One year on.

It’s been some hell of a year. 

This week I’ve been thinking back to the very start of this, when it was a far off thing, then suddenly very close to home. Remember when people travelled to Cheltnham and it was considered ‘probably not a great idea’, but no one really had a sense of how catastrophic it could be? Feels like a lifetime ago.  

On the weekend before St Patrick’s day it was obvious to everyone that things were getting serious. Sunday the 15th March saw most, if not all, of the pubs in Cork city close. This was before they were told they would have to close by a few days. That weekend we had tried to limit capacity and provide hand sanitizer at the bar and on the tables. It felt super weird. 

On that Sunday I was working on Castle Street while Emer looked after Tabletop West in Bantry. That morning she called me to say that one of the staff in Bantry had phoned her to say he was feeling unwell and was worried that he’d come down with ‘it’. We made the decision not to open in Bantry, and Emer met another staff member in the bar to deal with perishable food stuff and give the place a good clean. At the time we were closed on Mondays and Tuesdays anyway, so there was time to think and see what would come next.

On Castle Street I was working with Serena for what was to be her last shift before she left for a full time job somewhere else. It was a surreal last shift, something I really feel sorry about as she had been such an important part of the team since we had opened! I had to leave her go home early. The city was eerily quiet. I think I actually closed up early and headed home myself. 

We wouldn’t have opened on that Monday if it hadn’t been for a big delivery of games due in for the Knavecon games convention which was to have been the following weekend. I was really grateful for the company of Alex and Orla that day, as I packed up the retail section to bring back to Bantry. I don’t think any of us could have imagined it was the last time we’d be hanging out at Tabletop. The thing I miss most about the cafe on Castle Street is that group of people, and lots of the others that worked with us for the nearly two years we were open. 

The following few weeks are a blur for me. I really struggled. In late 2019 and early 2020 I was struggling to manage the two locations already. I was working 7 days a week, often driving from Bantry to the city in the morning, working there, then driving back to Bantry to work the evening shift there. I saw our little boy, Thom, in passing. Emer and I worked together over the phone and in brief, rushed conversations. It was not ideal.

When we closed, it was like I had been standing on a merry-go-round that someone had suddenly pulled a brake on. I came close to flying off. For the first time in months I was not constantly working, but my brain struggled to come to terms with this new reality. I came up with about a dozen contingency plans an hour until eventually Emer just told me to stop. A new rule was imposed. I was not allowed to speak about work for four days. Nothing. Cold turkey. 

I got sober 12 years, 5 months ago, and this felt like that. By the end of the Emer-imposed ‘no work talk’ period, I was feeling much better. That first lockdown became an enjoyable thing, with sunshine, all the time with Thom, with Bramble the dog, and most importantly with each other. We had time to think. Time to talk to each other and figure out not what the best thing to do right now was; but the best thing to do going forward. 

Deciding to let the premises on Castle Street go, closing Tabletop Cork as a physical space, was tough. We went back and forth a lot. Every time we would be settled on the decision, one of us would travel to the city and step into the cafe on Castle street and all of a sudden we were back to square one. It was so difficult, after all Tabletop was our first business, our first experience of being our own bosses, and most importantly, it was our first chance at creating a unique and fun space for staff, customers and of course ourselves. The delay in Cork City Council issuing grants was a disaster. If they had been quicker I do wonder if we would have struggled on for longer? There is really no way to know what would have happened in that case. At the time it felt incredibly unfair, and mismanaged.

Deciding to refocus in Bantry was much easier, and I think something that we both realized quickly was for the best. Focusing on food and drinks just made more sense in our small town. We would still sell games online, and have the option here for people to buy games from us, but being more focused, especially with us both working full time at the same location was an easy call. To keep either place open one had to go, so we made the call.

The day we held the Games Library sale on Castle Street surreal. We thought it would take a few days, and that we would have stock left over to donate at the end. Our Games Library was magnificent, and something we had both really enjoyed developing since the idea of Tabletop had first come up. Selling it off was always going to be hard. That morning I showed up early to finalise some pricing, and was shocked to see a que at the door. The que remained in place until we closed at 7pm that evening, sometimes stretching right the way around from Castle Street to Washington Street. We sold a lot of games that day. While it was heartbreaking to see them go, at least for the most part they were going to people that would really enjoy them! And, perhaps more importantly, the money we made would allow us to stock and restart in Bantry. 

We reopened for the Summer in Bantry on July 3rd, having been completely shut down for 110 days. Our plan was always to keep Tabletop alive online and to start looking for a new, bigger, space in the city sometime in 2021. That return to the city will take longer now.

The summer in Bantry was amazing! Emer, Josh and Aoife did an amazing job of developing our menu and food offerings. Shane, Kate, and Becky did fantastic work making the place comfortable, safe and friendly out front. We had a good time! Switching it up to take-away was tough, but it worked. 

I have one regret from the past year. The week before Christmas we knew things were getting out of control. It was obvious. But we stayed open. I’ve posted before about getting COVID myself. I felt so guilty that I had let it happen, bringing in into our home, which we share with Emer’s mom, as well as our son. Emer and I spoke about not opening that week before Christmas. While our government dithered, we did make the decision to close in the week between Christmas and New Year. It cost us dearly, and calling to cancel all those bookings hurt, but it was the right call. If we had closed the week leading up to Christmas, as our instincts had told us, then maybe I wouldn’t have gotten sick. Maybe the other staff that caught it wouldn’t have. Who knows, at that stage the virus was everywhere. 

We won’t make that kind of mistake again. It is why we have not opened for takeaway yet, as the case numbers have fallen considerably, but remain stubbornly high. In fact, the current numbers are comparable to the daily case numbers the week before Christmas when we felt we should not be open. 

As we face the year anniversary of closing for that first lockdown, it looks like we are facing another wave of the virus. We unfortunately find ourselves with a government which is incapable of making timely decisions, or being proactive. Much of the time it feels like they are reacting to events in realtime; as if they have no prior indication or ability to pre-empt. If we ran our business like they are running the country we would be completely bust long ago! It is sad, and frustrating, to watch.

This virus is not going to disappear. Even if we had a vaccination programme that was working efficiently, with vaccine doses sufficient for demand, I do not think things would be close to returning to ‘normal’. Anthony Fucci in the USA has said that even with their advanced level of vaccination, he does not expect anything like a return to ‘normal’ until mid-to-late-fall. 

Emer and I are working hard to be prepared for a possible reopening when and if it becomes safe to do so. We are redesigning our kitchen, placing food very much at the heart of what we will do going forward, and have some other possibilities in the works! With Neighbourfood Bantry we have some focus, and we are in touch with producers again which has been amazing. More importantly, once a week for a couple of hours there is life in the bar. I believe the building needs that little bit of life.

We will be open in Bantry again soon, but it will be a long time before anything returns to normality. 

Tabletop Cork will be a physical space again- but who knows when that will happen. Until then we are still here, virtually, for games suggestions and to get the right games to you!

Over the past year, everything has changed. For us, thankfully, a lot of that change has been positive. I miss the city, the customers and staff on Castle Street but also just the buzz of calling into Frank for a coffee in the Roundy, or to pop to the English Market. But I wouldn’t give up the time I now get to spend with Emer and Thom for anything. I really hope that you have been able to find some positives in all of this as well.

Thank you for reading. Happy Anniversary to all of us!!

Chris.

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