The Parlour’s transformation in the time of coronavirus

This article was commissioned by The Upcoming, where it appeared for the first time.
Photo credit: Ambra Vernuccio
That bustling, semi-lit, malt-heavy pub atmosphere: weeks into lockdown, more and more are clinging onto those fond memories. With all the dining and drink venues closed, people are trying to come up with creative and healthy ways to keep spirits high and spice up their daily lives during quarantine, searching for recipes and online cooking tutorials. However, with basic grocery shopping becoming a sort of nightmare, from the endless queues to the empty shelves, even our kitchen indulgence is meeting hurdles along the way. Fortunately, some local businesses are transforming their conventional way of trading in order to meet the new demands of the community, allowing them to both support the vulnerable at this critical moment and to keep their business afloat so that the staff can continue to be paid. Parlour Kensal is among them. From behind the closed doors of the local pub, the Parlour’s market place arises, cosy and friendly, offering many different ingredients (fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, dry goods, bakery and alcohol) as well as a range of prepared dishes. “I had to make a first birthday cake”,  one of the customers tells us. “If they hadn’t been here with the self-raising flour, it would have been doomed!”

The newborn market is open from 10am to 4pm, seven days a week. Ordering and payment can be done online – with collection from 12pm the following day – or walk-in shopping is also available. “We all wear gloves and masks now,” explains Jesse Dunford Wood, owner and chef of Parlour Kensal, taking us through the practical changes that were required for the transformation. “We have taken the beer pumps down and the tables and chairs out. We have taken the fridges from the kitchen and relocated them all in order to hold outlets of fresh meat and fish.”

Photo credit: Ambra Vernuccio
The motivations behind this move are varied, but at the most basic level, there is business survival. Since the activation of the government’s restrictive measures and with the numbers of coronavirus cases growing, everyone, in one way or another, has been affected by the virus – physically, mentally, economically. One couple we meet at the Parlour are currently both on furlough, while two artists who live on a houseboat are suffering because of the delay of financial support for freelancers. Another customer, Oliver, is part of a small start-up and he and his colleagues have agreed to go down from the usual five working days to four so that everyone can keep their jobs. He tells us how handy it is in these circumstances to have places such as the Parlour’s market place offering fresh produce: “It means you don’t have to line up for 20 minutes to get into the supermarket”. Serving the community and being proactive about the current terrible situation have been strong catalysts for Jesse and the ex-pub team in kicking off the transformation.

Mornings at the Parlour begin with a big baking session to prepare four different types of bread. After this, there are a lot of fruit and vegetables to unbox. The hours go by pretty quickly between selling, topping up the produce, selling, answering phone calls and emails, and selling again. There is no longer evening service, but the “pub” is now also open on Mondays. The daily routine has undergone a drastic shift, and flipping the business into a retail one has also had its mental challenges. But the reaction from the neighbourhood so far has shown just how worthwhile every bit of effort has been. Locals have been really responsive, with lots of enthusiasm, and the clientele is continuously growing as news travels via word of mouth.

The bread is a firm favourite but flour is definitely at the top of most people’s shopping list: “we ran out one day and there was much uproar!” Wood reveals to us. Nonetheless, whilst they load crates, prepare bags for collection and offer information – from a certain distance – to the few customers allowed in at a time, you can detect the smiles of the staff underneath the masks. What’s next, then, for the Parlour? The owner muses for a moment: “Maybe we should open a real shop, once this whole episode is over.”

- Read the article with the photo reportage on The Upcoming -