In December 2020, reopening the business in its original form seemed a long way away, but Rob was determined to make the most of what the government rules allowed.
“We probably will carry this on in January, maybe just opening up over the weekends,” he hypothesised.
“We won’t make any money, but I think we’ll probably keep a weekend craft market open just because we’ve got this and, once you take the decorations down, it isn’t seasonal, it’s just giftware. And people are still wanting to buy gifts.”
Looking further ahead, Rob already had some ideas for how the business could optimise within different restrictions.
“I’m thinking we’ll be lucky by April to not be in Tier 2, because until Tier 2, bars really don’t work,” he explained.
“We will do something, though – we can open our tearoom again, but probably just on weekends and one day a week.”
“We’ve got 20 staff, so we can open it two or three days at least,” he went on, adding that there was also a responsibility to look after the mental health of the employees.
“We can rotate the staff with flexible furlough, and that keeps them going. Instead of being in bed and getting depressed, we’ll try and get them all in for four or five hours a week to keep them sane.”
Rob, however, recognised that the uncertainty surrounding the reopening, and in what capacity they would be able to reopen, meant that he had to have numerous ideas at once:
“Worst case scenario, I’m thinking magical toy shop,” he said.
“It’ll be silly, it’ll be ridiculous, but it’ll be somewhere people can come and buy a few little things for £5 and the kids can have a smile and then have a hot chocolate on their way out.”
Despite the uncertainty, Rob was positive that their efforts would be well received, thanks to their subscriber list and Facebook presence.
“We’ve managed to go from 0 in July to nearly 10,000 people on our subscriber list, and just under 10,000 people on our Facebook page,” he explained.
“When we put things out, we get lots of media attention, and that’s mostly from social media shares.”
“When we do something, there’s a reasonably good chance that we’ll get enough traction to make it work.”
The Steel Cauldron has only briefly opened in the capacity in which it was first devised, with restrictions, Tiers and lockdowns affecting how the space could be used.
Rob recognises that the business has gone through many iterations, but remains positive:
“The objective has been to change something when there was the opportunity to change so that we could continue trading.”
“I think our original combination of a wizard-themed tearoom and tavern for family experiences meant we were able to pivot into a tearoom ready for Eat Out to Help Out into a family crafts place when big groups couldn’t mix, to a Christmas market.”
Part of the success of the pivots, Rob went on, was due to thinking creatively about how to use the space they already had.
“Effectively, we’ve tried different uses for different bits of the building, and what we’re doing at the moment is moving the building around to try and get the best from each part.”
Following on from the success of the Christmas market over the festive period, the team are now looking to maximise their profits by giving over more space to the shop on a permanent setting:
“Originally, only ten per cent if the building was a shop, and then during our craft market, we had 70 per cent of the building as a shop. When we reopen, we’re looking at about 30 per cent of the building.”
Rob also added that the business would initially reopen in a slightly different form, allowing for customers to visit the space without making a booking for their Wizard’s Tea experiences.
“We’re going to have a tearoom/restaurant side, and then the other side is going to be much comfier area with lots of sofas and the shopping area,” he said of the redesign.
“That’s more where someone would be able to come in just to shop and maybe buy a takeaway drink, and maybe sit down and have a coffee at the table.”
“Previously, the only people who came in would be people who had booked for Wizard’s Tea. You would come in, eat your Wizard’s Tea, and then you would maybe shop and then you would leave,” Rob explained.
“So, we’re trying to create it so that maybe half the people will just come in and shop and buy a coffee, and we’re redesigning the building like that.”
Rob is certain that the Steel Cauldron won’t reopen in its full capacity for some time, but has already put a contingency plan in place for whatever may be announced:
“If we find we can open as a shop with takeaway coffee, then the building is perfect for that, as we won’t use the other half,” he said.
“But if the government turn around and say we can be a tearoom again, we’ve already got the place ready.”
Despite the continued uncertainty, Rob is moving ahead with new plans for when the business can fully reopen, and he’s excited about what the future may bring.
“I found out just before Christmas that I got some grant funding, so we’re putting in new ovens,” he said of the business’ latest venture.
“Just before [the third] lockdown, we applied to the council to change our licence so the children could come into the bar in the evenings.”
“One of the things we’re trying to do is create a space in the evenings where parents with kids, probably between 10 or 11 up to 18, can come together and either have a drink, have something to eat or do some sort of activity,” he reported.
“So, we’ve gone for the new ovens because we’re going to try make your own pizzas.”
Despite not appearing to be a wizard-themed food, Rob said the team had already been planning how they could make the new menu fit with the business’s image:
“All the ingredients would come in little potions bottles and cauldrons, as if they’re making a witches’ brew, but the end result is pizza,” he explained.
“The idea being that parents can bring their kids, they can have a little bit of food, and it’ll cost around £7 per person, but it’s in a wizard environment.”
He went on to add that the thinking behind this new development was inspired by the pandemic itself:
“I think it’s something the whole pandemic has reinforced – we really believe this business is about bringing people together to do things, as either side of the lockdowns, we were really successful at finding things small groups could do indoors.”
Rob said that they also had plans to open a Lego Zone after the school summer holidays, which he hopes will bring in young families looking for a space to socialise.
“I think we’ve got an opportunity to start to launch certain extra things while everyone else is slowly opening up,” he said of the developing situation.
“For a bar, they’re still thinking about how they’re going to offer a substantial meal and close at 10pm. They’ll still be grappling with those basic fundamental rules of running a pub.”
“Hopefully, [reopening] will allow us to do something a bit more creative than that, so it’s going to be quite exciting.”
“I think it will play into our hands because so much of what we wanted to do, we have been able to do.”
“Even this lockdown will give us the opportunity to relaunch with a database of 10,000, so I’m quite excited by that.”