When Alex Kratena and Monica Berg opened their sleek, stylish, very inclusive and much lauded bar Tayer + Elementary on June 1 2019, little did they know that they’d be spending its inaugural anniversary in lockdown. Which is particularly cruel given the fact that it took them three long years to get the lease done and dusted in the first place.
Nine months in and their baby was doing very well thank you very much, then bam! Bloomin’ Covid-19 hit. Like many hospitality businesses, Alex and Monica have been calling for a National Time Out, asking for a pause on rent while they’ve been unable to trade. Unfortunately, that didn’t work. Needless to say the last few months have been testing to say the least.
We chatted with Monica about finding the strength to rebuild their dream and whether she and Alex have the resources or resilience to continue into the New Year.
We know that it’s been touch and go as to whether you’d reopen Tayer + Elementary. What stage are you at now?
It’s a long story and I can’t really comment on it, but at this point, we don’t really have any other choice than to re-open, and hope for the best. It is what it is.
That sounds like it’s been a tough decision. So what are things like around Old Street at the moment?
There are 30,000 people who used to work in this area who have been told not to to go back to their offices until January 2021 at the earliest. That’s if they come back at all. Consequently, the bars around here are doing around 30-50% of the numbers they would have done previously. But that’s just the start of what’s to come. I don’t want to be negative but if we’re being totally realistic in the next five months we’ll see a lot of people being made redundant and also bars closing down. It’s already happening in the hotels.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s rewind to the beginning of lockdown. When did you first feel the effects of it in the bar?
The week before lockdown you could sense that there was something going on beyond your control, something that you couldn’t understand and react to. We chose to stay open until the government forced us to shut but within that last week the whole business fell apart. We lost all of our events for the rest of the year, as well as all of our consulting gigs. Our takings fell dramatically too – we were maybe taking £300-400 a day and every single night people would come in, sit at the bar and start crying, telling us that they’d just lost their job and how they found out: “I got a text message from my boss”, or “I found out on Instagram”. We were just like “What the fuck!” It was just heartbreaking.
Why didn’t you close then?
We didn’t want to shut down before we knew what would happen with our staff – that was the most important thing for us. Once we knew that they could be furloughed, we were able to close the doors.
How were the first few weeks of lockdown for you?
Like a vacuum. I had no energy, no mental clarity to participate in anything that was going on. A lot of bartenders were doing live events or making drinks on Instagram, but I couldn’t. For the first time in my life I felt really helpless. I also felt quite hopeless. I had to take a good month to process what was going on by myself (by myself, I mean with Alex). It felt like grieving – it literally felt like the loss of something that couldn’t be pinpointed. Eventually, like everyone, I began to work through that stage of doing nothing and start to put things in place.
At the beginning we were still going to the bar once a week or so – we still needed to clean, run the taps and make sure everything was ticking over. Then we began to think about things like selling some of the stock to make some money. Which is where the bottled cocktails came in. They proved to be quite successful so we started to push them out as a way to pay the running costs, because we still had to maintain the venue.
So you are re-opening. What’s the plan?
Elementary will open on September 2nd. Based on our calculations, paying full rent into account, even during the lockdown period, it’s going to be very difficult for us to break even. That’s what we’re worried about. I remember this article which compared what’s happening to when the meteor hit earth, half of the dinosaurs died instantly and the ones that survived didn’t know that they were going to die but the conditions had changed so much, they were already extinct. It’s the same for the industry in general. If we break even that’s fine but if not, by Christmas we’ll have run out of money and we’ll have to close anyway.
How has this period been for your relationship? Of course it helps that you’re in it together but as we know, that brings its own pressures into the mix.
The good thing is we don’t normally have the same cycle. When one of us is feeling down, the other is the more positive one. But it’s been tough. Now we’ve decided that we’re going to go all in and do whatever it takes for the business to survive however, we’re also trying to mentally prepare for the fact that it might not go the way we want. If that happens, what do we do then? Because I do think that if we lose the bar it will be time for us to move on; we’d probably leave London and, for a while at least, we might leave this industry; we would need just to recuperate. Maybe. You never know what the future might bring but when you’re put under all this pressure you start to see all the cracks.
How have you managed to keep motivated throughout this period of uncertainty?
One of the things that really helped was that for six days a week throughout the whole of lockdown, we’ve had one-hour sessions with our team. So every day at 2pm we’d ‘meet up’ for an hour – whether it was for trainings or just talking bullshit it was nice to connect and have some kind of structure. The fact that for one hour every day you see everyone’s faces and keep in touch meant a lot. There are people who are by themselves, so they could go for weeks without talking to anyone. Also some of our team are quite young, so it was a good way to check in to make sure that everything was okay – that was nice.
Other than that, like everyone, it felt like being in Groundhog Day where everything is just repeat, repeat, repeat – there’s nothing fun. However, since May, we’ve been going into the bar every day. Now, since July, twice a week we do trainings with the team, so when we do start, we have a solid educational platform. We’ve become very close. But it’s difficult to keep motivated.
What plans are you putting in place to re-open?
We’re not doing too much differently than we did before. Obviously, the main focus is to give our guests a sense of security that we take this seriously but at the same time, we want to retain some kind of normalcy. Some bars have put up screens and have their staff wearing hazmat suits and the like. Every venue will need to do their own risk assessment, and for us, we think we have found a balance between being vigilant and proactive.
We were already disinfecting the toilets etc every 15 minutes and obviously, there will be more disinfecting between guests when they sit down. We will of course adhere to track and trace by taking everyone’s telephone numbers and we’ll carry out temperature checks on our staff every time they come to venue. We’ll definitely take the precautions that we need to, even though there are no real clear guidelines and of course, we now have a terrace, so half of the seatings will be outside, half inside, so we’ll be operating at almost the same capacity.
Anything else we should know?
We’re trying to diversify our offering as much as possible. For now Elementary will open Tuesday to Saturday, that way we can minimise how many staff we bring back from furlough. Salaries are one of our biggest expenses and the minute we bring everyone back, that puts the pressure on us making money. It’s better to wait a bit as the area is still pretty empty.
We’ll also have a bottle shop where we’ll be able to sell cocktails to takeaway, plus beers and wine and we also have the terrace. From October or maybe before, we’ll start to open Tayer on a limited schedule, most likely from Thursday to Saturday. We won’t be taking any bookings and will keep the original hours as a lot of people are saying that there’s nowhere to go to for late night drinks. In response to that we’ll do last call at midnight until Wednesday, and from Thursday onwards, last call will be 1am. We’ll see how it goes but we’re really looking forward to welcoming people back.
For more details see tayer-elementary.com
Until Elementary reopens, Tayer + Elementary bottled cocktails can be purchased from thewhiskyexchange.com
Photos by Bernard Zeija