Support local

June 1, 2020

If you flip the term ‘too big to fail’ on its head, you get ‘too small to succeed’. That’s how it’s supposed to go in a recession – the big companies find ways to weather the storm and the independents, start-ups and SMEs struggle to keep afloat. In the food and drink sector though, it’s starting to look the other way around. The casual dining market, which was under pressure going into this crisis, has already seen high-profile casualties like Carluccio’s collapse, and many other chains seem to be teetering. Increasingly, customers want something different from their dining experiences and are flouting uniform chains in favour of diverse independents. This pattern is good news for independent business owners in the North East, who have seen the communities they serve support them in this challenging period. Here, Richard Dawson speaks to a few such operators to see what the future means for them

Nick Birss, Laneway and Co
www.facebook.com/lanewaycoffeeco

The owner of Laneway and Co set up an online store selling speciality coffee and merchandise, which has been eagerly snapped up by customers.

How has your business been affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

Like many other businesses in the hospitality sector, we were unfortunately forced to close following the Government announcement on March 23. This is totally unprecedented, no one has experienced anything like this, so how businesses will be affected going forward will be anyone’s guess. Luckily, we were eligible for the small business grant scheme, which has taken a large weight from our shoulders and means we can effectively mothball the cafe without any major looming financial concerns.

What have been the main challenges you’ve faced?

We were in a fairly good position before this. Our main challenge was managing the downturn in trade, widening of social distancing prior to lockdown and implementing added hygiene precautions around an already busy little cafe. At the moment it seems like the bigger the business the harder they are being hit, and people in Newcastle especially seem to be rallying around their favourite independents, which is fantastic to see.

Have you diversified or changed your operations to enable you to continue trading?

As soon as we got a hint that there might be a forced closure or at least restrictions on trade, I started to build up a web store. Then, when the nation went into lockdown, we were able to start trading, selling bags of coffee and merchandise from our website. It has been doing well and covers most of our ongoing costs. We had a lot of coffee in the cafe, so I have been able to bag that up and sell it online to minimise waste.

Are you taking advantage of any of the Government’s support schemes? What additional support would you like to see?

We were eligible for the £10,000 small business grant, which has given us vital cashflow and has taken a large weight from our shoulders for now. All of our staff are on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which means after lockdown we will still have our amazing team.

What is your long-term outlook for the business?

At the moment, I am confident that the business will still be healthy after the lockdown. We were lucky enough to be eligible for some fantastic funding options from the Government, which drastically improved our long-term outlook. We were planning on opening another site just prior to lockdown, so this will still hopefully go ahead with further expansion just on the horizon. Hopefully, everybody will be clamouring for a good coffee after this.

Joe Meagher, Flat Caps Coffee
www.flatcapscoffee.com

The ever-popular Flat Caps Coffee owner went digital during lockdown and his online shop been inundated with orders for coffee and tea.

How has your business been affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

As with all hospitality businesses, we’ve had to close Flat Caps Coffee shop to our customers. We had considered opening for takeaway only as we have the set up to place a coffee machine at the front door but we decided against this. I was concerned with managing social distancing in the queues and whether the perception would be that we were trying to bend the rules and taking unnecessary risks with our customer’s health.

What have been the main challenges you’ve faced?

Cashflow is the main challenge. Flat Caps is ten years old this year, so being more established has meant we were lucky to have enough reserves to pay the staff on time as it took a while for the support to come through. We also wanted to make sure that our suppliers were paid in full for outstanding invoices, so that we weren’t passing on the burden to them, and I’m very pleased to say we managed to do that.

Have you diversified or changed your operations to enable you to continue trading?

We’ve set up an online store to sell coffee beans roasted in the UK, as well as from international coffee roasters, and this is proving very popular. I’ve also taken the opportunity to look into past projects that I’d parked due to the coffee shop demanding so much of my time. I’ve organised our house tea blend to be made and manufactured in plastic-free, biodegradable tea bags, which once made, we’ll sell online in tins and as our house tea in Flat Caps once we’ve reopened.

But the thing I’m most excited about is exploring roasting my own coffee. I’ve invested in a small sample roaster to learn about roasting techniques and discover unique coffees from around the world and I hope to grow this so one day I can sell my roasted coffee online and at Flat Caps.

Are you taking advantage of any of the Government’s support schemes? What additional support would you like to see?

We received the small business grant, which eventually helped with the cashflow. My main concern for future support is how we can transition from being closed to fully operational again. I’m assuming there will be an in-between stage and the safety of staff and customers will remain paramount. I feel fortunate that Flat Caps is such a large open space as it will mean we can have social distancing a lot easier than some of the smaller independents. They’ve got some real challenges ahead on how they’ll protect everyone. We’re going to need support and advice to get through this.

What is your long-term outlook for the business?

I feel incredibly positive about the long-term prospects. We’re ready for the challenges that lay ahead of us and we’re open to being flexible and can adapt to the needs that we may not yet have established are required. We may be the oldest speciality coffee shop in Newcastle but we’re young enough to still have the energy and enthusiasm to do what’s needed. I’ve always felt that has been one of our strong points and I think it will help us through this recovery period.

Amber Lowe and Joe Millar, Proven Goods Co
www.facebook.com/provengoodsco

Amber Lowe – who along with Joe Millar owns Proven Goods Co – has had to pause operations at the luxury doughnut business, but their 18,000 strong Instagram following remains keen as ever to see them back baking.

How has your business been affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

We’ve had to completely close up at the bakery since the announcement at the end of March. We had been operating as takeaway only for the week or so up until lockdown, but once the stay home message was made clear, we felt the safest  thing to do for our customers and staff was not to encourage any unnecessary journeys to the bakery. We are for now treading water until it seems like the right, and if possible, safest time to reopen – albeit in a different way.

What have been the main challenges you’ve faced?

The main challenge we faced was trying to decide early on whether to continue operating during the lockdown but with deliveries or collections or sitting tight and doing our best to wait it out. It was a challenge realising the safest thing to do was stop for a little while – we’ve spent the last three years growing the business, so accepting that we needed to stop was surreal at first. We didn’t want to disappoint our community of customers and regulars. But the risks of working among each other, staff travelling to and from the bakery, and difficulties with the availability of ingredients made it clear that temporarily closing was the best thing to do.

Have you diversified or changed your operations to enable you to continue trading?

We didn’t change our operations to trade during lockdown, for the reasons discussed. But we’ve used the time to try and plan the best way to continue operating safely and successfully once it’s safer to reopen.

Are you taking advantage of any of the Government’s support schemes? What additional support would you like to see?

We were lucky to qualify for the Small Business Grant Fund and have used the furlough scheme for our staff. We would like to see more support for new starters, as the extended deadline still leaves a lot of people cut off from the scheme.

What is your long-term outlook for the business?

We’ve had to make some changes to some plans we had for the next 18 months of the business and shelve them for the time being. Instead, we’re going to continue to operate from our kitchen space, concentrating on developing our collection service, hopefully adding more options for delivery and a larger online presence with a website. Essentially, we’re going to refine our current offer for the time being and pause the longer-term plan until we can understand the ‘new normal’.

Andy Hook, Blackfriars, Hinnies and Dobson and Parnell
www.dobsonandparnell.co.uk

The managing director of Hooked-on Group, which owns and operates Blackfriars, Hinnies and Dobson and Parnell, has launched a weekend takeaway delivery service that has been popular with those pining for fine dining cuisine.

How has your business been affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

The Hooked-on Group operates full-service restaurants, which we have had to close completely.

What have been the main challenges you’ve faced?

In simple terms, closing our doors was a pretty straightforward process. There was a timing dilemma and we had a pile of perishables to give away. But otherwise, all restaurants in the UK were faced with the same order and the staff understood the issues. The real challenge has been keeping abreast of the continually-updated advice and guidance, as well as the details of managing furloughed workers and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. We’re trying to understand how and when we might reopen and what that means for us, our staff and our loyal customers.

Have you diversified or changed your operations to enable you to continue trading?

Both Blackfriars and Hinnies enjoyed a brief foray into takeaways around Mothering Sunday, which was quickly aborted so we could better assess the risks. We have since restarted with the expectation that takeaways will form a permanent part of our offer for the foreseeable future.

Are you taking advantage of any of the Government’s support schemes? What additional support would you like to see?

All three restaurants have applied for grants in addition to business rates relief and the aforementioned furlough scheme. When we are allowed to reopen, it is likely our capacities will be significantly reduced, as will our market share, while we grapple with the complexities of new health and safety guidance and ensuring our staff and guests remain safe. If the Government wants to avoid the collapse of much of the UK hospitality/tourism industry, which supports 66,000 workers in the North East alone, then it will need to provide support by way of additional grants, a gradual reduction in Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme support and tax cuts, such as a reduction in VAT to five per cent. In addition, rent payments remain one of our biggest challenges. The Government must provide some much- needed leadership with regard to the stalemate between landlords who say they can’t afford to forgo their rent and tenants who simply have no money to pay it.

What is your long-term outlook for the business?

Restaurants will need to create entirely new revenue streams if they are to remain viable. If an element of our loyal customer base decides to stay at home, we’ll need to think of ways we can bring our offer to them whether by food boxes, Zoom tutorials or takeaways. We will do everything we can to ensure the safety of our customers who do venture to dine with us, but will also make it fun and exciting.

Share
Related
Scroll to next article
Go to

The highest form of hope