One of the hardest hit sectors of the restrictions to businesses over the past year has been the hospitality sector. GM Business Connect caught up with husband and wife owners Elaine and Mark Wrigley of the Atlas Bar on Deansgate, to hear about their story of perseverance over the past year.
The Atlas Bar is seen as the Manchester home of Gin, how many brands do you actually stock?
“At the last count just over 540. We continue to add new lines when interesting brands come along, particularly those with an intriguing provenance or history. We’re particular though, especially with Gins that are gimmicky or seem to have a marketing ploy attached. For example, we had some bubblegum flavoured lines offered, and also some Rhubarb and Custard flavoured Gins that were simply too sweet and not of the quality that we look for. We’re at heart traditionalists, very much looking for the London Dry Gin style of brand. However, we also look at the flavoured Gins available, specifically quality brands, which are very popular with our customers.”
Has the Atlas Bar always specialised in Gin?
“We took over the bar in 2012, and were looking for something that would make us different and stand out. Vodka had been done to death at the time, and we looked to the Britons Protection round the corner from us who at that time specialised in over 500 Whiskey brands. We got on really well with the owners and it was they who suggested looking at Gins, so we opened with 28 brands of Gin which was a first for Manchester. We were very lucky with timing as we had started our Gin journey before craft Gins became a thing, and we started off slowly seeking out brands that fitted with our idea of a quality Gin. Once the interest in Gins picked up, we were being approached directly by the distillers, especially as our reputation grew. The journey has been fantastic. We have made so many friends across many countries, especially as our range is truly international. We stock brands from New Zealand to South Africa and across to North America.”
We’ve been in and out of lockdown for a year now, how have you both managed to cope with the stresses of dealing with this?
“We are both very pragmatic, dealing with things in front of us and trying not to worry about things that may or may not happen. This has helped us stay focused and emotionally steady over the year. In our view the government’s communication, particularly to the hospitality sector, has been very poor. For example, when we opened last year on the 4 July, there was very little guidance available. We developed our own system for keeping both our customers and staff safe involving table ordering apps, booking systems, PPE protocol, and we worked through the issues as we had to. This cost us a lot in terms of further investment, but it did help us to stay well mentally as we were doing our best to ensure safety and that was a very positive thing for us.
“The other massive source of support was the surrounding business community. Not just the hospitality sector but all businesses, especially those in the city centre. We’ve made a lot of new friends over the past year as we’ve all been lobbying government. There’s no doubt hospitality businesses in the Northwest and particularly Greater Manchester have been impacted by the lockdown restrictions. In fact, we have been the region locked down the longest in the UK, followed by Leicester as a close second.
“There are many people championing our situation and still lobbying hard for us. Andy Burnham, Lucy Powell, Graham Brady, Sacha Lord – who is still fighting in the courts for a fairer timetable for our sector to come out of lockdown. These people are giving us hope, and knowing that so many are pushing for getting the City Centre re-open really helps us all to deal with the emotional and mental pressure.”
Was there ever a time where you thought about throwing in the towel and walking away from the business and doing something else?
“We’ve been asked that many times, and the answer is a firm no. The amount of work we put in over the past 8 years to build the business from scratch, coupled with our fantastic team that we see as our family, have resulted in a very solid business prior to Covid. When the pandemic arrived in March last year we saw the Chancellor standing up and saying that if you’re a viable business we’ll stand side by side with you. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case for city centre businesses. There’s no doubt the furlough scheme has helped, but we’ve still had to make half our staff redundant. Saying that though, we are determined to get through this, and the thought of giving up has never entered our heads.”
Did you diversify the business over the past year? If so, what did you do and how did you tell customers?
“Because we offer such a range of rare Gins we had already established an online shop. During the past year we have really pushed that side of the business through social media and word of mouth. It has grown, but not as fast as we’d like. Another area that we promoted pre-Covid was Gin tasting at the bar as an experience. We took this online by offering Gin Experience kits, available through our website, and this has been very popular as family and friends can share in the Gin tasting experience virtually. In fact, we’re very excited to see over the past few months an uptake in corporate orders. This also means that when the sector re-opens, the online tasting experience can still be a source of enjoyment for work colleagues to enjoy who are located all over the country.
“Another aspect of the tasting experience is that we host the event virtually from here, and customers have commented they felt in a way they were at the bar. The virtual tasting has been really successful in staying connected with our customers.”
You mentioned you had to make half your staff redundant. Can you describe how the past year has been for your team?
“Although as a business we weren’t eligible for the available grants as our rateable value was over £50,000, the furlough scheme has been crucial in helping us to retain our staff. In the first lockdown we were able to retain most of our people, however, when returning back in the summer we realised we couldn’t keep everyone on due to the reduced hours imposed and trade that we had, and unfortunately we had to let a good number of staff go to keep going as a business.
“It was during the second tiered lockdown when Greater Manchester found itself as one of the first regions to close down again, that we found it really hard. Staff were again on furlough, although this time only 66% of salaries were covered. It simply wasn’t enough for our team to survive on who had struggled on 80% of salaries for most of the year. We took the decision to promise to top their salaries up to 80% in whatever way we could. It was at this time Andy Burnham famously highlighted publicly the inequality of this, although it wasn’t until London ended up in tiered lockdown that the government finally brought back the 80% furlough help. All this uncertainty has taken its toll over our team, and we find it crucial to keep communicating with everybody, especially during lockdown. We’ve engaged with online staff training, kept the social channels open with Facebook and WhatsApp groups, and ensured everyone is supported.”
How have you managed with your supply chains during the last year?
“We’ve had a certain number of issues, especially with our overseas suppliers. A big problem has been logistics, and the disruption to exporting chains across the world due to Covid restrictions. However, by far the biggest impact on our supply chain has been the whole hospitality sector being unable to trade. We’re seeing many smaller brands really struggling, and especially when those suppliers have more customers in the hospitality sector rather than retail are where we’re seeing problems.”
With the doors opening on 14 April for outside serving only, how are you gearing up for a gradual emergence from lockdown?
“We have been up-skilling our team in preparation for the 14th. During furlough we’ve been able to do some training sessions as you are allowed to do learning and development under the scheme. The week before we’ll be running full health & safety training for our team, re-looking at things like distancing to keep customers and staff safe. Also, we’ll be getting back up to speed with table ordering – essentially we’ll be operating more like a restaurant than a bar.
“During the entire period of re-opening last year we had established a series of measures that we knew made our customers and staff feel safe. We’ll be doing the same again this time. We were proud that not one instance of track and trace indicated that any Covid was caught at the bar, and we look forward to putting the safety of our customers and team as our number one priority again.”
Obviously you’re currently working on re-opening and the safety aspects of that. Have you got any other future plans for the bar?
“We’re really proud to announce our very own brand of ‘Atlas’ Gin. It’s going to be launched at our first supper club on 25 May, and is inspired by our travels to distilleries around the world, botanicals from each continent, as well as a ‘nod’ to our Manchester roots.”
The Atlas Bar will be open for business from 14 April with their unique outdoor space – no booking required. For more information visit www.atlasbarmanchester.com
Tel: 0161 834 2124