The years of the pandemic have been tough for the hospitality industry – restaurants and bars have been forced to close in record high numbers, and it has been a slow road to recovery for others.
As the number of people working from home rises, however, and footfall moves away from central London to residential areas, so too have many new businesses.
Cameron Atffield, GB Bartender of the Year 2019 and Head of Beverage at Chalk Bar spoke to SWL about their decision to open in Richmond.
He said: “People still want the same quality they had in Central London in those residential areas which is exactly the gap we’re trying to hit.
“We wanted to have five star service and quality but with a neighbourhood vibe.
“We wanted to bring that quality to people in the suburbs.
“It’s boring to go to the same place every time and it’s boring to go to Central London every time.
“You want to be able to walk down the street and have that really nice local feel.”
Attfield, who currently lives in Fulham, worked at Baccarat Bar in Harrods before making the jump over to south west London.
According to him, when the bar launched in July 2020, they did just six more covers on their opening weekend than Chalk Bar did on their soft launch a few weeks ago.
At Baccarat, Attfield sat through nine hours of press interviews. At Chalk Bar, they did no press.
He said: “There’s been a shift in mindset.
“No one wants to travel into central but they want the same central quality where they are.
“So we thought, why not then? Let’s give them the same quality.”
According to Harden’s Restaurant Guide, closures in London have been at record high levels.
Including those which are currently temporarily closed, many of which will likely close permanently, there were on average 125 closures per year over the past two years.
Comparatively, 110 closed in 2019, which was the third highest-ever recorded number since the company began keeping track in 1992.
This was topped only by the previously highest 117 closures in 2018, and 113 in 2004 – apparently a result of the second gulf war and the SARS epidemic.
Despite record closures, an average number of openings have taken place over the past few years.
There have been 293 openings over the past two years, and a proportional increase of these have been in more residential areas.
In 2019, just 53% of openings were in suburban areas, compared to 65% over the last two years.
This aligns with an increase in the number of people working from home and not heading into Central London to go out.
According to research by finder.com, 26% of Brits plan to continue to work from home permanently or occasionally after lockdown, which is approximately 24 million people.
This is an almost 1500% increase from the number of people working from home as their main job before lockdown, which was only about 1.5 million people.
Downing, who also works as a Venture Director at Admiral Pioneer alongside running Chalk Bar, was inspired to open the bar because of the gap she noticed in her local area.
She has lived in Richmond and Twickenham for over ten years.
Downing said: “The story was, coming out of lockdown and now working from home or hybrid working and not going into the office very often, and realising I live in a beautiful area.
“I never really spent much time in Richmond because I was always commuting.
“But then equally realising there was nowhere I wanted to go for a nice glass of wine.
“So I’d been spoiled by the choice of places in central London because I just didn’t have that in Richmond.”
She continued: “90% of people that live in Richmond and these kinds of boroughs are desk workers and, of course, everyone that could work from home was working from home.
“The vast majority of businesses are now saying work from home is here to stay and it’s more of a hybrid situation.
“So that and the fact that it broke my heart seeing so many places shuttering up during the pandemic.
“We have a lot of young families here as well and I’ve noticed already that when they come out they get maybe an hour or two, so when they come out it’s a big deal to them.
“So to get that kind of level of service and quality is really important because it’s their one night out, and we recognise that.”
Downing and Attfield came together after she was blown away by his inventivity cocktails.
Describing themselves as a “liquid restaurant”, there is a real emphasis on creativity and uniqueness, but in a way that’s purposeful, not just for show.
Everything is thoroughly thought through, with the team taking four to five months writing and experimenting on each menu – the next one is already in the works.
Whether they’re getting inspired by an MIT documentary on nuclear fission, making champagne out of the humble pea or using ingredients in their entirety, there is something new and inventive about every aspect of Chalk Bar’s process.
Each drink has been individually created by Attfield and his team so you could not get it anywhere else.
More traditional cocktails are available as well, but there is a choice of 12 drinks hand created in their kitchen/laboratory.
You could try a drink that tastes like a Milky Bar or one that uses every part of a banana.
Banana soda is something that, according to Attfield, you don’t know you’re missing until you try it.
The drink is topped with a banana caramelised nori garnish so that none of the fruit goes to waste.
Coming out of the pandemic where there has been a clear national shift in mindset when it comes to the planet and climate change, sustainability is another key tenet at the core of Chalk Bar.
Attfield said: “We always try to get seasonal ingredients. It’s a waste if you don’t use them.
“It’s about utilising things that are in season without having mass waste.
“And, for example, if something’s quite limited, because we have this equipment we can turn it into an alcohol that will last a year.
“What we’ve done is use all those seasonal ingredients and then made enough for the next few months until we change our menu, but in a sustainable way that’s non perishable.
“It’s super key for us to highlight seasonal produce. Sustainability is always the key.
“That’s why we try to do everything zero waste, or closed loop.
“So if we have one element, the other part of that will be used in a different way.”
There’s also a take away option, because just as you shouldn’t have to go to central to get a good drink, they believe you shouldn’t have to sit in a bar setting.
That could mean grabbing a cocktail and heading to the green across the road, or getting a bottle to have at home.
Though there is a chance Chalk Bar will branch out to central London locations in the future, it is local south west London locations that are on the horizon first.
Downing said: “In the immediate future, the niche that we’ve identified is the local boroughs.
“We absolutely think we can compete with the quality of central London, and I’m sure one day we will, but right now it’s about servicing local boroughs.
“And this will be the first of many, but it’s not about building a chain.
“We want every single one to be unique in its own way and to maintain that same level of passion and quality in every single one.”
Image credit: Courtesy of Chalk Bar and Cameron Attfield