Independent local pubs are a pillar of the community in Lincoln, and a huge part of what makes the city so special. The Birdcage is one of the foremost examples at the heart of this scene. Owners Chris and Rachael Brooke bought the pub formerly known as The Crown Inn back in 2015, and have poured their passion and energy into making it a beacon of the community. More than just a great pub, The Birdcage has become a thriving hub for creativity in Lincoln, from stand-up comedy to reggae, and from visual art to the spoken word.
But, like every pub in the industry, The Birdcage has faced an immense challenge as the Covid pandemic has unfolded over the last year. After being forced to close down and then adapt to restrictive new circumstances, the team has drawn upon that passion and energy once again to reinvent the venue, and to keep serving the community through difficult times. In this story, Rachael tells us all about the inspiration behind The Birdcage and what’s been going on behind the scenes.
The Birdcage, Lincoln: a brief history
At first glance, you would expect The Birdcage to be the creation of someone with lots of experience in revamping pubs. But, remarkably, for Rachael and Chris it was their first foray into the industry. “Neither of us have ever really worked in hospitality before,” explains Rachael. “Chris runs another company called Ruskington Poultry based in Dorrington, which he has had for 30 years.” This is now one of the various local businesses that supplies the pub’s kitchen.
Rachael had a varied and colourful career journey before running The Birdcage. “I used to work as a colour matcher for an ink supplier, retrained as a life coach, and then worked at Lincoln College for a few years as a learning support assistant,” she explains. “When the pub opened I decided I’d like to learn the ropes, and did a full course on running a pub and gained my own licence. Eventually I took on the role of manager.”
Community and creativity were always part of Rachael and Chris’s vision for The Birdcage. They had been regulars at another nearby pub, The Dog and Bone, and wanted to attract a similar clientele of artists, musicians and local residents. “When we first opened up as The Birdcage, our dream was to make it a really friendly, fun place that would attract an artistic crowd, but also be a part of the community and to hopefully have an impact on an area that isn’t always seen in a good light,” says Rachael.
Our mottos are ‘It’s nice to be nice’ and ‘Intolerance is not tolerated’.”
The project began in September 2015. “My husband bought The Crown Inn, amongst gasps of astonishment from many people,” recalls Rachael. “The plan was to completely refurbish it from top to bottom. It took nine months and a lot of hard work, scraping walls, removing literally everything, having extensive building work done and decorating to get it ready to open for May 2016.
“We didn’t have a plan of how it should look really, except that we wanted it to feel warm, inviting and quirky. We both love the red walls in our kitchen, which works well both day and night. So that was the initial basis of why it’s predominantly red! Then we set about trying to fill it with as many quirky pictures and objects as we could. I’ve always loved interior design, so this was something I could really enjoy working on too.”
The word spreads
It didn’t take long for the vision to start coming to fruition. “After a year or so, word started to spread about The Birdcage,” says Rachael. “We started to attract local poets, such as Ron Booth, who wanted to run a spoken word night. We also introduced karaoke nights, comedy nights, as well as having live music from local musicians.
“Eventually we had so many diverse events happening there was something for everyone, and we found our natural rhythm – which was basically to expect the unexpected! Lincoln has so many talented people living in it, and we love that they are drawn to The Birdcage. We really are like a big extended family now, and it makes us feel so happy that this is where we have got to.”
Inside The Birdcage during the first lockdown
The pandemic arrived after a great start to the year at The Birdcage. “When we were told that the pub had to close down, I think everyone, staff and customers alike, were in shock,” recalls Rachael. “It was very emotional for us all, and very sad as January and February had been very busy, which was amazing. We didn’t know how long it would last. No one did.”
The first challenge was what to do with all the fresh food and drink. “We had lots of open barrels of ale, so we decided to sell them off at £1 a pint,” Rachael explains. “We opened the back gate and people came with their own drinking vessels. We filled them up and they took them home. We gave our staff all of the fresh produce from the fridge.”
Chris’ poultry business was kept busy during lockdown supplying meat to butchers, while Rachael dedicated the time to some creative refurbishment. “I decided to spend some time cleaning and repainting the cellar,” she says. “I had always wanted to do the restrooms up, and had bought all the paint before lockdown, so I could keep myself busy with that.”
“We have very loyal customers who came back and supported us from day one of reopening.”
The news eventually came that pubs would be able to re-open on 4th July – but with strict new guidelines in place. Rachael, Chris and the team had their work cut out in making preparations. “To make it Covid-friendly we rearranged and took furniture out, had screens made for the bar, put posters up, bought hand sanitisers, and worked out a way to ask people to leave their track and trace details,” she explains. “We also came up with the idea of having a mobile phone behind the bar so that people could text us with their orders.”
The outside area also underwent a renovation, with some customers even pitching in with the work. “We had a covered area built at the end of the beer garden to provide more sheltered seating, and better lighting,” says Rachael. “We had a lot of help from some of our regulars in getting this all set up and fitted, as well as putting up the screens at the bar.”
When the time came to reopen, uncertainty about the ‘new normal’ made for some nervous moments. “We encouraged staff to pop in and just help us get back up and running, and get the feel of the place again,” Rachael remembers. “We had a socially distanced meeting to go through everything and how it might run. We always encourage ideas from staff, so if things needed tweaking we asked them to tell us.
“We needed more bar staff to cope with table service, and an extra card machine so we could take payment at tables outside – a big change indeed for all of us.”
Keeping the community spirit alive
The Birdcage has a highly active social media presence. Its Facebook page was kept updated about all the changes along the way, and the team also runs a private Facebook group called Birdcage Banter, which helped to keep the community spirit alive through difficult times. “It’s open for anyone who is a member to post funny things, and online events that were running such as poetry nights, comedy events and quiz nights so that people could still engage with each other via Zoom.”
Once the doors reopened, Rachael and Chris thought about ways they could still showcase local creativity in the challenging new circumstances. “We were worried about having any bands or events that would mean too many people would come that we couldn’t seat,” Rachael says.
“We managed to have an outside acoustic event on a Sunday afternoon in the summer, where the lovely Dave Mallet played some tunes on his keyboard, and we all sang along from our tables in the beer garden. We also managed to keep our monthly quiz and curry night going as we have a speaker in the beer garden, so people could still sit in groups of six to take part.” These were some of the very few community events that were able to keep running across Lincoln.
Closing down all over again
Another bump in the road lay ahead. Rachael recalls: “When the weather turned for the worst, we were just at the stage where we had got our head around running a comedy event inside – when the second lockdown happened. When it was announced we were surprised, as it was said initially that it wouldn’t happen again.”
With Lincolnshire kept among the highest levels of restrictions between the second and third lockdowns, pubs had to stay closed. But the previous experience has been helpful in making new preparations. “This time we know a little more what to expect when we reopen, so it’s not as daunting,” says Rachael.
“But there is a lot to do to get ready. We will be a little more wary on what stock we keep in the cellar in the few months of reopening. Since reopening in July, we have only used local breweries that are doing bag-in-box and pins of ale, so that we can still have lots of changing ales, but with a better sell-by date.” Indeed, The Birdcage is renowned for its excellent variety on tap – it’s featured in our rundown of the best real ale pubs in Lincoln.
Many reasons to be proud
Despite everything that happened in 2020, there are still many positive memories that Rachael and Chris can take away. “What a strong team we have built together,” she says. “Through circumstance, through having to be more confident in applying socially distancing rules, supporting each other through difficult times and taking on new staff members that have absolutely added massively to the running of a smooth operation.”
And of course, the community has been at the heart of getting through these times. “We have very loyal customers who came back and supported us from day one of reopening,” Rachael says. “And the fact that we have Birdcage Banter, and that so many people still want to engage in online activities together.
“We hope that all the great pubs in Lincoln manage to recover from this awful time.”
“Feeling part of a bigger community online, with other pubs going through the same thing, has been a godsend in getting advice and support throughout all of this.” The team has been engaged with an industry Facebook group, Pubs & Clubs uncertain times, throughout this period.
“On a personal note, I have had time to think about my stresses on a day-to-day basis and realise that it’s all relative to what’s going on at the time,” Rachael continues. “So, rather than finding particular events that we hold at the pub a stressful experience worrying whether we sell all the tickets, I have learned to just enjoy what we have achieved, and love that everyone is just having a blooming great time!”
Looking ahead to brighter times
The future is still clouded with uncertainty, but Rachael, Chris and the team can look ahead with some positivity. “In reality we can’t plan too much ahead,” says Rachael. “Ideally we would like everything we had going on in 2019 to happen again – karaoke nights, spoken word, comedy, live music, gaming nights, open mic, pints and portraits, quiz and curry nights, LGBTQI events, theatrical events, and anything that would suit The Birdcage vibe really.
“We are open to whatever comes along. We have had auditions for X-Factor and The Voice, tribute bands such as True Order, and other ad-hoc musical happenings in the past. Anything quirky is always welcomed with open arms. It always feels great to have a place that is open to new things happening, and for people to know that we will always be inclusive to everyone who enters our doors as long as they are friendly. Our mottos are ‘It’s nice to be nice’ and ‘Intolerance is not tolerated’.”
Rachael is also hopeful that recent hardships will create a greater sense of togetherness among the pub industry. “We hope that all the great pubs in Lincoln manage to recover from this awful time,” she says. “And that we all become stronger in the knowledge that we have gone through the toughest of times, and we are still there to provide not only a great atmosphere, fun times, great food and drinks and friendly service, but to provide a place to meet others, create friendships, find love, enjoy good music, raise money for charities and be a bigger part of the local community.
“We all play an important role in supporting other local businesses that supply us with food, ales and music, and being a part of other great events as we have in the past, like cleaning up rubbish in the streets. Long live the local, as they say!”
You can find out more about The Birdcage and what’s coming up on the pub’s website.
Wednesday night is quiz night at the Birdcage. For more trivia entertainment around the city, check out our day-by-day guide to pub quizzes in Lincoln.
This article is part of a series of interview features looking behind the scenes of the hospitality scene in Lincoln and the surrounding area. Do you have a story to tell? We’d love to share it, so please get in touch.