'Living off summer' - how Norfolk's oldest tea room is coping in lockdown

Co-owners of the Owl Tea Rooms in Holt - Claudia Pollinger and Ben Philo. Pictures: David Bale.

Co-owners of the Owl Tea Rooms in Holt - Claudia Pollinger and Ben Philo. Pictures: David Bale. - Credit: Archant

The Owl Tea Rooms has been a mainstay in Holt for more than 90 years.

It has sat in the centre of the picturesque town since 1929, through the Second World War, the coronation of Elizabeth II and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2017 it was taken over by Claudia Pollinger and husband Ben Philo, who have spent the last three years settling in and building the business up.

They were optimistic for a positive 2020, which they hoped would be their first profitable year. 

Then the coronavirus started sweeping west.

"March is our busiest time, and Easter Saturday is the second busiest day of the year," she said. "It was awful when we were shut down. We didn't know what was going to happen.

Some of the food available at The Owl Tea Rooms in Holt.

Some ofSome of the food available at The Owl Tea Rooms in Holt. the food available at The Owl Tea Rooms in Holt. - Credit: Claudia Pollinger

"During that first lockdown we shut for a month and then started to provide takeaways. We didn't have anything set up on the website for click and collect as we do now."

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Their initial shutdown was a chance to recoup, Ms Pollinger said, and take a breath. Soon, they began click and collect orders from their home in Dereham, before moving it to the tea rooms when it became popular.

She said while it did not make the business a lot of money, it meant they avoided losing any.

Though they had no rent reduction or government grants, they did access the furlough scheme for their 14 employees and received financial help from North Norfolk District Council.

Having a shop in-store selling essential items meant they were able to reopen as early as possible, before footfall increased dramatically in summer.

The Owl Tea Rooms had its busiest summer on record in 2020.

The Owl Tea Rooms had its busiest summer on record in 2020. - Credit: Claudia Pollinger

As bans remained on international travel, people flocked to the north Norfolk coast, enjoying staycations and day trips by the sea. After a quiet few months, businesses were overwhelmed.

"We had the busiest summer we have had since we started," she said. "Eat Out to Help Out was good and we gave it to every single customer when we could. We had a very good, profitable summer, we were feeling really, really positive."

But as autumn rolled around and the weather cooled, things began to go downhill, culminating in the announcement of a second lockdown in November.

"In November, not that it was a surprise, it was desperately disappointing to be closed for the month before Christmas," she said.

While people still stocked up on mince pies from the shop, Ms Pollinger, who has previously worked in Goa, in India, Regent Park Theatre, in London, and as pastry chef for Anthony Worrall Thompson, said the café was quiet and Christmas "terrible".

Sausage rolls at the Owl Tea Rooms in Holt. 

Sausage rolls at the Owl Tea Rooms in Holt. - Credit: Claudia Pollinger

The cancellation of events including the Thursford Spectacular and encouragement to stay local knocked north Norfolk businesses.

"I decided the week before Christmas that I would furlough everybody from December 24 because I knew there was going to be a national lockdown," she said.

Today, they remain closed, currently deciding whether to once again reopen for click and collect orders.

"If it is as bad as it appears to be, will people be too scared to come out to collect their favourite sausage rolls, or bread? Will they shop at the supermarket and make fewer trips out?

"I'm living off the summer," she said, "and I don't know how long that can last, but we are lucky to have the shop."

Looking back on the last year, she said it had been a case of doing what they could, juggling work with personal lives (her children have been studying for exams) and being grateful, after three years of constant work at the tea rooms, for a chance to pause.

A burger at the Owl Tea Rooms in Holt.

A burger at the Owl Tea Rooms in Holt. - Credit: Claudia Pollinger

But going forward, she is looking forward to reopening and continuing the café's proud history.

"It's amazing how many people come and say I came here with my grandmother," she said. "There are so many people who have memories of the Owl, everyone seems to know it. It has an incredible legacy which makes us quite proud."

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