Opening a new pub during a pandemic might seem to be a gamble – but after a month of only being able to trade outside, Eltham’s newest micropub is thriving. SAM DAVIES visited the Berry & Barrel to find out more.
The pandemic has not been kind to pubs. Less than a month after the lockdown was eased to allow the serving of outdoor drinks, many are still struggling. Having had no custom since December, lots of pubs are contending with a huge loss of income. Others have been unable to open due as they only have small gardens or no outdoor space at all.
It’s a Wednesday night in early May. Most people aged over 40 in southeast London have had at least one jab of a Covid-19 vaccine. But the mood is one of trepidation, with many residents nervous about returning to public spaces. On top of that, it’s pouring with rain.
And yet, at the Berry & Barrel micropub on Well Hall Parade, a short distance from Eltham station, the newly-built garden is packed. Every punter who walks in is greeted by the owner, Tugbay Caganaga, is asked to scan a code with the NHS app on their phones, then shown through a chic interior to an impressive outdoor space. It’s covered by a perspex roof that lets in light but keeps out the rain, warmed by outdoor heaters and decorated with greenery. Television screens display a menu of nine beers and blackboards show a huge list of wines and cocktails.
“We try to create something for everybody,” says Tugbay. “It’s a community pub.” Three years ago Tugbay and his family were running a dry-cleaning business in the same building, where they’ve been for 20 years. Tugbay was born in Cyprus, then moved to Britain at 21 after meeting his wife. He bought a dry-cleaning shop and grew a real connection with the local community. “Everyone knows me as a dry cleaner,” he says.
But after 20 years, dry cleaning lost its appeal. Tugbay wanted a career change. Four years ago, some friends of his opened The Hangar in Sidcup, one example of a quietly booming micropub industry in southeast London. Tugbay was intrigued, so after researching similar businesses around London, submitted a licence application in August 2019. It was accepted a few months later and building began in early 2020. They planned to open in April.
Then the pandemic hit. Tugbay had already invested his savings in planning and solicitors’ fees, shut down the dry-cleaning shop and had effectively lost his only source of income, but the Berry & Barrel’s opening date was put on indefinite hold. Tugbay searched for delivery jobs at Tesco and Ocado, but was unsuccessful. Did he think of giving up on the pub?
“At one point, yes,” he says. “Then my son, he’d just turned 19 then, said, ‘No, we’re committed already. This is our premises. We can’t just leave it empty.’” As well as his, son Ata, who is studying business at Leeds University, Tugbay had the support of his wife, who was still earning through her job in the City.
But the challenges kept coming. When pubs were allowed to reopen in the summer, the Berry & Barrel’s bar still had yet to be built. Building continued, thanks in part to Tugbay’s builders not charging him upfront. “Thank God, all of them were very understanding,” says Tugbay. “As soon as the lockdown came, they said, ‘Oh, you don’t have to pay us until you start earning money.’”
Their generosity was born out of the trust Tugbay has built with local residents over the past two decades. Since his dry-cleaning days, Tugbay has seen many of the local kids grow up and go to university or get jobs. As teenagers, some of them used to give Tugbay’s address if they were expecting a delivery and knew they would be out. When it came to hiring staff for the Berry & Barrel, Tugbay always knew he would keep it local.
“People in Eltham supported me for 20 years,” he says. “So I feel I have to give something back to the community.” His head builder, plumber and electrician all live within walking distance. “It’s a trust between myself and the people around Well Hall.”
By December the Berry & Barrel had been built, just as pubs were allowed to reopen following England’s second lockdown. But this came with a caveat: they could only serve drinks with a “substantial meal”. This was another challenge for Tugbay, who had not planned on operating a kitchen.
Local connections came to the rescue again. Johnny Partridge, another former dry-cleaning customer and co-founder of the local catering service Eltham Jons, offered to provide cooked meals for the Berry & Barrel. They were able to open, only for Boris Johnson to announce another lockdown 10 days later, forcing Tugbay to close his doors once more.
Though business stopped, Tugbay didn’t waste any time. Thanks to his son Ata and another staff member who has a background in PR, the Berry & Barrel swiftly grew a following on social media. Regular posts on Facebook and Instagram generated a local buzz for the pub’s proper opening in April.
They are now fully booked every Friday and Saturday evening until June. This Monday they will be able to welcome customers inside, albeit with table service only. Indoor capacity is 66 people, with tables currently separated by glass screens. In the not-so-distant future Tugbay envisages convivial Friday nights serving a wide range of customers – with much more than just beer on offer.
“Obviously when I opened my micropub, my intention was serving real ales, craft beers,” he says. “But my wife, she had a different vision. She said why don’t we put gins and cocktails and make it more like a microbar instead of micropub? Gin berries and beer barrels.” On her advice, Tugbay hired two mixologists with experience working in West End bars, both of whom live locally.
It remains to be seen what challenges he may yet face as Britain emerges from the lockdown. But for now at least, it seems he has the support of his neighbours. “That’s the good thing,” Tugbay says. “People help each other, support each other, during the pandemic.”
The Berry & Barrel is at 18 Well Hall Parade SE9 6SP. It is taking bookings at berryandbarrel.com.
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