When the Orcadian elements are at their best – and sometimes even when they’re at their wildest – the west coast of the Orkney mainland is a popular place.
Locals and visitors flock here, and with huge cliffs, beautiful beaches, and some fascinating historical sites, it’s not hard to understand why.
But all that outdoor activity and exploring can leave folk looking for refreshments. That’s where the Birsay Bay Tearoom comes in. From its vantage point just outside Palace village and with sea views towards the Brough of Birsay and beyond, its reputation as one of Orkney’s finest foodie destinations is well deserved.
Owned and operated by Georgie Clark, the tearoom has been serving a wide range of light lunches, soups, sandwiches, snacks and home bakes since taking over the business in 2013. The modern building is bright and airy, and the menu’s focus is very much on the local larder.
Now, after a tumultuous two years and with the 2022 tourist season approaching, Georgie and her team are busy preparing for a summer that brings with it plenty of unknowns.
“The best we can do is continue to prepare like we have done since 2020,” says Georgie. “At the start of the pandemic, I honestly didn’t know what I could do for the best. Things changed so quickly from day to day and the future of hospitality hung in the balance. But we adapted, made changes, and focused on what we could do, and those decisions will hopefully stand us in good stead ahead of the summer.”
Like many local enterprises, Georgie was able to keep her business alive during the early days of the pandemic by accessing grants and furloughing staff. She also took to social media to keep customers engaged.
“We had to look at positive ways of getting the name of the business out there, so we shared our recipes for people to try at home,” she recalls. “We picked recipes that we knew were popular, but also ones that contained ingredients they could easily find in their cupboards or in the shops, given the various shortages at the time.”
Then, just a few months into the first lockdown, a new opportunity arrived in the shape of the Bayleaf Delicatessen in Stromness. Georgie’s gift for creating an incredible range of home bakes and other goodies was in demand, and the deli asked her to fill a gap in their offering. “I started to supply them with cakes, traybakes, biscuits, pies and quiches, and it just grew and grew,” she says. By September 2020, the Tearoom team were filling the shelves in three local shops in Kirkwall and Stromness. By the end of the year that had extended to other outlets in the West Mainland and the North Isles.
“It became so popular we even had to move the baking lines away from the Tearoom kitchen to a larger premises so we could cope with demand,” laughs Georgie. It’s a clear example of how local businesses adapted and worked together to stay afloat during the most challenging of times.
Now, the focus is back on the Tearoom with a busy summer season just over the horizon. Various tweaks have been made to ensure customers feel safe in this ‘new normal’, all of which have been tried and tested over the last two years. This includes a reduced number of tables to create more space, dividing screens and a thorough cleaning procedure between customer visits.
There’s a one-way system in place and the ubiquitous hand sanitiser stations throughout. But the biggest difference is the introduction of an online booking system, meaning you’ll never be short of a spare table if you’re planning a visit.
“We decided to take the online booking plunge so we could regulate the number of people coming in through the door at any one time,” says Georgie. “It has definitely changed the way we operate, and we think it has encouraged more bookings too, as previously people maybe didn’t want to take a chance on getting a table if they were coming out from Kirkwall or further afield.”
It's one of those small positives that can be taken from the last two years, Georgie says it’s something that might stay in place when – or if – things ever get back to how they were pre-pandemic. “We’ve had so many comments from customers on how impressed they are with the measures we have in place, and our online booking system means many of our local supporters can get a regular table too,” she says.
The Tearoom was incredibly busy after reopening in August 2020, and last year it saw visitors right through into November and December, when traditionally tourists don’t tend to venture north. Although numbers were still down on a ‘usual’ year, there is plenty of positivity for the future, and especially the forthcoming few months.
“We’re hopeful things will be busy again this year, and that the pandemic doesn’t throw us any further curve balls,” says Georgie. “We’re going to be concentrating on promoting the Tearoom further and showcasing the many local products used in our menu items.
“We’ve learnt a lot since 2020 and we’re all keen to really get going once again.”