‘I turned my office into a cyclists’ cafe’
As part of our CEO Secrets series, which invites business leaders to share their advice, we are focusing on start-ups that have launched during lockdown, looking at different types of entrepreneur. This week, we hear from people whose jobs are under threat in hospitality, a sector hit particularly hard during the pandemic.
The hospitality industry has been left reeling after two national lockdowns and, although England is just emerging from the second one, things aren’t necessarily looking better. The introduction of new tiered restrictions has been described in some quarters as a “mortal blow” for an industry “bearing the brunt of the pain”.
Bruce Tate, 39, was in a bad place after the first lockdown.
His business in Newcastle, called Need Music, which handled live bookings for pubs and weddings, was forced to close, and he wasn’t entitled to financial support from the government because he drew his income as company dividends.
But while contemplating his future, sitting at a picnic table outside his office, he had a “light bulb” moment.
A cyclist whizzed past. This was normal. The office garden overlooks Route 72, also known as Hadrian’s Cycle Way, one of the UK’s most popular cycle routes.
He suddenly thought: what if he turned this area, which his business was renting anyway, into a cafe, capitalising on the passing trade on wheels?
A few physical adjustments were necessary to make the idea possible.
Bruce created some covered wooden seating areas, added a serving hatch to his office kitchen, and Route 72 Cafe opened in July.
As predicted, cyclists have provided regular custom, stopping off for simple refreshments like cheese toasties, beans on toast and pannini.
In time Bruce added to the menu homemade pies and pulled pork sandwiches, made by his wife.
One particularly profitable day saw a group of 100 riders drop by, en route from Newcastle to Wylam.
The new business was gaining momentum and his investments were beginning to pay off when the new tiered restrictions arrived in the autumn, followed by a second national lockdown in November.
With lockdown now over, Newcastle is in tier three which means the cafe can open for takeaways only and Bruce has chosen to open only at the weekends for now.
He remains an optimist despite the huge upheavals to his life and business.
“I will come out of this pandemic stronger than I went in,” he says. “Hopefully I will have two successful businesses, instead of one.”
His advice to other people in the hospitality industry is to try different things with your existing resources and skills, but to build your new business around the restrictions – however frustrating that can be.
Hospitality in crisis
The hospitality industry includes businesses such as restaurants, cafes, pubs, bars, nightclubs, entertainment venues and hotels.
These types of businesses have lost more than 600,000 jobs this year, according to UK Hospitality.
The trade body estimates that previously expected annual growth of 5% has turned into a 40% contraction in 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
What jobs are available at the moment?
Jessica Bond-Gallagher trusted her husband’s cooking enough to let him do the catering for their wedding with nearly 200 guests. Then again, he is a professional chef. That was back in August 2019. Little did she know her husband’s skill in the kitchen would also get them through coronavirus.
The couple both have careers in hospitality. Jessica, 29, works as a hotel manager, and Chris, 30, as a chef.
In March this year they took the first steps towards a long-term dream, which was to open a restaurant together in Staffordshire, where Jessica grew up. She had landed a job managing a lounge bar there, while Chris had a job offer to be head chef at a gastropub in neighbouring Cheshire – this meant they could both move from their temporary home in Cambridge.
“When Boris [Johnson] announced people had to avoid pubs, clubs and bars we immediately knew our jobs were lost,” says Jessica.
Furthermore, they weren’t on the payroll for their new roles yet, so they didn’t anticipate any government help. “I remember just saying, ‘We have to do something,'” says Jessica.
What they did was set up Gallagher’s Home Kitchen.
They cleared out their kitchen in their house to make it resemble a commercial one.
They wanted to deliver food to people stuck at home during lockdown and thought there would be extra demand because of fears of food shortages. At first Chris just focused on making simple tray bakes.
They reached out to their local network of friends before trying social media to find customers. Jessica managed the orders and personally delivered them in a “military operation”.
Deliveroo and Uber Eats were an inspiration, explains Chris. “They showed people would buy food this way. But they also didn’t serve our rural area, so there was a gap in the market.”
The demand was clearly there, so they scaled up the operation by renting a kitchen in a rugby club. Chris created a menu offering a different main dish for each day of the week, focusing on familiar favourites like lasagne and lamb stockpot.
On their first day in March they took one order. By the end of summer they were delivering 40 to 50 meals a day. The profits were more than enough to pay their bills and the couple also gave out some free meals to the elderly and NHS workers.
In September they downsized their successful lockdown enterprise into a once-a-month supper club, and used the money they made to secure something approaching their original dream: a grab-and-go deli shop on the High Street of the market town of Leek, Staffordshire.
“We want to reinvigorate our local High Street,” says Chris, “there’s a lot of good will for independent shops.”
“In a way Covid was a blessing,” says Jessica, “in that it pushed us forwards, otherwise we’d still be in our old jobs.”
In south-east London another entrepreneur is pursuing a food dream, though he is learning from scratch.
Every Tuesday Andrew Woodhouse gets up at 3.30am to drive to Billingsgate Market. He buys a consignment of fresh salmon and takes it home, where he fillets it and leaves it to cure in trays of salt. He’s finished by 6am. Then he can begin his day job.
This is Andrew’s “new normal”. He is an out-of-office fishmonger, thanks to Covid-19.
Since university the 27-year-old had worked in the financial events industry, organising conferences around the world.
These came to an abrupt halt when coronavirus struck.
“I was furloughed over the summer, which I expected, but I didn’t want to waste my time sitting around,” he explains. So he decided to work on a business idea inspired by a childhood passion.
He used to go coarse fishing on the River Mole near his home in Hampton, southwest London, catching carp, tench and pike.
By his twenties, he was fly fishing, and went on salmon fishing holidays as far afield as Iceland and North America.
In lockdown he decided to turn his catch into his product, selling smoked salmon, which he would prepare himself.
He built his own salmon smoker in his garden after researching some instructions online, and converted his basement into a curing room. “My flatmates weren’t too keen on smelly fish lying around,” Andrew admits.
He has registered his food business Andrew’s Smokehouse with the council and found a steady stream of customers by posting on Instagram the and Nextdoor app. At his peak he was fulfilling around 100 orders a month.
It was hard work over the summer when he devoted himself full-time to the start-up, but the profits topped up his wages back to100% (from the 80% furlough rate).
Andrew is now back working full-time from home organising virtual conferences, but still running his salmon business.
His advice for other entrepreneurs who are juggling paid employment and start-ups is this: “You might feel time is the only thing stopping you, but you can always make time depending on what scale you want your business to operate. Why not give it a go?”