It’s not easy starting a business from scratch, let alone trying to start a hospitality business during a pandemic. But that’s what Claire Whalley, 42, and her husband Tim, 41, did when they opened craft beer bar, Craft Republic, within the Goodsheds development in Barry.
The couple opened the business in 2020, after giving up their corporate jobs and investing £60,000 of their life savings to create a bar where people could try all types of craft beer without having to travel or go to beer festivals.
“We’ve both lived on Barry Island for 17 years and both worked in central Cardiff. We were just fed up all the time of not having to go into Cardiff or trek to Bristol to visit a craft beer bar,” said Claire. “We knew there was nothing like that in Barry so we thought, why don’t we take the risk and be first to market?”
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Three years on and the pair have built a fully independent bar and spirits company which turns over £500,000 a year. But their journey to get there has been far from smooth after opening in the middle of the pandemic.
Claire recalls people’s reaction when they first revealed their plans. “There were so many people who said Barry wasn’t ready for craft beer. Were we sure we wanted to take the risk?
“Neither of us had any experience in the hospitality industry, no background. We’d spent a lot of time on the other side of the bar enjoying drinks but other than that it was a pure passion project for us,” she said.
Following many years of saving and planning, the couple met Simon Baston, owner of Goodsheds, who loved the concept for their bar and offered them a space in the development. They picked up the keys for the venue in February 2020 – two weeks before the pandemic hit the UK – and spent the first lockdown building the brand and bar from scratch.
“Tim literally built the bar by hand using wood from parquet flooring. Everything in Craft Republic we did ourselves. From designing the layout for the architects to the website and even the wallpapering,” said Claire.
Craft Republic entrance (Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)
Claire and Tim both built the bar and brand from scratch (Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne) They opened during August Bank Holiday that year to positive reception from locals welcoming the prospect of a new craft beer bar in Barry. Though the couple describe their first experience of running a bar that weekend as a “baptism of fire”.
“Lockdown was over, it was the bank holiday weekend. It was gorgeous weather and we were a new development,” said Claire.
“It was an amazing start,” said Tim, “but we massively underestimated what it was like to run a hospitality business. We were very naive about the number of staff we’d need, how it was going to work, and what demand was going to be like. We were learning on the job.”
Taking on a 1700 sq ft venue with 100 covers inside and out was also something they had underestimated. “I thought we’d only need one or two part-timers but at the height of the summer last year we had 14 members of staff,” said Claire.
The bar is located within the Goodsheds development in Barry (Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne) After the initial opening, the couple then had to deal with the constantly changing Covid restrictions which the hospitality sector bore the brunt of.
“There were changes almost daily,” said Tim. “First the six person rule, then one household, then a 10pm curfew. Then we had to take everyone’s details for track and trace.Then alcohol was banned and, being a wet-led bar with no kitchen, that meant we could not operate. We were the scapegoats; we were everything during that period.”
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Trying to open a bar at probably the worst time in history with no cash reserves to fall back on, the pair describe going through some scary and low moments during the pandemic.
“The rules changed so often we had to think on our feet so the brand new business we had thrown everything into didn’t fail,” Claire said. “We had put £60,000 of our own money, our life savings, into making Craft Republic a success and it was that determination to make it work that made us so willing to adapt to the conditions of the pandemic.
“We had the skills and tenacity to do it but it was upsetting and stressful. There were times we thought we could lose it all.”
The couple’s pandemic journey was featured in a five part TV documentary called Business as Unusual for Amazon Prime. The series followed seven businesses from different sectors between October 2020 and April 2022 and documented the different challenges they faced.
Both Tim and Claire said they were in tears rewatching that period of their lives.
“I was absolutely bawling my eyes out,” said Tim. “Even though we knew how it would end, we went through so much during that time that watching the show brought everything back. It was so emotional.”
“We get customers who’ve seen it now and tell us that they didn’t realise it was that tough for us because we were always positive and people didn’t realise what was going on in the background.”
Craft Republic was recently named the UK’s best craft beer bar in a city by SIBA (Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne) Fortunately, they did persevere and, during the first firebreak lockdown in Wales, the couple started to look at adapting and pivoting the business to survive.
They decided to launch a house gin, which they developed with Swansea distiller Cygnet to tie in with the opening of Craft Republic, into their own line of spirits called Barry Island Spirits which they started selling from their bar-turned-shop.
It has now become a massive part of the business making up around 20% of their total revenue, and supplying the full range of gin, pink gin, rum and vodka to its 33 trade customers including Heston Blumenthal’s Michelin Star restaurant, the Hinds Head in Bray, Berkshire.
“When we launched Barry Island gin we thought we’d sell a bottle a week max. But the demand surprised us. In four months we sold 2000 bottles. We realised that what started out as an add-on to the bar had infinite growth potential,” said Claire.
Barry Island Gin (Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne) “Now we want to grow the brand and continue to enjoy our work in and around Barry Island by taking our spirits out on the road to markets and festivals all year round alongside working in the shop and for trade.”
Despite its turbulent start, the craft beer bar has established itself as one of the best places to drink craft beer in south Wales selling 14 different lines of craft beer, lager and cider poured from a state-of-the-art direct draw system.
Last year it was named the UK’s Best Independent Craft Beer Bar or Pub in a city, beating off competition from venues in Liverpool, Birmingham and London.
Financially, Craft Republic saw a 20% year-on-year growth last year with the business making a profit every year it’s been operating.
Craft Republic sells 14 different lines of craft beer, lager and cider from its state-of-the-art direct draw system (Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne) They have also separated Barry Island Spirits from their bar and opened a new store on High Street, Barry last November. The new shop, which Claire and Tim run themselves, has been well received by the local community and has already exceeded their cash flow forecasts.
This year the couple are focused on raising the profile of its Barry Island Spirits business and growing the number of trade buyers. They also hope to get their mobile bar Juniper Bay out to festivals and events this summer, as well as continuing to operate Craft Republic.
The aim for the business now is to reach the £1m turnover mark in the next two years.
Asked whether the success of the independent craft beer bar has attracted any interest from larger pub chains, the couple said they hadn’t and, while they weren’t ruling out selling up in the future, they weren’t planning on any time soon.
“We haven’t really seen what the business can do,” said Tim. “The spirits company is still in its infancy and it can take us anywhere. We could export it internationally if we wanted to.”
“Everything has a number at the end of the day but we’re still building the business. We’re not ready to walk away from this yet.”
But the pair agree that the Craft Republic brand is strong enough that it could become a chain in its own right, though they have no plans to open any more venues in the future.
“Craft Republic is such a scalable business model now,” said Claire. “You could open a chain of Craft Republics because all our practices are in place so it could literally be lifted and shifted anywhere.
“We don’t have the drive to do that. That’s not where we want to go. But the opportunity is there because we’ve built a really strong brand and a really strong operation.”
Now it’s facing the challenge of the cost of living crisis, which both Tim and Claire say is much harder trading-wise.
“During Covid people had money but they just couldn’t go out,” said Tim. “Now people are being a bit more cautious about how much money they spend.”
The hospitality industry is also yet again taking the brunt of the economic climate and the couple have had to watch as other restaurants, pubs and bars are forced to close because of rising costs.
The Craft Republic brand (Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne) “You can see how it’s affecting large operations and pub chains. It’s really scary when you see that and that’s why we feel fortunate to be in the position we’re in but it’s by no means easy,” said Tim. “It’s not down to luck or anything. It is sheer determination, hard work and making difficult decisions where we need to.”
“The resilience we’ve built up during those early months, that is still very much our mindset now and it does seem like we’re still in that fight mode as business owners,” said Claire.
Now, the couple say they are always looking ahead at ways to improve their business and have financial forecasts that run 12 months in advance which helps them to feel confident.
“We always make sure we’re covered for at least two rent cycles,” said Claire. “Planning that far in advance financially gives us time to adapt and make decisions that are right for our business rather than just kind of knee jerk reactions.”
However, trading through these tough economic times has meant the couple has learnt a lot in the last few years of trading which has changed their attitudes as business owners.
Claire: “I certainly have more confidence now to make those tough decisions that ensure our business is going to be here and survive. Two years ago we’d have been really scared to but the last year has shown us that you can’t rely on that at all.”
“If we manage to get through these two periods then I think we can make it through anything.”
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