Almost a year ago, Friday 20th March 2020, we were setting up for another busy evening service here at the Spiny Lobster, getting ready to welcome our customers for another evening of delight, or as one of our FOH team said ‘doing what we love the most with the people we love,’ when the phone rang. “Are we still allowed to come for dinner tonight” asked one of our regulars.
It had happened, the lock down that we didn’t quite believe would ever really happen had actually just been announced. The slight panic and fear began to set in now as we were all thrown into the unknown.
After consoling and hugging a number of the team who were shedding a few tears, and reassuring them and the phoning customers, we decided that this would not be the end. We would not allow the chaos, or the Government, to decide our future for us, we would do what ever it took to stay open for our staff, and customers.
We still thank the day we made the decision to properly build the Fishmongers business, and on Lockdown day even more so, as without it we would not have been allowed to trade. As it was, it was even better news than that, as when we spoke to the fishermen in Brixham, it became obvious that with all the other restaurants closed, they were severely at risk, as all their community can do is fish, and with no one there to buy it their future looked bleak. So, we decided even more so to build the FM to whatever we could for them, never mind us. The large industrial boats had stopped going out, but the family owned local day boats were still working hard, and we became a welcome outlet for their catch. Interestingly, they said the seas were so much cleaner as a result of less pollution, and as a result the fish were in such good condition, and because of the lack of demand at the Fish Market auction each morning, we were buying beautiful fish at the best prices. We therefore decided on our ‘fishmonger 5’, placed the rest of our lovely other staff members on furlough until we could open again, and launched ourselves we into this new chapter, finding a way to pass onto our community all we had learnt about what was still available and how there just had to be some silver lining in the murky cloud of covid.
It is interesting that the worst time of change is just before it, because once past, that world soon becomes the norm and usual, and that was the case with us and the fishmonger 5. After the shock of spiny closing its doors and everyone’s fears as to whether it would ever open them again, whatever any doubt anyone had, Emma, Charlie and the team soon settled into a rota of serving our friends and the community to levels never seen before in the world of fishiness.
As I am sure lots of businesses experienced at the start of this, suppliers were difficult to deal with as they too were experiencing the drastic fall off from lockdown, this meant they were demanding all outstanding monies were paid, a little difficult as we were now closed as a main business and not quite knowing how we would survive as just a well intentioned, but small side street shop. Most of our main suppliers then, with no restaurants to feed, were forced to close their doors too for the foreseeable.
Whilst we haggled and prevaricated, sadly on stop with some despite making payment, and worrying we would become the fishmongers with no fish, a saviour sailed over the horizon in the form of Harry. Harry is a lovely fisherman, who bought fish for us every morning from Brixham market, and brought it straight to us, more fish than we could shake a rod at. We had slipped through the net, we had been cast a life line and so it began. (cheesy but seriously how we felt)
In this new relationship and way of purchasing formed with Harry, it meant that although the Fish was the freshest it had ever been, it came straight from the market and wasn’t processed at all (ie gutted, scaled et, it literally came out of the sea on to the day boats, auctioned at market that morning, then into the ice boxes and on it way up the M5 in Harrys van to us. Amazing we thought, job done, until we discovered we were now the ones who must process and prepare the fish. So most mornings were spent as Emma described as ‘her with her hand up a seabass’s arse’, learning the delights of gutting and scaling before we could then move to the totally different rigours of filling orders and planning the best google map route for the deliveries. Once our delicate hands were cleaned of guts and fishbones, we then entered the good part of the day, spending our time gleefully bringing delight to hordes of trapped in lockdown people. We delivered to regulars and new customers alike, all of who waved madly at us through the window as we dropped off their packages, and your sending comments and feedback about your experiences was overwhelming as some even told us how we were like lifesavers, and quoted undying love and affection for the Spiny, and for us. It really was very touching and emotional. Each day Emma and Martha would brave the wilds of BS7, 8, 9 and beyond on deliveries, arriving back to share stories of derring do, getting lost, and finding themselves and our customers in the most unlikely of places. Not all of you could come to Spiny so we just had to come to you, as simple as that.
As Lockdown progressed, rather surprisingly to all, customers seemed to love what we were doing, and far from the usual comment of “I didn’t know you had a fishmonger, where is it” we moved to ever growing queues outside our door, made even longer by respectfully leaving a 6 feet gap between their fellow fish lovers. One day Emma received a call from a regular that lives near the bottom of Wellington Park, saying, “Emma, what the bloody hell is going on with you, there are people standing outside my house??” Little did he know he was in the queue for the delights of what we had somehow in such a short time created from our fishmonger 5. As we moved forward, we soon found out that sadly, we were the only source of fresh fish other than the limited selection you could get in supermarkets, with all other fishmongers in Bristol having to close their doors.
Necessity is the mother of invention, the father being mild panic, and because of that the world went on to become our oyster.
After a busy FM Wednesday at the end of April as the team were sat in the empty restaurant, sadly remembering that in the old world, tonight would have been one of our ever popular monthly jazz and shellfish nights. Reminiscing of how we loved the buzz of everyone enjoying themselves together, we said how we couldn’t wait for them to return. Then Emma smiled at a thought, “why don’t we help people create their own night at home, listen to their own choice of music and have their own jazz nights, they could even join family members on zoom and celebrate them together?’ Charlie, never one to refuse a challenge, went into the Fishmonger and looked around. We had been really lucky working with the Markets and the shellfish we were receiving was of the finest we had ever seen. Most days we were stocked to the brim with the biggest selection of shellfish from lobster, shrimps, crab, oysters, mussels, scallops and so much more, it was then that the Shellfish Platter was born. The ultimate feast the ‘fruit de mare’, many of our customers have experienced in spiny on our jazz nights, the most extravagant way to indulge in shellfish, the absolute fruits of the sea, so to help you to enjoy your own Jazz night, we decided we would put together customized shellfish platters for you to have at home, all you had to do was choose the music, maybe it would be jazz, maybe classical, maybe heavy metal, it was yours to choose.
Looking at how excited we were about it, we had a feeling this may be popular, but nothing like the way it was. Once we shared our idea with everyone about this, the emails pinged, the phone did not stop. For many of us celebrating a lockdown birthday, anniversary, graduation or just a celebration of getting through this difficult year, or the glorious sunshine we were given in our gardens, it was a wonderful way for us to really feel like we had found a way to help you celebrate again, a way that wasn’t in the restaurant, in a different way, but a way we could do what we love to do the most and celebrate with you, through the delight of seafood.
Not only was the shellfish platters created, once we started thinking about our other favourite times in spiny, it brought us to staff teas, which we always share together on Saturdays before our last service of the week. Our hands down best staff dinner was Charlie’s home made fish pie, always a large dish of lusciousness, with smoked haddock, cod, soft boiled egg running through it, and fluffy mash potato on top, hiding the delight underneath. As we remembered those Saturdays, and the sounds of the mmms and aahhhs and how much we loved Charlie’s fish pie, we thought that this could be exactly that dish to celebrate you all seeing your families and friends again once allowed, dining together even at a distance, sharing a family feast like we did on Saturday nights, and because you were finally together again. So we persuaded Charlie to share his special recipe with a wider audience, and suddenly they were available in the shop ready to buy, take home and just pop in the oven. We love how much you have loved them as much as us and how you continue to do so, every week we when we think we have made enough, we are never quite right, a sign we should always make more.
As we walked down the hard yards of the lockdown months, we loved the stories everyone shared with us, the pictures people sent in of how they cooked their fish at home, the dishes you were creating yourself, and the chefs you were all becoming, although slightly fearful we may not have any customers to come back to us once we reopened as you all got so good, almost as good as Charlie, (we don’t tell him that). Many of you were thrilled to watch Charlie and learn even more on our Spiny @ Home videos on the website, cooking many of the dishes that you were buying from the fishmongers. For those enjoying not having to commute to work anymore and having a little later rising, we also stocked up on our wine cellar, and it was apparently a popular decision according to our wine and gin lovers, not only were you able to eat your favourite food, you could also drink wines from your favourite vineyards. We didn’t just stop at the wine, we also heard your demands for our bespoke Spiny Gin, so we got hold of our friends at psychopomp, along with our friend in Long Ashton at ship shape gin and we stocked up for that 6’ocklock G&T we were all waiting for the clock to show us, basking in the rays of sunshine,
As the summer flew by with our new way of how we work going well, we quickly approached the 4th July, there was, strangely, a little sadness in this that the end of our journey as the fishmonger 5 was coming to an end. One of the reasons for writing this blog, was not only to thank you, but also for us to read back in years to come and remember with a smile on our face how we got through one of the most challenging times businesses will ever have to endure. The memories we made during these times and the relationships that were strengthened even more so with our lovely regulars, the new faces that it brought to our fishmonger door, the new friends we made, the lovely homes we got to see you all lived in, the communication we were able to keep with our much loved customers, was truly priceless and the most special part about what we did, it will be something that in the sadness of covid will bring a tear to our eye of joy, hope and happiness.
So as the announcement was made that restaurants would re-open on the 4th July, we were more than ready to open our doors to you and welcome you back. Before we did this we obviously had some big decisions to make. How would we re open with the new 1 metre + rule, how will we run at restaurant at this level of covers, how will we throw plates over the top of screens surrounding tables, how will we know customers have finished their meal, or want something from us, if we can’t see them? But whatever we were told to do, the most important thing to us firstly was the safety of our customers and staff. We had missed you all to much to let anything happen to you, so we did everything we could to make it stay that way. Our second most important goal was to try and return the awesome buzz feeling you have when dining at Spiny, creating the same experience as we did before. Once assured we were able to do all of these things, we couldn’t wait to welcome you back, to see the faces we had missed so much, to share lockdown stories and to bump elbows.
And so we moved back into our old ways and the restaurant became alive again and what a summer it was…
…to be continued!