It was a beautiful day in Edinburgh when I caught up with the lovely Anna Christopherson. She is as bright and cheerful as the bars that she and husband, Mike, own. They include Boda – named after her hometown in Sweden – Hemma, Joseph Pearce’s, Sofi’s, Victoria and Akva where we met for the interview. They make up the Boda Swedish Bars and Restaurant Group.
Since establishing the business in 2003, the couple have lived and breathed their business. But they also live and breathe the communities that the bars are located in.
In fact, the day before I visited, Akva hosted a Garden Party at the bar and Anna dressed as a dinosaur. She tells me, “It was great. At first people were a bit shy about getting involved but we soon dragged people up from different tables. We based the garden games around Nordic Gods and Goddesses who had to eat golden apples to have eternal youth. People had to run around saving the apples from me … dressed as a dinosaur! There were a lot of crazy people playing these totally stupid games! It was a great way of getting people to meet.”
She continues, “It might have been ridiculous but everyone enjoyed it.”
Anna is not just well known in her adopted home, but further afield too. In fact she tells me she has been interviewed by more than 20 journalists, from the Daily Mail to the Guardian, due to her ‘Plogging’ initiative. She explains, “One of my friends tagged me in a Facebook post regarding a new Swedish thing – which involves picking up litter while you are jogging. The Swedish word for picking up is ‘plocka upp’ and when you combine that with jogging you get ‘plogging’. I started out doing it with some friends and it just grew. So now we have a club where we go out ‘plogging’. I even suggested it to Ikea. I thought if they could get their staff out doing it, it would be a ‘win-win’ – lots of media coverage and litter collected too.”
She says, “I was brought up in the countryside in Sweden, we were all very close to nature. I was always taught to pick up litter and I have always done it. David Attenborough has done a great job at publicising the dangers of plastic to the environment but lots of us have been aware of the plastic issue for years, and I’ve always done my bit. For instance, we have had a green policy for the last few years – we have a bottle deposit system – people can come in with a plastic bottle and we either give them 10p for it or fill it with water for free even if they are not customers.”
It’s not the only initiative that Anna and Mike have instigated in their venues. They were one of the first businesses, that I can recall, to furnish their bar with recycled furniture. Says Anna, “I used to work in property when I lived in Sweden and I learned a valuable lesson when we opened a business in Denmark. The idea was to have really cool office accommodation for start-ups and we had a big budget to furnish them. Unfortunately start-ups often don’t survive, so the business model was flawed. We were left owed money and eventually we had to close the business. It was one of the biggest failures in my life! I sat there and went through the inventory. We had to sell everything for a lot less than we had paid for it and I thought this is stupid. Why are we buying fancy things that no one thanks us for? My business mind kicked in! And when we came to Edinburgh and decided to open a bar I thought I didn’t want to go down the cool route – instead I wanted people to feel welcome and I wanted to create a homely bar. So we bought old furniture that you would have in your home and revamped it. It is quite timeless décor. That became our ethos.”
She smiles, “If you came to my house you would see exactly the same. Lots of bright colours, furniture from my grandmother and some modern furniture too.
She also tells me that at home she and the family speak Swedish. Her two children, who were born in Edinburgh, also consider themselves Swedish. Anna explains, “Mike and I call both Sweden and Edinburgh home and my kids say they are Swedish. Although their English is better than their Swedish – we do all speak Swedish at home. The rest of my family still live in Sweden and we try to spend six weeks in the summer there.”
As well as teaching her kids, who are 11 and 12, Swedish, she is also instilling into them her own work ethic. She tells me that they come in and help clear glasses.
The first bar that Mike and Anna opened was Boda – it is in Leith, where the couple live. Says Anna, “We live in Leith and I love it. It is a great area with lots of different people and lots of different nationalities. I think it is good to be inclusive and varied. We do have certain issues in the area, but there are also lots of artists and it is a very natural society. I hope it doesn’t ever change! In fact this summer we are having our own ‘Chill’ Festival. It offers visitors a respite from the hustle and bustle of the Fringe. We’ve linked up with ten other bars in Leith … I do hope tourists want to see other parts of Edinburgh rather than just the Grassmarket. You’ve heard of ‘Netflix and Chill’, well we are doing Cocktails and Chill! Each bar is doing different cocktails – and we have linked up with a local charity called Project 42. If you buy a wristband you can get a yoga or Pilates class for £5, and if you buy for a second person it will go to someone who couldn’t afford a class.”
Not that Anna needs to worry about affording a class, but she admits that 2017 wasn’t the easiest year. She tells me, “Last year was really tough. And when things are tough you have to get better and smarter at what you are doing. You have to work a little bit better and be tighter with budgets. We have been investing more in our staff to get them to stay longer and we let them get more involved and help them to understand the business. At the end of the day, we are not a charity. We are here to make money and we have to pay our bills.”
She continues, ‘Recruitment has certainly been harder and it is so hard to get kitchen porters. No one wants to do it. I have tried to recruit through job centres, the Princes Trust … you name it. But people don’t show up. There are not so many Europeans now looking for jobs. They wanted to learn English and they worked hard because they were motivated. We are certainly missing them. But luckily we do have a good reputation. Often staff do leave, but then come back perhaps to another position.”
Anna believes that it is more difficult for youngsters now. She says, “I often have this conversation with people who work for me between the ages of 18 and 25. Their parents have told them they are amazing and that they can do anything – the world is their oyster. The problem is they don’t know what they want to do. I tell them what I do, which is to have micro-ambitions. I set small goals for myself. For instance, I might say I will try to run three times a week – if I can do it great, I feel good. No one else benefits, but I know that I succeeded. You don’t need to have a massive grand plan. Just do what you can do but do it well. That gives you a feeling of satisfaction.”
Today Anna and Mike have grown their business to six bars from just one. Says Anna, “We started out doing food, and it has just evolved. When we had kids we made the bars child-friendly, and they are pet-friendly too. But the Swedish ethos continues. For example, we have a Swedish Midsummer celebration complete with a Maypole and Swedish dancers. We also have Aquavit tastings, and so on. There are various clubs from jogging to knitting and at Sofi’s. We do clothes swaps too – it’s a cutsy bar. We also have singles’ nights, speed dating, dog owners’ nights and so on. All our bars are neighbourhood bars – we like to get involved with the local community and people who come get to know each other. Even at Hemma, which is in the city, the local businesses have got to know each other. We like to think of ourselves as the original social network.”
As far as trends go Anna sees session drinks, longer drinks and bigger bottles becoming more popular. As for food, although veganism is popular, she believes the way forward is ‘Flexitarian’. Says Anna, “I probably eat 90% vegetarian/vegan but I will have meat. Our best seller in Joseph Pearce’s is our ultimate veggie burger, not our beefburger.” She also thinks that perhaps the trade need to re-think opening hours. She says, “In Edinburgh, look at the number of big places that have been established. They are massive – they are big chains with big budgets. But people are drinking less, and they will have to adjust. In Sweden, most bars are not open Monday and Tuesday, and I think it may come to that here too. We as a profession need to do more and we have to take risks but still have fun and think out the box. Not everything we should do is about food and drink – we are all about sociability too. After every event I always think how could we do it better. Next year how can we make it bigger?”
With that attitude Anna and Mike’s business will continue to thrive, of that I am sure. She may have donned a dinosaur outfit, but her business ethos is as far from that as you can get! http://www.bodabar.com