When it was announced on 23 March 2020 that the UK would enter a full national lockdown that evening, it was a landmark moment that signalled new and uncertain times ahead. And nowhere was the ripple of disruption felt more keenly than in the licensed trade industry. For one pub in Lincoln, the news was particularly devastating; The Tiny Tavern, the city’s newest pub, had opened its doors for the very first time just one week earlier.
The scale of the challenge for the hospitality industry in general has been enormous. But for a brand new pub that had a capacity limit of 40 people indoors in ‘normal’ times – before social distancing became a consideration – the task appeared insurmountable.
Emma Chapman and her daughter Steph are the team behind the Tiny Tavern. In this story, they tell how they have managed to pull through the pandemic thanks to a little bit of luck, a lot of hard work, some timely risks and incredible community support.
Learning the ropes in Lincoln’s real ale pubs
The micropub idea was far from being Emma and Steph’s first foray into the Lincoln pub scene. Both had already spent several years working in licensed trade in the area.
Before opening the Tiny Tavern, Emma previously ran the Jolly Brewer in Lincoln for nearly a decade, and before that the Butcher and Beast in Heighington in 1999–2001.
“Steph started waiting tables at the Butcher and Beast as soon as she was legally allowed, and continued to work there after I left,” explains Emma. “She was then my right hand woman at the Jolly Brewer, and when I sold the lease in 2013, she remained as manager for the incoming tenant before leaving herself in 2018.
“We share a passion for keeping real ale,” she continues. “The Butcher and Beast and The Jolly Brewer both had a big real ale trade, and we were proud that we had maintained regular entries in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide for both pubs, a tradition that Steph carried on at The Jolly Brewer.”
The vision for the Tiny Tavern
Emma and Steph first began discussing the idea of opening a micropub in early 2019. Lincoln’s original micropub, the Hop and Barley, had just closed down, at a time when similar concepts were growing in popularity across the country.
“Neither of us was looking to run a pub again at that point, but as we talked about it the idea started forming,” says Steph. “We liked the idea of making a little pub from scratch. We gave it some more thought over the next few weeks, and then our search for premises began.”
They focused their search in the lower High Street area of Lincoln, where the Hop and Barley had been located, and where real ale pubs were under-represented. The premises that caught their eye had been previously occupied by a tattooist.
“Our vision is to create a small-scale traditional and independent pub with a warm and friendly atmosphere and a sense of community at its core.”
“They were a lot bigger and more expensive than we were looking for, and also came with a flat, which hadn’t been part of the plan,” continues Steph. “But we’d made the mistake of thinking of the name ‘the Tiny Tavern’ before we looked for premises. A 17th-century cottage really suited the name, and in the end we just had to view it!”
The building needed a lot of work, but it was a perfect match for the concept, and the location was ideal.
“Our vision is to create a small-scale traditional and independent pub with a warm and friendly atmosphere and a sense of community at its core,” says Emma. “Our plan is to build a regular local trade and to develop a programme of (tiny!) events and evenings of interest to suit our customer base as we go along.”
A short-lived first opening
Working swiftly, Emma and Steph started the planning and licensing applications in October 2019. By January 2020 they were able to take possession of the building and begin work on the refurbishment.
“At the time that the virus started spreading in Europe, we were still up to our necks in sawdust and varnish, and with our opening date looming, we hadn’t been paying much attention to the news,” says Emma. “We completed the refurbishment a couple of days before we opened, and it was then that we realised how serious the situation was.”
On the day the pub first opened, 16 March 2020, the government started advising people to stay away from pubs and clubs. “Ireland had already closed their hospitality trade, and we could see it coming that our fate would be the same,” says Steph.
“We were closed down five days after we opened. We were well supported over those five days, but the Covid situation made us feel quite uncomfortable to be open, which was a shame.”
A battle for financial support
“We weren’t unduly worried about the closure at first,” recalls Emma. “Obviously the timing was terrible for us, but we felt it was the right thing to do given the circumstances. And the grant schemes had been announced so we would get financial help for the business, which was reassuring.”
But when the criteria for grant applications was released, Emma and Steph were devastated to find out that they didn’t qualify for any support at all. Businesses needed to have been trading from 11 March – and the Tiny Tavern had opened on 16 March. What a difference five days makes.
“We argued the toss for six weeks,” says Emma. “Without any financial help we would have been stuffed to say the least! Especially as it was looking like the closure would be much longer than was first anticipated.”
After a lot of stressful back-and-forth and searching for workarounds, a fortunate technicality came to the rescue.
“We were eventually saved by the delivery of our first barrel of real ale from Ferry Ales Brewery, which we had received on 11 March, the qualifying date for the grant” says Steph. “Because real ale is perishable, the council were satisfied that we were intending to trade, and awarded us the grant on discretionary terms. It was a bit of a ‘phew’ moment!”
Transforming the garden into a usable space
As it became clear that social distancing would have a severe impact on how pubs could operate after reopening, Emma and Steph had to think creatively about how to make it work. At the rear of the premises was an untended garden.
“It hadn’t been touched for years,” says Steph. “It was very overgrown and full of all sorts of strange rubbish. We didn’t have much budget as we didn’t know how much longer we’d be closed for, and the grant would only go so far.
“We decided to do much the same as we did with the pub and to just install the basics. It was always part of the plan for the pub and garden to be developed organically. We wanted to find our customer base and then grow and develop the pub around it.”
So, Emma and Steph used the days of the first lockdown to clear the garden, add fencing and lay turf. They fashioned some small tables from barrels that would be easy to move.
“We needed to be able to move furniture to enable us to maximise our capacity,” explains Emma. “This wasn’t how we saw the garden staying permanently, so we just opted for sturdy garden chairs which we were able to borrow.”
Preparing to reopen indoors
For such a small venue, the task of enabling customers to maintain a safe social distance was the biggest hurdle to overcome before reopening inside.
“We spent much time with a tape measure wandering around scratching our heads,” recalls Steph. “We rearranged a few things in the pub and also decided to introduce an entry/exit system, which worked with the layout of the building. The premises next door form part of our lease, and this gave us the option of a separate entrance and exit.
“We also made the decision to monitor numbers by keeping the entrance locked and installing a doorbell. We wanted people to feel safe while visiting, and unrestricted access to the public would have created problems given our limited space and the layout of the building.”
All of this meticulous groundwork put Emma and Steph ahead of the game. By the time the official guidance was announced for the hospitality trade, they had already anticipated what was needed and were almost ready to go.
“We reopened on 17 July to a strange new world with reservations, table service, sanitisation stations and test and trace,” says Emma. “We had to learn a whole new job, and it was certainly very challenging!”
An amazing community response
Despite all the hard work behind the scenes, one big challenge still remained. As the newest pub in Lincoln, the Tiny Tavern had not had a proper chance to establish a customer base and build a reputation.
Thankfully, word had already spread, and the footfall came pouring in. The garden proved to be popular throughout the summer, helping to offset the limited indoor space.
“The support we had from the local community was amazing,” says Steph. “We had the advantage of being familiar faces on the Lincoln pub circuit, and had quite a few former customers that came to visit. But we also found that we had chosen our location well, and gained new and regular trade from the real ale loving residents of the lower High Street area.”
“It’s a known fact that wet-led pubs tend to do better if there’s more than one in the area.”
As it happens, another micropub, the Imp & Angel, had opened a little further down the High Street on the site of the Hop and Barley just as the premises for the Tiny Tavern were being secured. Far from seeing this as competition, Emma and Steph think it will be very good for business in the area.
“It’s a known fact that wet-led pubs tend to do better if there’s more than one in the area, and the lower High Street can easily accommodate us both,” says Emma. “Lee and Louise have done a brilliant job with their micro and were really welcoming when we opened. We’re looking forward to having a great, neighbourly relationship with them!”
Both pubs are featured in our guide to the best real ale pubs in Lincoln and in one of our suggested Lincoln pub crawls.
Taking a risk for the Christmas closure
The Tiny Tavern opened for four months in total between lockdowns in 2020. This helped Emma and Steph to lay the foundations for their vision and establish a firm regular trade to build upon.
But things were about to get difficult again. Lockdown struck for a second time in November, and it was soon apparent that it wouldn’t be possible to reopen during the Christmas period.
Businesses in the hospitality industry were given one-off grants of £1,000 for lost Christmas trade. Emma and Steph decided to use this money creatively, and opened ‘The Tiny Tavern Take-Out Christmas Beer Shop’.
“We took a risk and used the grant money to buy stock,” explains Steph. “We sold bottles, gift packs and mini-kegs from Milestone and Welbeck Abbey breweries throughout December, and we were really pleased with how it went.”
Positivity for the future
The combination of thrift, initiative, dedication and funding helped the Tiny Tavern to make it through the pandemic. Now, Emma and Steph can focus on realising their original vision.
“The financial support that we’ve received from the government grant schemes thankfully worked for us, and we’ve been able to put the pub into hibernation without any major concern for its survival throughout the closures,” says Emma. “The frustration for us has been more about the delay to our plans, and also the way our personal incomes were affected during the first lockdown. We missed out on the furlough scheme because the business was so new.”
The Tiny Tavern reopens on 20 May, after deciding against the risk of going ahead with only the beer garden in April.
“We are really looking forward to seeing everybody and cracking on with the job in hand,” Emma says. “Hopefully there won’t be any more closures, and although we’re under no illusion that restrictions will disappear overnight, things seem to be going in the right direction and we’re in a good position to be able to pick up where we left off and continue with our vision.
“Post-pandemic we are also optimistic that Lincoln’s hospitality sector will thrive again. The city is growing. We saw some new larger chains open before Covid, and it would be good to see a few more small independents like ourselves open up to add to the growing mix.”
You can read more behind-the-scenes insights into Lincoln’s local hospitality and tourism businesses in our series of local stories.