Cafe owners cautious as foodservice operations set to reopen
For more than a year, farm shops and delis have been shutting and reopening their foodservice operations in line with lockdown restrictions.
But with the vaccination programme making progress, there is hope that the country could return to some semblance of normality in the coming months.
In February, Boris Johnson unveiled England’s roadmap out of lockdown – including plans to reopen the hospitality and foodservice industry – with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also making their own plans.
The response from retailers about the PM’s plan for the sector has been mixed, with some keener than others to encourage diners back in.
Emma Mosey, co-owner of Minskip Farm Shop near York, says she is feeling positive at the prospect of returning to business as usual.
“We’re really looking forward to getting back to having the café open and motivating the team,” she tells FFD, adding that the farm shop is already taking bookings.
The business has spent the third lockdown planning and preparing for when it can reopen the café with 60 covers indoors and 80 covers outside. That said, some changes might be made to how the café serves customers outdoors from 12th April, with Mosey considering a simpler menu similar to its takeaway offering and using disposable containers rather than plates, to keep demands on front-of-house staff in check.
“We’ve got staff members who have been off for some time, so we want to ease them back into the throes in that five weeks before we reopen inside,” she says.
In the Cotswolds, Broadway Deli is cautiously reopening its café following the Government’s track record of changing strategies at short notice.
“We’ve learnt the hard way from planning too much,” says co-owner George Courts. “The Government set the dates but they’ve also said they could change, so we’re taking everything with a pinch of salt at the moment.”
For now, Broadway’s takeaway service is thriving as customers have become used to visiting the deli for a coffee on their daily walks. But preparations are still being made for when the café can reopen, including extending the outdoor dining area from the rear patio onto a lawn to allow for social distancing.
Inside, café tables have been permanently moved from the shop floor. A retail room on the deli’s first floor has been turned into a dining area to afford three rooms exclusively for café seating. No covers have been lost through these layout changes, and it is a better use of the first floor which saw lower footfall even before COVID struck.
“We’ve learned a few lessons during the pandemic,” says Courts. “We’ve done a few things that we wouldn’t normally have done, so it’s made us think and work a bit differently.”
Meanwhile, Scotts of Alnmouth in Northumberland is waiting to see what happens over the next six months before making any decision on reopening the café, having sustained the business without it.
“Although our revenue is down against previous years, our profitability is up quite substantially,” says owner Andrew Scott, citing the temporary 5% reduced rate of VAT for hospitality, lower overhead costs, and a doubling of basket spend.
“If VAT went back to 20% and we continued to work as a takeaway-only business, we’d still be more profitable than we would have been in previous years because our costs have significantly reduced from not running the café.”
Homemade ready-meals, launched during the first national lockdown, now account for 10% of sales with Scott looking to employ a chef to help with production and produce a greater volume of deli-counter and own-brand lines.
Even if Scott had wanted to reopen the café following the earliest permitted dates it would have been unviable to do so, as the café can only accommodate eight covers (from the original 24) under social distancing restrictions.
Whether or not this has a detrimental impact on the business remains to be seen. “Will people no longer start to come to us because we don’t offer a café?
That’s the big unknown.