Trendy wine bar Covino opened in December 2017 on Rufus Court and recently moved to new premises on Northgate street after successfully establishing and growing their business. Owner “Covino Chris ” Laidler updated us on their progress, commenting on everything from the Northgate development, rooftop bars and the recent Real Housewives of Cheshire incident….
“We were meant to be moving at the start of December, but unreliable builders and electricians slowed that work down, then Christmas got in the way. We didn’t end up opening here until the 8th Jan…
” The original site was set up using my own funds which obviously limited the size of the project. It was sensible to dip our toes in the water first and have a better idea of how the business would work on a bigger scale further down the line. moving somewhere else was always going to be on the cards if it went well. We moved a year before I thought we would as I’ve still got the lease at Rufus Court until the end of the year. It was always going to put the wines we stock into better context by having that restaurant element, there was only so much we could achieve in that intimate setting.
” Its still small, you can still see everyone and everything in the restaurant. Its good for creating atmosphere. In the old place, you’d have a couple of people in there, me in the corner and it could be a bit awkward!” jokes the artisan wine master.
The larger premises have enabled Covino to add a new food focus to their business. “Its all fronted by Chef Keith, formerly the sous chef at Joseph Benjamin” says Chris. ” He had reached their ceiling there so it was a natural move for him. We decided to go with the small plate format, we want to try and change the menu on a weekly basis. Having this gives customers the chance to come regularly and have a completely different experience. Theres no set theme on the cuisine, inspiration is taken from all over the world, its modern cooking, but very simple”
Northgate street has seen the rise of eateries over recent years, with new additions, Jaunty Goat, Chip’d (replacing Arbol house) Vegan Deva, PicNic (replacing Back Alley music) joining the established traders. Covino formerly housed a chocolate shop, and the trend of food and drink venders replacing retail units looks set to grow: “ Its to be expected and it will continue. And it will piss off all the people that never use the haberdashery. All the people will wonder where they’ll get their horses shoes changed now. This is the world that we live in, rather that than have empty units. I think the council needs to accept more residential units in town.
” Lets face it, this is the whole country, its not exclusive to Chester. Theres retail units closing on Northgate street which has become more hospitality/leisure orientated. This is happening all over the country with retail in decline , theres only a few things you cant really achieve online, including going for a meal , although perhaps Deliveroo can give you that experience. The leisure industry is going to carry on taking over the high street and the only way you can support that is having residential coupled alongside it. Northgate street is the perfect example, all of these were once retail units. Storyhouse coming along taking over has had an impact on this part of town, drawing a lot of people towards it.”
Of the Northgate development, Chris is cautiously optimistic. “Whatever its going to be just like Brexit, they need to do it. Its been 17 years…I’m happy they have identified this part of town for the injection of cash, and that’s looking beyond the period where it will probably cause a bit of damage to business with all the dumper trucks, everything that going to be going on. If you look past that, then I think its a good thing.” He is pleased to see the retail element shelved but is wary of chain restaurants. “Zizzi;s back from the dead!” he comments. In the second phase he favours a large residential element, an art gallery and a gym. “You need to make the city centre somewhere like Hoole. People can stay in Hoole all weekend , its become this village where you can be completely self sufficient”
“I think the demand for a rooftop bar is the most Chester thing ever . People shout very loud about what they want and they’re not there when it opens up. This leads quite nicely up to recent happenings…. People come in all the time asking when the next event is, you put the event on and everyone’s busy. they say they’re interested and 2 days before they’ll pull out… We’re fairly lucky because 90% of people who cancel they do let us know before. A booking of 2 on a Saturday when you’re open to the public is slightly different to a private event when you’ve closed the doors to the public and you’re solely reliant on the people who’ve booked. Its people being people. People aren’t always ready to commit to what they say they’re going to do. Last event we had £510 worth of cancellations. £510 lost from the business, running on the same costs. We never make an extortionate amount from these events we often operate on a percentage margin of around 10% less than usual. That’s with a view to putting something really special in front of customers and rewarding them for their commitment . But when you’ve lost that money it starts to get more frustrating….
Covino made national news when Chris rebuked the offer of social media coverage from the Real Housewives of Cheshire in exchange for a free meal. It was, he says, a “total fluke” but the resulting publicity was “deeply satisfying”
” If I put something on twitter if I get double figure likes I’m usually fairly pleased. I think it got 9000 in the end , on the back of an emoji. A vomiting emoji spoke a thousand words. I think people really enjoyed it, there are certain topics that get the public salivating. One of these is the gap between rich and poor. People see these people on TV on a programme they’ve made about themselves and how wealthy they are, behind the closed doors, asking for freebies, which doesn’t sit well with people. From my point of view it was their delusion that their endorsement of my restaurant would be considered a good thing to the public. I’d rather have people coming because they’re genuinely interested rather than an influx of people coming because we were on the news. We have had bookings on the back of it, it hasn’t generated a huge amount of additional business, but I wasn’t expecting it to. It took me about one second to screenshot it, another second to post it. The slightly annoying thing was having to have my phone on charge constantly. Now every time someone googles “wine bar Chester” those articles will come up.”
Regarding the long cherished (by some) dream of pedestrianising Northgate street and creating a bohemian paradise, Chris is dismissive. “Yeah… I think the damage it will cause in the short term will put all the businesses out of business. Northgate street is a main artery into the city … you’d have to dig up half of Chester. It would be fantastic in an ideal world but its not worth it. ” Closing on some positives, Chris says that Storyhouse is “brilliant ” and that the “acts reflect the quality of the overall project”. Covino are also proud to use paper straws.