Natalie Taylor Johnson and her husband Charlie uprooted their lives and moved to Bristol to realise their dream of opening a cheese and wine bar. Six months after opening the doors, coronavirus meant they were forced to close them again. Here, Natalie recounts their rollercoaster journey from launching a business to learning to adapt in a pandemic.
My husband Charlie and I (along with our friends Henry and Sophie, who are partners in the business) had been looking for the ideal location in Bristol to open KASK for around a year and a half, making frequent trips back to the UK from the UAE, where we lived, to look at venues. We heard that we’d exchanged on the location we settled on in Bedminster while we were on holiday in France last summer. We had every intention of going back to Dubai after France, but the landlord wanted us to move quickly… so we did! Charlie made a very hectic trip back to Dubai to pack up our house and pick up our dog, Indy, and we moved back to England just like that.
I used to run my own little digital collective focusing on social media strategy for hospitality and restaurant clients, and Charlie had worked in hotels, so neither of us was under any illusion that opening a bar was going to be easy. It wasn’t. But it was also super exciting – renovating what had been a pub for almost 150 years and turning it into a wine bar. I worked on the branding with one of my friends, and we pulled in awesome tradespeople and a brilliant interior designer. We serve organic, vegan, sustainable and minimal intervention wine to drink in or takeaway, alongside cheese, charcuterie and local gins, beers and ciders. We opened KASK in October 2019 so it had been about six months before Covid-19 hit. It was going amazingly well – it actually genuinely couldn’t have been going better…
Hand on heart, I don’t think either of us really freaked out at any point. We almost went into fight or flight mode. It was a brand new business and we didn’t have the luxury of doing nothing. We acted super quickly and launched our KASK To Your Door delivery service before any real government measures were announced. The week before lockdown, we cut back our seating capacity, allowing customers to book just one of four tables at the bar, so we could ensure everyone was completely distanced. When the lockdown was officially announced, we could have stayed open for collections as we are technically an off-licence, but we chose not to for the first six weeks.
Soon afterwards we turned a planned Spanish wine tasting into a virtual version of the same event. It was a big risk and we didn’t know how it would go, but everyone loved it, and since then we’ve been hosting weekly virtual tastings that always sell out within an hour or two. Otherwise, we change our delivery menu every week, offering a choice of two sparkling wines, three whites, a rosé, an orange and three reds, so people can choose what most takes their fancy.
It has been pretty chaotic. The staff we had taken on are furloughed, so it’s just me and Charlie, and my brother who is here helping out. It’s not ideal for him but he actually can’t get back to Melbourne where he lives because of the lockdown, so it was a choice of isolating with our parents or helping us out here. With the result that I am now completely surrounded by boys (including Indy!) in the tiny flat we live in above KASK. We were also driving a beaten-up old car we’d bought from Charlie’s brother to tide us over when we first moved to the UK, so that added to the fun of deliveries, but now we’re much more structured. We try and take Sundays and Mondays off, and as of two weeks ago, we now open our doors for collections with one person allowed in at any one time.
We spend our mornings checking and processing orders – after doing PE with Joe – then we head to the bar to prep all the wine, cheese and charcuterie, and write out any personalised labels customers might want to add if they’re ordering gifts. We also now offer a DIY tasting kit for those who can’t make our weekly virtual tastings or just want to host their own, so we pour all of the wine for these when we arrive in the bar. Then we start deliveries ?from around 3pm?. It depends on how many deliveries we have, but a typical day could be anything from 12 to 14 hours now.
Charlie and I met through work – although we didn’t work together directly – so working as a team hasn’t been a completely new experience, but it has been intense. When we first moved to Bristol we didn’t really know anyone except for Charlie’s brother and his wife. So we were renovating the bar, living together above it, and not really seeing anyone else, and we hadn’t been married for all that long. Then Covid came along. We always knew the first year would be tough but this was definitely unexpected! One thing that’s really positive is that we complement each other really well. When I get overwhelmed, he’s like, “Right, this is what we’re going to do,” and vice versa.
We’ve also been absolutely blown away by the support from our local community in Bedminster. The industry here in Bristol is phenomenal – there are so many amazing independents helping each other out and many of them have come together to create The Bristol Food Union, which is a collective of restaurants and chefs who are volunteering to feed key workers across the city. A website has also been set up to give local businesses in Bedminster an ecommerce platform. In terms of our business, we’re also blessed in that everyone seems to want a good bottle of wine to get them through.
It has been an absolute whirlwind, but the learning curve has been beyond steep, and we are still learning and trying to adapt every single day. Our hopes right now are as simple as opening our doors again before the end of the year and having a giant party in the garden with all of our incredible customers, who have helped to make sure we’re still here and can still operate after this is all over.
This article was originally published by Vogue
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