The story behind Leicestershire’s new pop-up tipi pub

Words, pictures and video by Bobby Twidale

James Ball, head chef and director of Zest Catering & Events, and Emma Tilley, owner of Bridge House Barn at Kibworth Harcourt, would normally have been booked solid with weddings and events for the entire spring-summer season in 2020. The combination of James’ cuisine and a magical tipi-village in an unspoilt rural setting next to the Grand Union Canal has made their collaboration a top choice for anyone hoping to make their special day truly memorable.

But with more than 90% of their bookings postponed until 2021, Bobby Twidale chatted with James to find out how they’ve managed to not just survive but actually thrive during the pandemic.

How did you get into event catering?

JB – I used to have the Langton Arms in Church Langton where I was the landlord for five years and head chef previous to that for ten years. I used to do a few outside events from the pub, and it was something I enjoyed.

So it was a natural progression for you?

JB – Yes. The biggest draw for me was that you are potentially doing something different every week. Anything from weddings to funerals, birthday parties, private dinner parties where we work with the client to create their own menu, barbeques, hog roasts, street food menus, corporate stuff. For me, the whole thing with this trade has been seeing the satisfaction from the customer; people enjoying the food that you’re doing for them.

What are your values as a business?

JB – We offer high-end, quality food for a not high-end price. I want everyone to be treated how I would want to be treated. I wouldn’t send something out that I wouldn’t eat myself.

So business is booming?

JB – I do a lot of weddings here. Emma and I have built up a good working relationship.

At least that was the way it was going. We’ve had maybe more than 90% of the weddings wiped out. Luckily, apart from one, every wedding has moved from this year to next… plus everyone else who’s planning to get married next year as well.

So things are looking good for the future. You didn’t want to just sit back and wait for that to happen, though. You’ve been doing something really interesting here at Bridge House Barn this summer. Tell me a bit about the pop-up pub you and Emma have been running?

JB – It’s been amazing. We started off doing Sunday lunch. It was July 23 we did the first one. We’ve been full every weekend! We started doing some alternative nights as well. We did a steak night last week, we did a fish and chip night, curry nights, we’re doing paella next week, there’s a special Halloween hog roast. Normally, the tipis go up in April and have to come down by October as they are a temporary structure. Because of the pandemic, the council have said Emma can keep them up until next October. We are looking to do Christmas here as well. Christmas is a new thing for everyone and things [restrictions] might have changed again by then but we’ve put a menu out there and we’re taking tables of six. Let’s carry on and see what happens!

So has your main focus been here at Bridge House Barn, or has Zest Catering been able to continue to provide for its client-base in any other way?

JB – When lockdown was first announced, all the pubs jumped on the takeaway bandwagon. I just thought, ‘There are that many people doing it that are better equipped to do it, I’m not going to bother’. Obviously, I didn’t know it was going to be quite as long as it was! After about a month, we decided to do a pie and mash delivery service; focus on one element at a good price. That really took off. Then we started doing a couple of specials that became four specials and three puddings. I did some picnic hampers for Lamport Hall open-air concerts in their gardens. We were delivering afternoon teas through the summer. We’ve had so much positive feedback; lots and lots of people have messaged me.

And, with such a busy summer, have you been able to plan for the next few months?

JB – We’re going to relaunch the pies. At the moment we deliver everything fresh. We spend all day Thursday making everything and then we deliver on Friday. That clashes with everything else [if we are not locked down]. We’re either going to change the delivery day or do everything frozen. Last Christmas, I saw a company that were doing prepared Christmas Day dinners and thought, ‘What a good idea’. What better thing than not having to work on Christmas Day? I’m going to get 2 or 3 different menus with deliveries Christmas Eve so on Christmas Day you’ve got nothing to do. I’m working on that this week. I just hope we can cope with it all! You just have to try and diversify a bit!

With a massive portion of can-do attitude, a dollop of resourcefulness and a dash of luck, James and Emma have shown flexibility during challenging circumstances, adapted and prospered. Hats off to them! James’ food is good, tasty and great value for money, and Bridge House Barn is an idyllic setting that also offers luxury on-site dinner, bed and breakfast accommodation all in a relaxing, Covid-safe environment.

Find out more here.

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