Cheers to that! Unveiling the new café bar and meeting spot in Freemasons' Hall

Wednesday, 01 September 2021

For many years, the only way visitors could get a hot drink at Freemasons’ Hall was if they were able to locate and then operate a coffee machine tucked away in one of the first-floor offices. That has now changed with the opening of a new café and bar for members and the general public on the site of the old shop. The café opened in July, selling a range of gourmet sandwiches, cakes, teas and coffees from 10am to 6pm, while across the room, a licenced bar serves two draught beers, bottled beer, wines and spirits from 3pm to 10pm for members and public alike

‘It’s all part and parcel of the plan to open up the building and Freemasonry in general,’ says Perry Bushell, head of trading. ‘We want to demonstrate that we have nothing to hide here. The café will be a great place for members and visitors. We will start off fairly modestly with sandwiches, cakes, tea and coffee, and on the masonic dining side we have a bar that serves drinks. We basically want to look after members in a better way.’

The café will have space for 40 to 50 covers, with an option to extend into the neighbouring private dining space should there be sufficient demand. It is being decorated in a relatively informal style, using a mishmash of period tables and chairs gathered from all around the building. That will ensure the space does not have a canteen-like uniform approach, retaining a club feel for the benefit of members who are encouraged to treat the room like a ‘private club that welcomes the general public’. The neighbouring bar will open after lunch to attract those attending afternoon meetings, and remain available for those who want a drink before or after evening meetings. These hours might be extended to earlier opening if there is sufficient demand.

Similarly, while at first the food on offer will be limited to upmarket cakes and sandwiches, Bushell and his catering team will monitor the initial response and then tweak it ‘all the time’, with a view to possibly introducing hot food or salads made on the premises. ‘We might see if we can get a small oven because you don’t need all that much to provide things like croissants and fresh bread,’ he says. ‘We will definitely have a toaster to make paninis. We don’t have a huge amount of space behind the scenes but we could develop it going forward as we seek to improve the offer.’

The café has been opened partly in response to regular feedback from visitors to the shop and the museum, who have said how much they’d like to be able to sit down and have a cup of tea in the relative peace of Freemasons’ Hall before heading back into the maelstrom of Covent Garden. Its opening corresponds with the launch of digital tours for Freemasons’ Hall, which take advantage of the huge interest in the building and Freemasonry from the public, as demonstrated by Open House Weekend, which attracted 9,000 visitors in 2019. ‘These digital tours launched in July and cost £5 a tour,’ explains Bushell. ‘The visitor gets an electronic tablet and a set of earphones that guides them around, explaining the architecture, the symbolism and general history. You can hire them in the shop, do the tour and watch a short film about Freemasonry before handing back the handset to get a discount in the café.’ 

The new café and bar is the latest innovation in UGLE’s bid to make Freemasons’ Hall a more welcoming space. Last year, a new shop opened, adding 60 per cent to the old retail area and selling additional lines in regalia and souvenirs. The shop also created a new range of bespoke gifts related to Freemasonry and Freemasons’ Hall. It was named best shop by the Association of Cultural Enterprises, an organisation that includes prestigious names such as the British Museum, National Gallery and the Tate. ‘What a sumptuous looking treasure box of a shop!’ said one judge. ‘Great use of this space with fabulous lighting choices and well-considered visual merchandising – a unique offer for an unusual demographic.’

Bushell hopes the new café will be received just as well, particularly when visitor numbers return to pre-COVID levels. In the meantime, the quieter time can be used to iron out wrinkles and refine the offering to ensure the best possible experience. ‘We are hoping that during the summer months the numbers will increase and the feedback from members is certainly that they are looking forward to coming back,’ he says. ‘We will be ready to serve them when they do. We are very optimistic and excited to be opening a new café in this unique location in the heart of Covent Garden.’

 

 

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