I've been asked a lot how it's been for Wriggle and our partners throughout the pandemic. Of course, the answer depends on what period exactly you're talking about. It's been a long old year!
Ask me ten years from now and I imagine one of the first things that will come to mind will be the memory of standing in our empty office on King Street, late September of 2020, six months after the pandemic began. All the whiteboards and post-it notes with the details of our planned expansions had been loaded up and carted off. The long-suffering espresso machine, the giant tombola that seemed essential at the time for some marketing campaign or other, all the computers and desks and other trappings of a scrappy startup had been loaded up and carted away in borrowed vans. And now all that remained, besides the obligatory odd paperclip on the carpet, was the table football table, awaiting collection from some guy on Gumtree before I would hand in the keys. What I'll remember is how absolutely silent the office and King Street was in that moment, as I absentmindedly moved the back four around for the last time.
Our King Street office was always a bustling place. We were in the beating heart of Bristol, surrounded by great pubs, we were right in the middle of our restaurant partners, the ideal spot for post-work drinks at our regular table at Renato's or grabbing lunch from St Nick's Market. When the pandemic hit, the office was the busy headquarters for a growing startup. Just six years after launching, we'd grown into a staff of twenty and had just launched into our fifth city, Birmingham, with another city slated to launch in late 2020.
Image: Rob Hall on King St, pre-COVID
In those first weeks of Covid, with the slow realisation of what was coming towards us, there were sleepless nights and anxiety. All the concern about how we could continue to stay afloat, pay staff with their own families to feed or bills to pay, or whether all our restaurant partners could survive the weeks ahead. We were all still coming into the office, although hand-sanitiser had joined the WD-40 near the table football table, and I’d prepared a Covid plan for how and when the team could work from home, as cases grew. It was scary, but it also all seemed like a temporary, terrifying blip. Very early on, before we saw much of a dip even in our regular sales, the idea that came to be known as Indie Kitty was born.
This was in the awkward period after the government had warned people against eating out, but hadn't ordered a lockdown or announced any support. We figured the best thing we could do was allow our customers to pay ahead at their favourite local eateries, providing much-needed short-term income to help our partners stay afloat, and giving our customers a way to show their support. The whole team pulled together, and I’ve never been prouder of the team than in that initial reaction and the spirit they all brought to the effort. On the first day of that campaign, we raised over ten thousand pounds for our partners, and for a moment there it felt like an uplifting counterpoint to all the doom and gloom. As scary as it all was, this was exciting!
But soon enough we were all working from home, and the office was shuttered. All of our offers had been pulled off the app. We, and all of our partners, were closed. The furlough scheme meant a huge sigh of relief across the industry and allowed us to hit pause in a way that didn't involve layoffs, which was a massive relief in the short term. It was at this stage that we shifted to a bigger-picture look at things, to open the floor to big ideas and reimagine what it is we do best.
It's unfathomable to look back and remember that our first version of 'long-term' was realising this lockdown could last 'for a couple of months', and having to wrap our heads around the possibility of a two-month shutdown. During this phase, we were engaging in regular sessions, albeit with a digital whiteboard, where we were filling the air with uplifting, energetic ideas that felt full of potential and pushed us to reimagine what we had to offer. In many ways, as a startup, this was familiar territory. We already had an established language and rapport with each other when it came to this type of exercise. Most of these inevitably never left the whiteboard (Restaurant meal kits? Software to facilitate social distancing?). But one idea really stood out as something we could and should do to fill a need: We set out to build an online delivery service that would bring together our favourite local producers into one online market.
With Wriggle, there had always been an unspoken red line when it came to what we did. We sold food and drink, but we weren't in the kitchens or serving the food. We had always stayed out of the operations end of things. We helped our partners find new customers, and we vouched for quality, local indies we felt were worth promoting. But we didn't make burgers and we never pulled a pint. Now, with Bristol Pantry, we were about to wade into the unknown of logistics and direct fulfillment.
Image: The Bristol Pantry Team at our new warehouse in St Philips
It's incredible to look back and realise that we got Bristol Pantry into reality, from an idea in a Hangouts meeting to goods being delivered in just two short weeks. There was something absolutely refreshing and almost therapeutic about taking such an active delivery role. As a CEO, to mask up and personally deliver baskets of great food right to customers' doors and actually see (at least part of) their faces as they opened their doors...after all the anxiety about the future, it just felt good to be doing something so immediate, so real.
In the past year, we've grown Bristol Pantry from that initial 20 producers and 90 products to a warehouse full of thousands of products and a whole new slate of partners we've grown to know. At the outset, it was a mad jumble of boxes and crates and paper bags as we invented systems on the fly. Now, well, to the untrained eye our warehouse still looks like a mad jumble, but I can assure you it is a well-oiled operations machine if you know how to see it.
I'm still amazed at what we were able to achieve in a year. But now we're also having to look at the proper long-term stuff. The time of pure reaction and short-term survival may be over, for us and for a hospitality and food and drink scene that we're part of. We're all slowly emerging into a changed landscape that is going to be different from this point on.
The Wriggle table-football table was surely the least-important casualty of the pandemic. Throughout this year, it's always been important to remind ourselves that no matter how dire things felt, other things were always of greater importance than our project, and the human cost and the stakes involved in protecting public health dwarfed any threats to our business model. But watching that table disappear into our cramped little lift, locking up the office for the last time, that was the first time it really hit me that the Wriggle I knew was gone. We'd come back, almost certainly, but it would be different. Our home base was gone, and all of the faces I could still see in that empty office probably wouldn't all be together again.
As we played table-football in the old office, we developed our own intricate house rules and lingo. One of the strangest of these was the Golden Snitch (a term familiar to Harry Potter fans as the winged ball in Quidditch). According to the house rule, if the ball flew off the table, if any of the players could react quickly enough to catch the ball mid-air, they could immediately slam-dunk the ball into the goal to win the game 10-0. Regardless of the previous score, a Golden Snitch meant instant, overwhelming victory. This was the holy grail of office table-football, and nearly impossible to pull off in practice. In fact, it only happened once, an achievement that lives on in the form of several ornate, gilded tablets we had specially commissioned. In some ways, Covid has been that Golden Snitch moment. It’s been this moment of unexpected chaos, where the whole game stops and for an instant, the ball is hanging in the air and the rules of winners and losers and any previous score are all suspended. The side who had been ahead face sudden defeat, and for a moment it's clear that anything can happen.
In reality, the most likely outcome wasn't stunning victory, but that we'd all be caught completely wrong-footed, the ball would fall to the floor and be snatched up by the office dog, Mac, and the race would then be on to retrieve the ball from his mouth before he chewed through it and ended the game for good.
I don't know where this metaphor goes. Maybe it's this metaphor that's flown off the table? I don't think Wriggle or Bristol Pantry captured the Golden Snitch, but the game isn't over, either. I'm sincerely hoping some indies emerge winners from all this, that an indie can still come from behind to slam-dunk on Amazon and Zoom, and as a result, we all see lasting and positive changes to the hospitality world.
Image: Our beloved table-football table
Lately, I've been having a lot of exciting conversations with our partners and other people in the world of indie food and drink. A lot of our conversations involve which of the changes we've seen in response to this pandemic will stick around, and which we'll realise were temporary. And while there's still a tonne of concern about all this uncertainty, there's no shortage of hope and optimism that some of these trends will lead to lasting good.
We'll be bringing you conversations with local pub and restaurant owners and staff in the weeks ahead, and we want to hear from you about ways you see the scene you love changing for better or worse.
I'm excited to see Wriggle coming back online and to see where this all takes us as we re-imagine what we can offer in the months ahead. Most of all I'm just feeling incredibly grateful to be part of this vibrant and resilient team, as well as being a part of this whole food and drink scene. I'm lucky to have had the chance to see firsthand as they got creative and came together to support each other through this whole mess, and I’m excited to see the creative new ideas that we’ll bring to the table in the comings months, weeks and years.