No soothsayer, crystal ball gazer, clairvoyant or psychic could have predicted what has devastatingly unfolded, on a global basis, over the past 12 months. Today, just one year later, new words, acronyms and expressions dominate our everyday language, which previously had no meaning, at least not in the restaurant business. Now we have WFH, PPE, family bubbles, curb-side pick-up, no-contact tap and, of course, covidiots. Customers order their food by phone and collect it wearing a mask, often idiosyncratically styled. We have learnt to look at their eyes, the windows to the soul, and try to recognize their voices.
Twelve months ago we had 14 members of staff — today we have four. Our sales have plummeted by almost 60 per cent. As owners, we haven’t taken a wage since April last year so that we can afford to pay our remaining staff — not a single customer has sat down for a meal in our restaurant since the COVID pandemic began. Very quickly we realized that we were going to go down the tubes unless we took positive action. Not many restaurants carry enough surplus cash to survive a prolonged dry spell — it is a business that relies on cash flow. Turnover. A week or maybe two with no revenue and then it’s time to lock the door and throw away the key. We had to reinvent ourselves and quickly.
We decided to turn our popular little sit-down into a takeaway. We used our savings to redecorate and brighten up our image, install Plexiglas PPE screens, put in a new pick-up/ takeaway-friendly counter and point of sales system. It took us seven days to complete the transformation and we were open again offering a park ’n’ pick-up curb-side service. We created a new web-based menu, but our staple fish ’n’ chips remains the firm favourite. Has been since 2008. We looked at delivery, but companies such as Skip The Dishes and Uber are currently not servicing this area — anyway, we preferred to try to stay face-to-face with our customers and hope that good food, a smile and friendly service would do the trick. It has.
Well, here we are now, February 2021 and we’re still going strong. The takeaway service took a little time to get going, but now it’s working well. The interesting thing is that our customer demographic has changed — in addition to our many loyal, local customers, the comparatively young, upwardly mobile new residents of Chelsea are really supporting the business and we are meeting a lot of new people who didn’t know we existed a year ago.
We didn’t reinvent our recipes, we reinvented ourselves, cranked up our attitude to ultra-positive and went out on a limb with a saw; a crisis can bring the best and the worst out of people, but we know that as partners we are stronger now than we have ever been. Who knows what’s coming, but bring it on. And a huge thank you to all the wonderful health and social workers who have put their lives on the line to keep us going through these surreal times.
James Hargreaves is co-owner of Le Resto Chelsea in Chelsea.