‘Success is a fine balance between being sensible, having the right team and being able to have a great time’Oct 17, 2020
When business partners Leigh, Mo and other investors opened Blossom Room, The Hub’s most ‘instagrammable’ bar, last November neither could have anticipated the challenges they would face in their first year. We caught up with Leigh Strathearn, joint owner of Blossom Room, multi award-winning Indian restaurant Maaya and award-winning PR agency Perception PR to find out more about the challenges of building a hospitality business during a worldwide pandemic.
It’s almost a year since Blossom Room opened in the Hub but it’s been a bit of a different first year than anyone could have anticipated. How’s it been?
We opened Blossom Room at the end of November 2019 with a bit of a frantic start trying to get everything finished and ready in time. The overall look of the venue was really important to us, we wanted to offer something totally different to anything else in Milton Keynes.
We were excited to work with local artist and illustrator Luke McDonald, who created our incredible giant golden wings, entrance signage and our iconic Geishas that feature in the bar and stairwell.
The immediate response to opening was better than we ever could’ve imagined, with people loving the vibe and some great feedback on the entire experience, from the Japanese-inspired bar to our creative world food menu.
As an independent business, we welcome our customers’ comments and happily made little changes in those first few months to ensure we got it just right.
It sounds like it was all going so well. What happened when the dark days of lockdown hit?
It was actually a really sad time for us. We’d started to build up a brilliant following and then all of a sudden we had to close our doors and we didn’t have any idea how long it could last.
We needed to look after our team, but we had the worry in the background of what was going to happen as it was completely out of our control.
After the initial shock, we started to look at alternative ways that we could stay in touch with our customers and how we could continue to support the local DJs and musicians with whom we’d built up relationships. We hosted a few live DJ nights and music sessions online, which helped to create a bit of fun and the party atmosphere at home. and through social media we were able to continue to engage with our followers.
In early June, when takeaways became the new ‘going out’, we launched our cocktails for collection or home delivery from 4pm- 8pm every Thursday-Saturday. They were an instant hit and are still going strong now that we’ve reopened – it’s the perfect solution for those not quite ready to go ‘out out’ but still wanting a weekend treat.
You reopened as soon as Boris said you could. Did customers return straight away?
Yes, everyone has to book on OpenTable, which is great for Track and Trace, as we know who’s been in and where they were sitting. It felt a bit different at first, with a more formal restaurant feel instead of the relaxed bar set-up that we’d had before but actually now it works really well and there’s a really great atmosphere, especially when we have local DJ’s and musicians in. These are currently on hold due to the 10pm curfew but they will be back.
We’re fully booked for three Saturday nights ahead and people have been coming from quite far afield; Oxford, Aylesbury, Northampton, London and Brighton because they’ve heard about us so that’s very exciting.
We’ve been working hard on our service since reopening. Initially we trialled an app, which we thought would enable quick and simple table service, but it was unreliable and customers really wanted that personal touch. So we’ve scrapped that and instead we’ve been working with our team to create a really first-class drinking and dining experience at Blossom Room.
We’ve even got Blossom Room’s answer to First Dates’ Fred, in the form of MK’s very own former-Olympian and MBE Gail Emms. She’s drawing on her hospitality experience to offer a hostess service that includes contacting bookings with special occasions before they arrive, looking after them when they get here and making sure that everyone is having a great night at Blossom Room.
What about managing Covid? You’ve mentioned the track and trace system you’ve got in place but are there any other measures you’ve had to take to ensure customer safety?
We’ve got a great designer who we worked with on our sanitiser stations and floor markings so they’re not ‘in your face’ but they fit in with our look and ensure that the rules are clear.
We’ve also briefed our staff to explain the safety measures to customers and to keep in mind that, for some customers, this might be their first time out. Some are obviously more relaxed than others but it is our priority to keep everyone safe and to make people feel at ease so we ask customers to let us know if they have any concerns at all while they’re at Blossom Room.
The government has just brought in the ‘rule of six’ but we have only ever taken tables with a maximum of six anyway so that latest change hasn’t been an issue for us.
Tables are well spaced out, we are operating at around 50% of our pre-pandemic capacity and there’s space for tables to get up off their chair and have a little boogie next to the table if they want to while they’re with us.
How have customers responded to the safety measures you’ve put in place?
On the whole, really good. You can never please everyone all of the time but we really ask that anyone who has any worries let us know at the time so that our team can deal with it there and then.
What about your team? How are they finding the ‘new norma’l?
It’s important that we have the right team with the passion and ambition to make Blossom Room a success.
We have seen a few managerial changes since opening as a result and we were pleased to welcome a new head chef and his team a couple of months ago, which has really stepped up our food offer.
We’ve been approached by lots of people who want to join our team. It’s a fun place to work and we like to make it an enjoyable experience for everyone. Last week we challenged Gail to sell a bottle of our most expensive champagne (which she did in the first two hours) – lots of laughs and a very happy table later and we were all celebrating.
What are your plans for the future?
A long-term ambition is to open a second Blossom Room but we’ll have to see what the future holds for that one.
We’re currently thinking about Hallowe’en and have some exciting ideas around an ‘Angels and Demons’ theme – places are now ready to book. We’ve also started thinking about Christmas and we’ll be opening bookings for Christmas parties (up to six of course) soon.
We hope to bring back our live music Thursdays at some point too and we plan to continue our quiz nights every other Monday, which have been really successful so far.
We’re also partnering with and supporting local businesses, including selling Mrs Macs Sweet Treats in Blossom Room. They sell out within a matter of hours so they’ve been a great addition.
I think success is a fine balance between being sensible, having the right team and being able to have a great time. Hopefully this combination and a willingness to change and adapt when we need to will ensure we have a really good future ahead.
How could the local business community support businesses like Blossom Room during this uncertain period?
I think the retail, leisure and hospitality sector in Central Milton Keynes would really benefit from a localised campaign that links up businesses with hospitality, encouraging employees to get back to business lunches, coffee catch-ups and after-work drinks so that the business community can once again become as vibrant as the social scene in Milton Keynes.