When your website visits shoot up dramatically overnight, the phone rings constantly and customers and the curious queue around the corner to get a chance for a table, it's a sign that something is going very right. Right?
The Alma is a pub with a strong dining offer and is open 7 days a week, with the kitchen open and food served every day. The welcome and consistency of quality is something that prompted nearby resident Grace Dent, food reviewer for The Guardian, to sing its praises very publicly in 2021.
The impact of her review was immediate. Website visits shot up from a modest monthly figure to 9,000 daily unique visits overnight. Bookings surged with constant phone calls and queues round the corner clamouring to get a table.
While things have calmed down since then...
“It was a game-changer. People still talk about it. It gave us a positive kick post-lockdown. It was pretty relentless though. We worked really hard to cope with the sudden and unexpected increase in demand... We did not know anything about it until the review came out. ...A heads-up would have been nice!” (Stephen Boyd, Landlord of the Alma)
Stephen Boyd, aka Boydy, has been at the helm of The Alma since 2011. He has spent most of his career in the hospitality industry, with time in the US with a hotel chain and as a general regional manager of a major south-east pub chain.
His dream was to run his own business with an independent and sustainable ethos: choice around how that business was run and offering quality, variety and value to customers.
What better place to do this than Crystal Palace?
"What we've created here is based on how I want to be treated when I go out. We spend a lot of time and effort on the quality of our product and provenance is one of our top priorities."
How things were...
The original pre-2011 Alma had an interesting and chequered past as a late night live music venue and pub. “The back garden was a car park with a few broken tables”. Investments were made with a complete refurbishment of the ground floor and outside space.
The addition of a professional grade kitchen and the transformation of the back garden into a 190sqm all-weather dining and seating area came next.
The latest developments include clever modular awnings, sliding doors and chandeliers. Customers now range from adults in their 30s to 50s and 60s, with a great deal of return visits and repeat custom, as well as piquing the curiosity of those looking to explore the area and its hospitality.
“We’ve probably changed as much as Crystal Palace has since those early days.”
Consistency is important and that’s one of the reasons that the Alma chooses to be open 7 days a week (with the exception of Christmas Day) to cater to loyal and regular customers.
“People are going out less, working harder to earn money, so having a quality experience, when you do choose to go out, is so important...You are dealing with people’s time (as well as their money) and you need the freedom to create a positive experience for them.”
The Lockdown experience
Lockdown brought a lot of change and experimentation to keep the building and business alive.
The Alma shut for 5 days in total throughout the many, many versions of lockdown. It became an off-licence and grocery store, supported by alleyway neighbours Harmony and Pete of Crystal Palace Flowers who developed a popular local fruit and veg delivery and collection service to supplement their regular flower stall, and were commended by the Mayor of Bromley for their service to the community during the Pandemic.
The Pandemic was clearly a shock to the Alma team and the industry as a whole. Some breweries were not able to withstand the pressure and the shift from kegs on draught to cans, which then created a massive can shortage and logistics challenge.
What else has changed?
There’s no let up for the hospitality industry and other local businesses. Covid taught hospitality the importance of thinking on your feet and adapting in the face of adversity. The dramatic increase in energy prices means that bills have more than doubled for supplies (brewing is energy-intensive) and hospitality venues themselves are seeing a massive hike in energy bills, where 70-80K is not an unusual figure to be confronting when you open the utility bills.
What that means is the hospitality business needs to keep changing, make some tough decisions and look at ways to reduce overheads, without impacting quality and service and above all keep the business going.
"We’ve not passed on all the price increases, because we can’t. Says Boydy "We need to be realistic with our pricing and ease in changes to keep the business running."
Changes have happened behind the scenes. For instance, The Alma now has a large walk-in fridge in the basement, which means they can reduce the number of appliances in use.
“We need to move with the trends and have a rotation of new and interesting beers on tap”.
This is something that the Alma does already and is looking to do more of. The Alma also carries alcohol-free beers in cans. Boydy is sceptical that AF wines and spirits, with the exception of some sparkling wines, yet meet the taste and quality standard needed to give customers the best experience.
Which brings us back to the quality factor. “People are drinking less by volume. They do want to have something nicer to savour and enjoy, but less of it and not risk a horrible hangover.”
Why Crystal Palace?
With the pick of areas of London, why did Boydy select Crystal Palace and the Alma site and stay here for more than a decade?
"It’s the vibrant nature of the place and the sheer volume of interesting people, with phenomenal lives, doing interesting things. Often when I’m serving there are two vastly different people standing next to each other at the bar, but the pub brings them together in good-natured conversation."
The other thing that marks out Crystal Palace is the can-do attitude and rapid development of strong bonds to the area amongst practically everyone who moves here.
“There’s a lot of 'ownership' here. It’s noticeable how quickly people adapt and become very attached to Crystal Palace. Part of that is the number of independent businesses here. There are plenty of different options that you don't get elsewhere, to keep people here and interested."
Boydy would love to see the centre of Crystal Palace become more pedestrian-friendly and for road safety to improve with more pedestrian crossing points in the centre. This would allow people to cross the street to support different businesses. He lobbied two councils successfully to install bollards on the pavement on Church Rd after a near-miss RTA experience.
What’s lies ahead?
Boydy has an eye on the 2022 Christmas and party season. It's an important one for the industry after two years of pain and uncertainty. Christmas trees will be back and the team is hopeful of committed table bookings in advance, so that staffing can be planned and suppliers in turn can plan ahead for a successful winter season.
For a pub restaurant that places such emphasis on customer experience, fresh ingredients and an end-to-end sustainable ethos, this is of top importance.
Stay updated. Check out the Alma's weekday and Sunday menus and book a table online.
The Alma is open for lunch and evening meals every day. Dog-friendly and heated outside space, accessible and welcomes children over 10 years old to dine.
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