?
Back in summer 2016 I met company founder Andrew, his wife Kate, and son Tom in Margate having been linked up by a mutual friend. I had also enjoyed looking after Kate and Andrew at previous beer bars I ran. They visited Margate often. I was interested in a Margate bar project as on a personal level. I’d spent a decade working in London beer hospitality, and having moved to Folkestone the winter before, was fascinated to see whether a concept could ever be tenable in wonderful towns with smaller populations. I also had history with Margate, just not so recent, or regular. Before joining the Grenadier Guards, my grandfather John left school to be an apprentice butcher in the town and then after the Grenadier guards, he retired to Ramsgate aka Ramma-jamma-ding-dong. Each year of my youth, my Mum and Dad dragged me to visit Grandad John, Grandma Betty, and their aggressive cat. I can’t say it was my favourite place: I can’t remember its world-leading sunsets and I certainly didn’t fall for its bleak wintry charms nor its summer amusements. Visiting again as an adult, I have enjoyed returning to those memories, and now look at them with rose tinted nostalgia. On the flip side of family nostalgia was the feeling that I could be part of breathing a new lease of life and optimism into Margate, a town that was gradually coming out of some very difficult times indeed: the compound effect of the global financial crisis, the devastating effect of an out of town shopping centre, online shopping, and the reduced popularity of sea side amusement arcades to name just a few.
Out on Margate sea front, as you walk the promenade from the rail station, there’s a stretch of shops just 100m before you reach the Turner Contemporary. Having all been empty just five years before, BottleShop: Margate was the last shop to be reoccupied. From the outset, we decided to configure it as a one-person bar. I’d seen staff costs kill venues and wouldn’t be making the same mistake again. Offering wise, we were never going to be the ‘we’ve got the one white wine (because we can’t be bothered); what is it again Derek?’ sort of specialist beer bar. We jumped at the chance of working with Bermondsey’s Dynamic Vines to share a diverse wine list.
Forging links with the Margate community has been the biggest key to our success so far. Finding people to work alongside who love giving good hospitality and were emotionally intelligent enough to bridge gaps with customers who looked far outside of their comfort zones. Those same people have forged us community links. The list is too long to begin, let alone finish, but especial thanks to Stu, Bea, Katie, Mosh & Alfie for loving and helping shape our hospitality, to GB Pizza for keeping our customers well fed, and to Paul & Simon for hosting some next-level disco parties.
To the Margate community: we look forward to making even closer links with you in the coming months and years.
To the Thanet local who hasn’t given us a go yet, we implore you to. There’s only one way to find out if you’ll enjoy our hospitality, beer, wine and/or cocktails.
To the potential customer who’s considering visiting Margate, we encourage you to and we’ll love looking after you. Margate Sands make us all calmer people – and don’t leave before sunset!
And, lastly, to other venue operators, if you advertise as staying open until 11pm, despite whatever reasonable self-doubts you have, we recommend you honour that opening time as you never know who’ll step through that door to save an otherwise dire evening!