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In Rome a pivot from beehive to bagels

Linda Martinez and Steve Brenner, originally from the US, have run The Beehive Hostel in Rome since 1999.

When the tourism sector died last year, they turned to baking and now produce a thousand, traditional, hand-rolled, New York-style bagels a week that they sell throughout Italy.

I chatted with them by phone about the pivot in their business and their hopes for a return to normality in the travel sector.

How difficult have the last twelve months been?

In February last year, most of us thought that this <the outbreak of Coronavirus> was not something we needed to worry about. It seemed like it was being contained in the north of Italy and we didn’t have any cases in Rome.

And then we started seeing massive cancellations at the hostel.

We’ve weathered 9/11, the Iraq war, the Icelandic volcano, SARS but this was very different…in one week we had a season’s worth of reservations cancelled. We were totally panicked and thought ‘what are we going to do?’

But we had faith that payments would be suspended and people would be understanding…that it wouldn’t be a crisis we’d have to go through on our own. We felt one way or another there’d be some understanding and help to get through it.

In the first few months we sold gift vouchers, people donated and friends very generously gave money to us with no expectation of getting it back.

On a personal level, we were at home with our kids, no one could go out and do anything so it was quite boring, but it was good for us to be all together.

Summer came and we reopened the doors. There were some guests, but it was strange because we were trying to manage a place the safest way possible which had as one of its selling points the fact that people can socialise…but now couldn’t. So, it was a weird little dance we were doing trying to figure out how you sell a hostel experience when it just wasn’t really possible to have a normal hostel experience.

We had a trickle of guests but then the second wave hit and restrictions came out. Around mid-October there was just no one travelling.

We’d been doing weekly dinners in our garden over the summer, and, before the pandemic, had offered cooking classes and hosted family style dinners at the hostel. But with time on our hands during the first lockdown we’d been cooking and baking and posted photos and videos on our Instagram account which were well received.

With the second wave, we posted that we would make bagels and sourdough bread to order for anyone interested and it just really took off from there.

Now it’s keeping us extremely busy. In just a few months it’s gone from just a dozen bagels by order to doing 1000-1200 bagels a week. We have delivery and pick up in Rome, which appeals to Americans and expats here and Italians who know bagels, and we’re offering plain, poppy seed, sesame seed, ‘everything’, cinnamon raisin, onion and pumpernickel.

We also now ship all over Italy and have started shipping to some private clients in other parts of Europe. We don’t have a professional background, cooking is just something Steve has always done as a hobby and for the family.

Is this something you’re going to carry on doing when the hostel business bounces back?

Yes, definitely! We don’t really know yet how we’ll juggle the two because there’s no way we can bake as well as manage the hostel on our old schedule. So, we have to figure out how we restructure staffing at The Beehive. We love doing the bagels…it’s not just something we see as getting us through this period, it’s something we really want to continue and grow. We’d never have been able to do this in a normal year running the hostel.

When it comes to tourism in Rome, what’s your guess on when things will be back to normal or normal’ish?

Not till 2022 at least. Maybe a trickle this year but no substantial or viable tourism till next year, perhaps even 2023. There’s lots of room for virus variants to completely undermine all the efforts that are being put in motion now. Vaccine rollout and vaccine passports could happen fast and without glitches, or on the other hand not happen at the rate we want them to which is what we see now. And then it’s going to take a while for everyone to get on the same page and feel comfortable again.

You’re committed to sustainability and social justice at The Beehive…can you talk me through some of the ways you incorporate those?

Having children was the impetus to becoming more active in that regard. The Beehive has always been a reflection of ourselves so when we started becoming more environmentally conscious, the hostel started reflecting that too. So, we incorporate things like recycled paper products like toilet paper and hand towels, non-toxic cleaning supplies – although we’re paused on those right now because of Coronavirus – LED lighting, organic products in our café, and upcycling furniture to name a few.

For the business, there’s “what’s the cheapest way?” and “what’s the best way?” and we try and find the happy medium where we’re not going against what we think is right but also not breaking the bank.

Picking your brains on Rome, what do you think is a very touristy place but still absolutely worth visiting, and what’s something more under the radar that might not make the guidebooks but you’d still recommend?

I’ve always hated the term “historic centre” because all of Rome is historic, but the centro storico is where the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona are located. That area is incredibly touristy but it is definitely worthwhile. They’re popular for a very good reason and they’re magnificent.

As far as places that aren’t as well know, there’s an area called Testaccio that’s definitely more popular now, but Rome’s Pyramid is there which a lot of people don’t know about and the beautiful non-Catholic cemetery and a great food market that you can eat at.

Areas that are off the radar and worth checking out include San Lorenzo, Garbatella, Pigneto and Tor Pignattara. They’re a little bit grittier, they don’t have famous monuments but they’re worthwhile visiting to see a side of Rome that isn’t touristy, where you can go and eat well and drink well.

For a more “polished” side of town, there’s the Trieste/Salario neighbourhood which is more white-collar residential area.

There’s the MACRO museum, a beautiful public park called the Villa Torlonia which has one of my favourite buildings in Rome, La Casina delle Civette (the owl house), the Catacombs of Priscilla and mosaics at the Basilica of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura.

Rome has a lot of different flavours. People imagine there to be a single version of the city and when they see a neighbourhood that isn’t like the historic centre or the popular Trastevere neighbourhood they think that’s not really Rome. But that’s just not true. For a lot of Romans, they may have seen the Pantheon a couple of times when they were kids, but that’s not their Rome and it’s not the Rome for a lot of people.

I think there’s a really lazy way to explore a city where you get nothing from the experience. It’s not so much that certain places are overrated, because anywhere can be. If you just rush quickly through the Vatican, for example, to take a photo of the Sistine Chapel and have no guide, and you haven’t studied anything about it, you really don’t know what you’re looking at or the history behind it and you wonder what the big deal is, then yes, it seems like a totally overrated experience.

But if you go with a guide who explains everything and you take time to slow down and learn about it, then it’s amazing, and the Colosseum is the same way and every place in Rome is the same. There’s a way to see things and get value out of them or you can see places and get nothing from them. Some people tend to experience Rome in a way that doesn’t do it its full justice.

We saw something new with the guests who came last summer after the first lockdown lifted. They weren’t ticking boxes, they were exploring and experiencing different things and staying longer, taking their time – surfing, taking hip hop classes, learning tennis. It was really quite refreshing to see, especially after years of people just spending one or two nights here, rushing all over the city and just ticking items off their list.

Photo credits: Steve Brenner & Linda Martinez; Jurre Houtkamp - Unsplash; Christopher Czermak - Unsplash; Will Hide

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