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Adapting, Reacting and Retraining – Our ‘New Normal’

At the time of writing, we have just completed our tenth successful Supperclub with Maria (@dinneratmarias) whilst finding ourselves in Tier Three of local lockdown restrictions. The hospitality arm of our business is split between our distillery experiences (Tours and our ‘Make Your Own Gin’ Workshops) and our distillery bar (known as ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’). Since March, these streams of income have taken many twists and turns as we have adapted to social distancing and mask wearing, reacted to questionable regulations (10pm curfews, Track and Trace etc.) and retrained our team on the job to ensure we keep our community spirit alive, jobs in place and most importantly, provide an escape for people during these distressing times.

Below we have an open discussion with a few members of the team on what their experiences have been during 2020, the main change being suspending our Cuckoo’s Nest nights – due to the large volume of customers in one space – and replacing them with a 70 cover ‘pop-up’ restaurant headlined by Maria Greco’s (Maria) amazing food. Elizabeth Whelan (Liz), Melissa Cordingley (Mel), Niamh Lockwood (Niamh) and William Bundy (Little Will) are part of an 18 person strong team who work at the distillery alongside studying at both college and university levels.

Our young team is relatively old in terms of how long they have been with us at the distillery. We are fortunate to employ a good crop of local talent who stick with us throughout the ups and downs.

Niamh: I started at Cuckoo in early 2018 as a glass collector; keeping the bar tidy and keeping our lovely customers happy during our Cuckoo’s Nest nights! However, last year, I (very excitingly) was promoted to the bar, which was my pre-covid role! The bar was a manic but very fun job – every Nest night was different and the atmosphere in the distillery on those nights was something I would pay good money to go back and experience again! I spent my shifts serving customers and making (if i do say so myself!) bloody lovely gins!

Liz: I started working at Cuckoo in March 2019 as a glass collector. In that role, we collected glasses whilst also helping out the bar staff by replenishing the mixers and garnishes used throughout the night.

Mel: Prior to Covid, my role consisted of plenty of bar work and even attending some events such as the BBC Good Food show to represent Cuckoo and to help sell some bottles! It was so much fun and with it being such a social job, I really enjoyed having the opportunity to go to various places and meet people from other small businesses. Unfortunately, due to all these events now being cancelled and the limits put on drinking, my role at the distillery has changed completely!

Little Will: I’ve been working at Cuckoo for almost 3 years and I’ve loved every minute of it. Pre-Covid, my main role was ‘back bar’; refilling the glasses, ice, garnishes and fridges to keep you all watered (with gin of course!)

From the bustling nights of the Cuckoo’s Nest, we had to adapt our Saturday nights. Keeping 300 people socially distanced wasn’t a task we wanted to consider! By chance and good fortune, we had just started to trial our Supperclubs with Maria in January and February this year on a few week nights.

These consisted of a large group of people sat together, passing dishes around, enjoying food and meeting new people. A concept that wouldn’t work during the current climate due to it’s ’sharing’ nature, but could be adapted to include smaller tables, distancing and table service. Roles amongst the team started to change…

Niamh: I had to learn pretty quickly how to use a tray! Let’s just say, I’m better off behind a bar where I can’t make a mess!

Liz: When we started doing the Supperclubs, my role changed from glass collecting to working with Maria in the makeshift kitchen, where we helped prepare the food as well as plating up and washing up.

Mel: I’m now more a waitress than a barmaid! We do table service now, which we never originally did due to the number of people we had to serve on a Nest night. Thankfully, I had some restaurant experience so it was easy to adapt to the ‘new normal’ at the distillery.

Little Will: My role hasn’t changed drastically as the bar always needs clean glasses and fresh ice and garnishes, however I have spent quite a bit of time in the pop-up kitchen of the Supperclubs helping Maria prep the food, learning some new skills along the way.

A huge part of 2020 has been about learning how to deal with new challenges in all aspects of our business; both negative, such as the loss of sales to other trade outlets like pubs, bars and restaurants, but also positive through dealing with an increased demand of online orders (especially during lockdown!) Our team also had to face some challenges along the way…

Mel: I think the biggest challenge for everyone has been the preparation that goes into a Supperclub. Maria spends days prepping the food, table plans have to be made in line with the current guidelines (which change every 3 seconds!) and then there is the preparation to be done on the day itself! It’s a lot more prep than a ‘Nest night, that’s for sure!

Liz: I think the biggest challenge at first was plating up the food efficiently, as we didn’t have much experience in catering for a lot of people. However, through practice and experience, I think that that part for me has definitely improved and is a lot less stressful!

Niamh: I think my biggest challenge would be the whole mask situation – I think you can tell a lot by people’s facial expressions, so for people to not know I’m smiling at them isn’t great! But my vocal skills have definitely improved!

Little Will: Having never worked in a restaurant atmosphere before I think it has been an eye opener seeing how much work is actually involved behind the scenes and the preparation required to make a Supperclub run smoothly.

Despite the challenges we have faced, sometimes it is enlightening to take the positives where you can during this time; our new methods of serving are perhaps quicker and provide an improved service and overall experience. For our team, it was also important to have some form of human interaction as we have all be isolated more than ever this year…

Niamh: I’ve been able to build relationships and have genuine chats with customers through the new table service requirements. We all need social interaction and I know I’ve struggled to have that limited over the past 8 months, so to be able to chat to new people every week through Supperclubs and our Coffee Stop during the week, has really saved the day for me, if I’m honest. You might not realise how much of a positive difference it makes to have a chat with hospitality staff, not only in these times but always, and our customers are very good at it!

Liz: I love cooking at home so the best part of the Supperclubs is that I’m able to work in a kitchen. When there’s food leftover at the end of the night, that’s definitely an added bonus!

Mel: I love how organised everything is with the Supperclubs, as before, everything depended on the number of people who came to the Nest. The Supperclubs have a nice flow which means everyone is relaxed because we all know what is happening and when with no surprises!

Little Will: The atmosphere of every Supperclub I’ve worked on has been amazing! It’s very relaxed and there’s nothing you need to worry about as the customer, other than from choosing your next drink!

Taking time with the team to look back on the last few months has brought about plenty of reminsincing about the ‘old days’ and hopefully what will be back again sooner rather than later. As they say, sometimes its good to look back to see what you have achieved.

Niamh: I miss the atmosphere. There was such a buzz in the air on all Nest nights as everyone was there for the same reasons – to spend time with loved ones, have a laugh and of course, drink some gin! Particularly on Summer days with everyone outside in the sun with a Sunshine Gin, the community spirit was inspiring.

Liz: I’d say I miss the atmosphere of the Nest the most as hundreds of people would come down on Saturdays, so it was always packed. It was fun working when it was busy so I definitely miss that the most.

Mel: We worked so well as a team and the customers created such a good atmosphere within the distillery that you’ll never find in any other bar or restaurant. Even if it’s more physically demanding than a Supperclub and I get home and collapse into bed afterwards, it’s more fun than it is work and I can’t wait until we can open our doors and see everyone enjoying a G&T with their friends and family, as they should.

Little Will: I do miss the rush of the Nest nights at times and how there would be such a large turnout for them. Makes me think about how big the Cuckoo community is.

A big thanks to all the team at Cuckoo for having an amazing can-do attitude and continuing to provide great experiences for our guests whilst adhering to all government regulations. We’re proud to have every one of you as part of our team.