I've been running Yardarm, a local wine and provisions shop, with my partner since 2015 in a close-knit east London community. In 2018, we fully took over the 20-seater restaurant next door. With our new chef Joe, it had become popular, and we had plans to expand the bar at the back of the shop to cater for the extra customers we had visiting in the evenings because of it.
Then coronavirus struck, and we had to make tough decisions very quickly. Before social distancing was even officially announced, we'd already come to the heartbreaking conclusion that we'd have to shut the restaurant. It's an intimate space, people would be sitting too close together, and we couldn't in all conscience put our staff and customers at risk. Luckily our employees all work across both businesses, and we'd set our head chef the task of thinking up an alternative option to get up and running ahead of lockdown.
Emotionally, our response to this was "sh*t". We were scared. We were worried for our family – we have two small children – worried for our community and for our livelihoods. We'd been receiving messages from our suppliers, many of whom had become friends over the years, saying, "We can't go on." I spent a lot of that first week crying.
But I also had messages from locals checking in to ask if we were OK. It was so kind and lovely. Then there was the emotional response we had from people who needed us to stay open for them. They needed to come in and buy essentials from us, but also offload about the terrifying situation we all suddenly found ourselves in. We might not have the restaurant, but we could adapt the shop to give our community access to the necessities and a place to go that made them feel a tiny bit more normal.
So, we shut the bar, cleared out the seating in the back and an island in the shop to allow as much space as possible. We followed government advice on distancing and safe practice to the letter, restricted numbers allowed in and out, removed labels people would usually touch and only served food with gloves and masks. We slimmed down our selection of products to our customers' top five favourites to cut browsing time. We also ordered in more essentials that people were struggling to get hold of elsewhere, buying in fresh pasta from a local restaurant, plenty of veg from another supplier and meat from a local butcher who'd lost 90 per cent of their business within a week of the social distancing measures being announced. By adapting like this, we were able to support other local businesses, too, which was important to us.
We asked people with big orders to place and pay for them over the phone so we can pack and they can pick them up. If anyone in the community is self-isolating or can't make it because they are key workers, we'll deliver to their door on foot. And our chef's idea in the end? He's been making affordable takeaway dinners for people to pop in the microwave and enjoy fresh food, which has been going down well so far.
I think it’s hard to work out where we are as a business at the moment, because we don't know how long lockdown is going to go on for, but we're feeling really lucky that we still have money going in the till. I don't think we've cracked it yet, but continuing to adapt is going to be the key. What remains to be seen for us is, after all of this is over, whether the shop can save the restaurant.
Rachel Suff of Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development: "This is a very fast-moving issue. Employers should keep up to date with the situation as it develops, and refer employees who are concerned about infection, using official and expert medical sources such as gov.uk and the NHS 111 online coronavirus service."
Mike Cherry, the national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses: “Small businesses are at the forefront of adapting and are keen new-to-firm innovators. Whether it be offering increased or new delivery or collection services or providing virtual guides to products or stores when premises aren’t accessible to customers, small businesses are trying to make this work.”
Bernhard Schroeder of Forbes: "You know the saying, 'Save your money for a rainy day'?Well, that day is now. Examine the cash you have to hand and work out how you could make it last for at least six to nine months. And if you don’t have enough money, look at how you could cut expenses or increase sales by doing something different."