House of fun: How Inception Group is finding the lighter side to PPE in its pubs and bars
Charlie Gilkes, co-founder of the Inception Group, which operates some of the quirkiest bars in the capital, talks to Jennie Milsom about how the brand is emerging from lockdown with some creative and unusual solutions for social distancing
What is your reopening looking like and how are you feeling about it?
We're really excited but we want to do it well, so we're busy getting all the safety measures in place. That's our priority at the moment. We're doing a gradual phased opening of most of our cocktail and bar venues throughout July, August and September. With Bunga Bunga and Maggie's – our party venues – we're waiting for the guidance to change on live entertainment and nightclubs. It's a marathon, not a sprint, so we're doing limited days, limited hours, limited venues and, over time, we will ease the lockdown ourselves. It's wonderful that the sector is starting to reopen.
What will your customers experience when they venture out again?
Our mission is to provide unique and memorable spaces. Post-pandemic, people are going to need a bit of escapism – they aren't going to want to leave their homes to sit in a Perspex prison or feel like they're going through airport security. We're doing a lot of measures, including temperature checks, hand sanitisation, limiting capacities, having one-way systems and some of the more boring PPE.
People are going to need a bit of escapism – they aren't going to want to leave their homes to sit in a Perspex prison
I think people are craving experiences, which they have been starved of for the past four months. They can't travel but they can go ‘around the world in 80 days' at Mr Fogg's. We've also developed some more unusual things and are having a bit of fun with it. We've got to embrace it – you've got to have a sense of humour.
Your creative safety solutions at Mr Fogg's include mannequins dressed as characters from Around the World in 80 Days to fill empty tables and staff wearing beekeeper veils
We're quite conceptional as a business and had a bit of a brainstorm – it was just thinking outside the box. If you'd told me last year I'd be dressing mannequins up, I'd have wondered what the world had come to!
We've always tried to stay true to the brand – Mr Fogg's is a rather eccentric concept. Besides, the room looks so bare after taking out all the furniture, so we thought of using the characters from Around the World in 80 Days. In The House of Botanicals, which is about flowers and fauna collected from around the world, we thought the beekeeper outfits would work well. The rubber-rings and litter-pickers at Maggie's was more tongue-in-cheek but a lot of fun.
Operators have had to manage cashflow, rent and all the grim stuff, so it's been a wonderful respite.
Which venues are proving more challenging to reopen?
We really hoped we could reopen Bunga Bunga but with the current guidance of no live entertainment, that makes it very difficult. Hopefully they will relax that in time. But the Mr Fogg's and Cahoots brands are table-service concepts so we usually have very few people standing and most people pre-book, which is unusual for a bar. I feel for the pubs that rely on vertical drinkers.
How will your staff and guests embrace these new measures?
They've all been amused by the novel ways we're doing things. We've always tried to do things a bit differently. As for staff wearing beekeeper veils, I think there's been a little bit of eye-rolling but with a smile! People who work with us know what the business is all about and we can't wait to welcome our guests back.
We always want to create more unique and unusual experiences that make us stand out from our competitors, but we are taking safety very seriously too. The mannequins are there to enforce distancing as well as being attractions. It's important that it's not gimmicks and that all of the measures we're taking are effective. Hospitality is addictive and we thrive off buzzy atmospheres. We just want to get back to do what we love doing.
What are your capacities going to look like?
Our venues will be reduced by 30%-40%. It's significant and it's going to be very hard to make a profit on the current restrictions, but we hope it's a step that we can move towards.
What would you say to other operators who are struggling with the challenge of reopening?
It's really tough and there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer. If your business is based on a small space with vertical drinking, you might be better off remaining shut, as hard as that sounds. We've got to show people we're responsible and, where possible, try to have fun with some of these things. I'm hopeful that some good will come from this to bring our industry closer together, but it's sad that not all of us are going to make it through. I'm increasingly less worried about demand, but we've got to take it gradually and make sure we do it in a responsible way.
Hospitality is addictive and we thrive off buzzy atmospheres. We just want to get back to do what we love doing
Looking back over the past four months, how do you feel?
Having all your revenue turned off overnight is not something I had ever forecast and we've had to make hard decisions. One of the positives is it has made the hospitality sector come together and support one another. We've heard some great voices and I think the sector has been recognised.
Tell us about your new £25,000 bar tab for NHS workers…
It's a small gesture – if anyone shows their NHS card they'll get a drink on us. We're keen to say ‘thank you' and we hope they'll use it in the coming weeks. They probably need a drink more than anyone right now.
Do you think city operators are going to take longer to recover?
It's a wider issue for central London operators as we're very reliant on tourists and office workers. We need people to be using public transport. Central London is going to take longer to recover and pedestrianising roads and having more alfresco drinking will help. People will come back to the offices and tourism will recover, but it's going to take time. There's a lot of talk about ‘the end of the city centre', but we're social creatures and people want to get back to normality.
Founders Charlie Gilkes and Duncan Stirling
All sites are in London
Chelsea Cloisters, 87 Sloane Avenue, SW3 3DW
Reopening 23 July
Battersea 37 Battersea Bridge Road, SW11 3BA
Covent Garden 167 Drury Lane, Holborn WC2B 5PG
Kingly Court, W1B 5PW
Reopening Ticket hall: 9 July; Underground: 10 September; Control Room: 3 September
329 Fulham Road, SW10 9QL
Mr Fogg's Residence 15 Bruton Lane, W1J 6JD
Reopened 4 July
Mr Fogg's Tavern 58 St Martin's Lane, WC2N 4EA
Reopening 16 July
Mr Fogg's Gin Parlour 1 New Street, WC2N 4EA
Reopening 3 September
Mr Fogg's House of Botanicals 48 Newman Street, Fitzrovia, W1T 1QQ
Reopened 9 July
Mr Fogg's Society of Exploration 1a Bedford Street, WC2E 9HH
Reopening 1 October
Mr Fogg's Dockside Drinkery & Distillery 37 Broadgate Circle, EC2M 2QS
Reopening 7 September
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