BottleShop:Margate Tides Of Change

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.

Winter in Margate
Coming back to the present, my role at The BottleShop is now the General Manager – Retail, overseeing our three sister venues and online shop, but back in 2016/17, my role was 100% engaged with BottleShop: Margate. This February seems like an opportune moment to reflect on the journey we’ve had so far, in launching and operating a craft beer bar in a town with a population of just 50,000. The opportunity was to open a bar to showcase The BottleShop wholesale business: the beers we import and distribute. The opportunity to share Modern Times, Crooked Stave and Lost Abbey, and from closer to home, Cloudwater, BBNo. and The Kernel was one that just had to be explored in Margate.

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.

Margate Parade
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.

Some of amazing cocktails
We were also never going to be the ‘I’ll make you a vodka tonic (begrudgingly); have you tried our sour beer or seen our whisky selection’ kind of bar. We opened our door with the theatre of mixed drinks on tap, and after a few months, we decided to launch a full cocktail menu showcasing homemade bitters, syrups, and infusions to bridge the gap between beer and cocktails, with a cheeky Pina Colada occasionally thrown in for old-fashioned seaside frivolity. We wanted an ambitious, balanced bar offering to please those that we simply couldn’t win over to beer, or whom expressed that they didn’t want beer at the outset. We wanted it because in a town of 45,000 people, we didn’t want to turn away people with such reasonable requests, that’s no fun, and also because we want to drink wine, spirits and cocktails too! My feeling is that in major urban centres, people often take the idea of specialising that little bit too far, for their own convenience, for the notion of ‘purity of identity’ and occasionally, because some unhealthy minds actually relish turning down reasonable drinks requests!
Thanetians enjoying #WorldClass beer
Back to our core offering: beer. With regards to our concerns about whether Margate would pay a (relatively small) premium for world class beer, one particular incident always comes to mind when I think about these questions: a Saturday night, and a lady who worked in another specialist drinks business in the town came to offer her ‘help’ by loudly advising us, so all other customers at the bar could hear, that we had to offer a £3.50 pint of beer otherwise she didn’t think our business would work. Stuart acknowledged her recommendation, politely, and responded that he loved our offering and that he was over the moon that something like this had come to Margate, and that he felt these beers, and our bar environment, were worth it. It was one of those heartfelt, heart-warming moments, that our visitor that evening was immune to considering. Everything has detractors, I’m pleased to say this particular visitor was one of a minority. Keg beer and cask: it took us a while to learn how to bridge these two worlds and realise the full extent to which keg beers share qualities that appeal to cask fans: they’re often unfiltered, unfined, secondary-fermented, invariably flavour forward, naturally carbonated, made with quality ingredients and often made by people, rather than massive companies. By concentrating on sharing whichever of these virtues applied in any given circumstance, we were able to temporarily park, what too often can be a ‘why are you charging more, are you saying your beer is better than what I usually drink?’ confrontation to get the customer to the point where they’re tasting and making their minds up for themselves. What can all too easily be seen as a bridge too far by bartenders, is a fascinating opportunity to talk about why we value certain qualities in beer, and taste it together with our customers.

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.
One of Margate's packed quiz nights
During the course of this post, I hope to have addressed all the big questions we had from the outset. It wasn’t as if we launched with all the answers, we’ve had to be nimble and adaptable. It was six months before the environment was just-so, that we hosted our first ‘date’! Fundamentally, if the quality of our hospitality could come close to the quality of the world class beer we wholesaled, we believed it would work and we are delighted to be proven right. Back to the question of seasons: the increasing number of visitors, and positive seaside atmosphere for both locals and visitors alike, certainly contributes to summers, and definitely makes up for the harder winter months. Winters are especially hard, though this one much less so, and we are forever grateful for regulars supporting us through these most testing of months. We will continue to give patrons reasons to visit us in these times and on that note:

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!

Steve Taylor

Older Post
Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Close (esc)


Use this popup to embed a mailing list sign up form. Alternatively use it as a simple call to action with a link to a product or a page.

Welcome To The BottleShop

Home of #WorldClass beer!

By clicking enter you are verifying that you are old enough to consume alcohol.


Shopping Cart

Your cart is currently empty.
Shop now