Coping with COVID-19...
Coping with COVID-19
I have been asked for the inside track on what it has been like to simply be closed down overnight by the government. How as an independent restaurant have we coped?
Mid March saw our customers being told to stop visiting restaurants and bars plus the elderly and vulnerable were told to stay home. This was even before as a hospitality business we were told we must close. The impact was felt immediately with bookings cancelled. I realized very early on that we needed to think on our feet. My Mum lives in Nottingham and had put herself in shielded isolation. It occurred to me that there must be a raft of people here in Bury St Edmunds who had suddenly been cut off from the world. Our version of meals on wheels launched on Thursday 19th March: £7 for a hot 2-course lunch with free delivery. People can call and donate for others to receive a free meal – we have also delivered free meals to West Suffolk Hospital.
The following day, in his Friday briefing, Boris announced that restaurants, bars and cafes must close that evening! Again, we knew this was coming as we were monitoring Italy and other countries ahead of us. We closed the restaurant with immediate effect and simultaneously sent out an email detailing our takeaway/delivery services. In the process of referencing the fact that it was Mothering Sunday that weekend it brought home the dramatic severity of the financial and emotional impact of this situation. Fortunately, we had sourced takeaway tubs earlier in the week for meals on wheels. As within the trade they fell into the same category as toilet roll, flour and more recently yeast! I also tracked down professional hot food transportation boxes which have been invaluable in getting food to homes up to 30 minutes away still hot!
A week later we added on a variety of tasting menus with wine pairing - we started with a Spanish and a vegetarian option, we ran an Italian one and currently have a Middle Eastern option. These have been very popular (obviously the wine helped!) All of this wasn’t too different to how we usually operate. We book deliveries as we would tables, we cook fresh to order and we bring the food to the customer! The delight on faces when we deliver is just lovely, especially for birthdays, anniversaries and we have even delivered simultaneously to multiple locations for zoom parties. Perhaps the biggest challenge was surety of supplies as many of my key local suppliers were facing numerous hurdles too.
We were then contacted to provide around 300 sandwich bags per week for a local engineering company who had reopened but who were unable to open their canteen. All of a sudden each week we needed to make 65 fresh sandwiches, salads and wraps daily. We also had to track down each week 300 bottles of water, 300 packets of crisps – which we were able to source from our local potato supplier plus biscuits and cakes. These are bespoke for each employee to accommodate dietary requirements such as gluten free, allergy free and also any personal preferences. Each bag is labelled with their name and apparently receiving their bag is the highlight of their day. The conservatory is a packing area and the bar houses the crisps and takeaway boxes.
Social Media has been instrumental in keeping us in touch with customers – both existing and new. I became aware that there was a real buzz around afternoon teas. We already had the lovely fresh locally baked bread for the sandwiches, the fillings and the boxes and bags for packing them in to. All we needed was cakes and scones – the latter of which we will be making around 400 this week – luckily I can still get flour! Many of these are going out for today’s VE Day celebrations - not tapas but adaptability has been the key throughout these challenging times.
The next challenge we face over the coming months is two-fold. How do we safely allow customers back into the restaurant once the lockdown starts to lift? How do we maintain the new products and services that have evolved and we are being asked to continue with? From an ‘opening’ point of view I think we are going to need to be inventive with how we manage safe distances balanced with good service. We have measured how we can keep distances between tables and using the different areas. Creative thinking will be vital and as I commented to Emma Barnett on BBC 5 Live this week we may need to camouflage a freezer to help divide the restaurant! We will need to continue with the daytime business in order to augment the evening business. This will help to mitigate the reduction in customers we can have in at any one time.
Customers have been amazingly supportive not just by ordering but also by sharing what we are doing on social media. The CASA team have been particularly awesome and have made all this possible. We have all had to learn additional skill sets and have embraced the learning curve. Our Front of House staff have worked alongside our chefs making sandwiches at 6.30am in the morning. Devising optimal routes for lunch deliveries, creating mail merge labels to ensure customers get their correct lunch and fine-tuning systems for getting 40 takeaway deliveries out on a Saturday evening have all been taken in their stride. The lunch delivery volunteers of Heather, Yvonne and Viv also deserve a shout out.
It is psychologically draining running a business without the regular interactions with suppliers, fellow traders and not being able to see the customers enjoying the food. I also find ‘living above the shop’ exhausting. The worry over how to financially weather this situation is ever present and above all else I miss my family – most of whom are in full lock down over 100 miles away. I also miss my tennis sessions with my lovely friends.
Getting to know my core team (CASA family) even better and seeing the team spirit has been humbling and inspiring. Their determination to support the community and each other has been wonderful. Their adherence to all government guidelines has been exemplary. Thankfully, we have continued to all remain healthy and well. The BID have been hugely supportive and West Suffolk Council expedient with the grant process. It is lovely to see how the community as a whole has been supportive of those businesses that have continued to trade.