The Big Interview: Anna Lagerqvist Christopherson, co-owner of Edinburgh's Boda Bars

Anna Lagerqvist Christopherson is fighting for the survival of her network of Edinburgh bars.

We cannot wait to return to running bars and events, says the businesswoman. Picture: Jane Barlow.
We cannot wait to return to running bars and events, says the businesswoman. Picture: Jane Barlow.

The businesswoman owns and runs Swedish bar and restaurant group Boda Bars in Edinburgh with her husband Mike. Their venues comprise Akva, Victoria, Sofi’s, Joseph Pearce’s, Sofi’s Southside, Hemma and Harry’s Bar, with the group turning over £5 million pre-Covid-19.

The Swedish couple in October 2003 drove off the ferry at Newcastle towards Edinburgh, more specifically Leith Links. “The place to be… according to our short previous experience of the city. We moved to Leith without the common prejudice about the wonderful home of Trainspotting,” she previously said.

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They opened their first bar the following year on Leith Walk with candles, colourful curtains, coffee, a wine menu and a no-swearing policy – an approach she said was considered “radical”.

Christopherson owns and runs the group with husband Mike - and they are currently offering a takeaway service. Picture: contributed.

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The couple found that their adopted city took to Boda – named after her Swedish hometown – which grew to more than 100 members of staff, “truly becoming a treasured part of the Edinburgh bar scene”. They say its bars are meant to feel like a home from home – “somewhere you can relax, spend time with friends, enjoy good food and drinks and always feel welcome”.

When it was announced in late 2018 that they were taking over Harry’s, which had opened in 1986, Anna said they wanted to help revive Edinburgh’s West End. And Mike said: “We will have a priority to train people who normally would not get a job within hospitality – that can be young people with difficult backgrounds who have difficulty getting regular work, to people from minority groups who have a problem with getting a foot in the door of the job market for different reasons.”

But the lockdown measures have placed massive pressure on the business, with Anna recently flagging up a major insurance claim it submitted for loss of earnings being turned down.

“We have a clause in our policy that covers an authority forcing us to close due to a notifiable disease – and Covid was made a notifiable disease on 5 March. But they are just saying no, we can’t show we have been affected,” she explained.

This is despite two Boda venues – Hemma on Holyrood Road and Joseph Pearce’s on Elm Row – being less than a mile from the Carlton Hilton Hotel on North Bridge where the Nike conference, now seen as Scotland’s “ground zero”, took place in February. Anna also said that even when lockdown is eased and bars are able to reopen, “if we can only have one customer every two metres it’s not going to cover the costs”.

You recently highlighted your anger at having a sizeable insurance claim for business interruption turned down. Can you explain more about this and the impact it is having on Boda Bars?

One insurance company covers our bars, Joseph Pearce’s, Sofi’s, Victoria, Hemma, Sofi’s Southside and Harry’s Bar. They have denied our claim because we cannot prove that there has been a case of Covid within a 25-mile radius that has affected the business. The company that insures restaurant and venue Akva in Fountainbridge has still not replied after two and a half months.

What makes me angry is that while insurance companies are dragging their feet and avoiding responsibility, the taxpayers are the ones that will have to pay for furlough costs, grants and Universal Credit when people become unemployed because businesses can’t afford to open.

And we as business-owners are expected to take out big loans to cover losses that will take us many, many years to pay back. In 16 years I have never made an insurance claim, so when I finally do, I want to be treated respectfully and promptly as per the rules laid out by the Financial Conduct Authority.

You have shown your support for the National Time Out campaign, calling for a nine-month rent-free period to help the hospitality sector survive the pandemic. Why are you backing this and what do you think overall of steps by government to help the sector?

National Time Out is an excellent idea. It helps the leaseholder and the landlord. We would extend our lease by nine months but get a nine-month rent-free period in 2020. The landlord could get a mortgage-free period of nine months and extend their mortgage by the same length of time. It is so simple and could make all the difference as to whether we can open or not.

Boda Bars has been running online events and takeaways – can you give more details on this?

We have created Boda Bar Boxes that we have been delivering locally, mostly around Leith. Our new online Kind Events let like-minded people meet and chat. We are having a writers’ event on 15 June where we invite Scottish and Swedish writers to meet and discuss how books should be promoted with book festivals not going to happen for a while.

You and your husband founded the group in 2004, and it expanded after you found that the people of Edinburgh “really embraced the Swedish way of life”. What do you think it is about your offering that appeals?

Our idea is to be a meeting place – nice, friendly people meeting in a relaxed atmosphere. I think that is why this social distancing has been such a blow. Both Mike and I are very sociable and love to meet people so it has been hard.

You originally studied economics and later led serviced office space and networking specialist United Spaces. How did your career progress and did you always want to run your own business?

I love economics and am very interested in macro and micro economics, but the entrepreneurship runs in the family. My father is a farmer and has always been self-employed and my brother runs his own IT business.

United Spaces was a start-up at the beginning of 2000 and the idea was to create meeting places for entrepreneurs and small businesses. I learnt a lot from such a fast-paced job and also learnt lots from mistakes made as a start-up.

Can you explain more about your interest in the environment?

I don’t know where the environmental passion comes from, but I think you grow up with it if you are brought up in the countryside. What you drop on the ground there you will see for the next decade. It is just common sense not to be wasteful and throw away clothes, food and plastic if we can reuse it. The Boda Boxes that we are delivering are all reused fruit boxes from the bars, and people hand them back.

In your view, you won’t be able to reopen your Boda Bars network with two-metre physical distancing – and have outlined plans to return Joseph Pearce’s to its 19th century wine and spirit merchant roots. Can you explain more about this and your outlook more broadly for the next few months?

Regarding the two-metre rule, in phase two when we are allowed to open outdoor spaces, we should go for World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. If the WHO says one metre, why do we have two metres? Maybe there is a reason – but I don’t know what that is. It will, however, make a difference as to which bars’ outside space we can open and how many staff we can give work.

Now we have gone back to the 1898 roots of Joseph Pearce’s when it was a wine and spirit merchant – what it says on the outside of the building. We needed to develop our business model, but we hope we can open soon. We are still hoping to be able to host crayfish parties in August – with safety measures, of course. We cannot wait to return to running bars and events.

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