Thanet businesses coping with the Covid impact and planning for the next phase

Our High Streets have been empty and many businesses have been shut Photo Carl Hudson

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been huge on public life, health services, schools and more.

Businesses have been hit hard with many ordered to shut their doors on March 20, before the curbs on all public life from March 23. Pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants, leisure centres, gyms and theatres were told to shut in a public address by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

By March 23 non-essential shops were also closed. Some businesses were able to offer a takeaway and/or delivery service but for many this proved nonviable.

The closures and general public life restrictions have meant businesses have lost out on the valuable Easter trade and have to prepare for a difficult summer where some attractions, like Dreamland, will still be unable to open fully and others will have to make major adjustments for social distancing and additional cleaning routines.

There has been support from the government with business and self employment grants, the furlough scheme aimed at saving jobs by paying 80% of salaries and rent, mortgage and rates breaks.

In Thanet, the council has now paid government cash grants to 2,548 local businesses totalling £27.9million. This has reached 84% of all eligible businesses in the district.

There are still more businesses that qualify who have yet to apply and the council is working to contact them.

Although helpful, the grants do not give long term security. Phased reopenings are now planned with a provisional June 1 date for non-essential retail and July 4 earmarked for some of the remaining businesses and premises that have been required to close, including personal care, such as hairdressers and beauty salons, hospitality, such as restaurants, pubs and accommodation, and leisure facilities, like cinemas, but this will be dependent on whether social distancing measures can be put in place.

Some venues which are, by design, crowded and where it may prove difficult to enact distancing may still not be able to re-open safely at this point, or may be able to open safely only in part.

The Isle of Thanet News spoke to some Thanet businesses to see how they have been coping and what they are planning for future months:

The Bus Café, ‘Sun Deck’ Margate

The Bus Café, which started in the Old Town and is now based at  Nayland’s Royal Crescent Promenade as the anchor business for the ‘Sun Deck’ area, is run by  Simon Lindley, wife Jodie Ellena and friends Xander Muir and Lois Du Plessis.

The café, which is heavily reliant on seasonal trade, shut on March 18 due to concerns for the young seasonal staff.

Jodie and Simon then fell ill, they believe with the virus, so even limited business was not possible.

Jodie said: “For two weeks we were really ill with every symptom apart from the really bad cough. I’ve never ached so much, you ached inside your bones and it was relentless.”

The four have been lucky with landlord Nick Conington, of Sands Hotel, waving rent until they can trade again but there are still overheads. The £10,000 small business grant, payable to those with a rateable value of £15,000 or below, has helped but only goes so far.

Jodie said: “Nick has been really supportive of our business and we couldn’t be more grateful. If we had been having to pay rent without an income that £10,000 grant wouldn’t last long at all. There are lots of businesses who have not experienced the same generosity.

“The £10,000 still won’t last that long, we have overheads and used some of it at the beginning to help pay our staff.

“The business is totally on hold at the moment and we literally do not know when it will be safe to open. The struggle is also when you do open, how do you entice people back?

“No-one has anyone income so where before people had disposable income and they were happy to buy a breakfast or lunch, that isn’t there like before. So, we will have to try and figure out how to change our offer dramatically.

“Then we have to look at how we will survive the winter. Usually the Summer trade carries us through but even when we do open, the bus is a confined space. We could have two or three tables maximum, we would have to do it on a booking system with people staying maybe 45 minutes – so no lingering -and this means the whole experience of going out to eat changes. It will be less spontaneous, less about being able to chill out, it will feel quite systematic, like a production line of people.”

Social distancing and enhanced cleansing would mean the end of cutlery bowls and napkins and there would be the need to totally disinfect after each customer – reducing the covers that could be served each day and so flattening income.

Jodie said: “We could open for takeaways, we have the hatch, but only two of us will be able to work at any one time.

“It’s tricky and we have to face that our landlord is going to need rent at some point.”

Find The Bus Cafe Margate on Facebook here

The Bay Tree Hotel and Restaurant, Broadstairs

Owners Alistair Dixon and Robert Stone, accompanied by Bedlington Terriers Ben and Ptolemy, are at the helm of the Bay Tree in Eastern Esplanade, Broadstairs.

The couple bought the property in 2015 and have since completely transformed it, creating a boutique hotel and restaurant that reflects their own tastes and characters.

As well as ten en-suite bedrooms for guests, The Bay Tree has its popular restaurant with a focus on fresh produce.

The business, along with others across the country, had to close just prior to the March 23 lockdown although rooms could be used for people who had attended a funeral – catered for twice – key workers – accounting for three guests – and people moving home, which The Bay Tree has not been required for.

Alistair said: “We have been empty for some weeks but have kept busy offering our elderly neighbours a delivery service of lunches, evening meals and afternoon teas.”

Guests, many of them older people from the Medway towns, had already called to postpone their bookings before the shut down. Luckily, The Bay Tree has many regular and loyal visitors who are keen to return when it is deemed safe to do so.

The pair have been eligible for the small business grant and praised Thanet council for the efficiency in which this was delivered. A bounce back loan, where government pays the first 12 months of interest, has also been applied for.

Robert said: “Looking at when we are going to be allowed to reopen, all we can do is listen to the signals put out by the government. The last signal put out by Boris Johnson when he spoke to the nation gave a slight indication that it might be July. We hope it will be July since schools will break up – assuming they go back in June – and July, August and early September are very strong months for the tourism industry.

“It could be that people think it is too early and they do not want to take risks and do not want to go anywhere. Or they may say the expert advice is that it is safe, they haven’t been out of their London flat for five months and want to go to the seaside. People may not want to get on an aeroplane and there is a resurgence for the British seaside holiday.”

Robert and Alistair say although they can’t get back the lost income from the weeks of closure they hope to be able to pick up financially once trade restarts.

Alistair said: “We can’t think in terms of getting back money but have to think of picking up and ramping up to take us to where we would have been.”

Changes before the lockdown already included a covid policy and hand sanitisers, plus a high degree cleaning routine has always been in place for both the rooms and the kitchen. But reopening will mean some adaptions.

Robert said: “We will probably have to change the restaurant around and ask people to give a time they want to come in, rather than allowing walk-ins, so we can stagger things.

“There is no easy answer. The rooms are deep cleaned already but if we have to wait a day or two when a customer check out, then that will be damaging.”

The pair have been using personal reserves to help keep cash flow going but say they hope the government will give some more assistance to the hospitality and tourism industries.

Find The Bay Tree on facebook here

Little Brown Fairy Cake, Westgate

Cake-maker Nicola Bradshaw opened her shop in Station Road in February. Prior to that she had been running her fantastical cake creation business from home for some eight years.

The 51-year-old has previously hit the limelight for amazing cake sculptures including a 6ft BFG, Dobbie, John Coffey from the Green Mile and an array of dark, weird and wonderful characters.

The shutdown order for businesses has meant total closure for Nicola, who says the takeaway option just wasn’t viable for her.

She said: “I’m not trading at all, all the big cakes have been cancelled and wedding have been postponed until next year – which means the work next year is going to be crazy. People aren’t having big gatherings and birthday events are small so I make a loss there.

“I did get the small business grant but I still have rent to pay, electric, all those things.

“I have been in contact with Environmental Health to make sure of what I need in place and I’m hoping to reopen in June.  I hope the business survives but I do worry about there being a second wave, these are such uncertain times.”

The business is partly seasonal, with most weddings in the Summer and the hope that the tourist season would boost shop trade, but Nicola says she is also looking forward to Halloween and the making of some of her darkly wonderful creations.

She said: “I’m hoping I can get a bit of the summer, even on an outside basis. Lots of people have asked about when I will open so I think the aim is for June, to be open in some way.”

Find Little Brown Fairy Cake on facebook here

The Modern Boulangerie, Ramsgate

George Bellamy-Adams created The Modern Boulangerie in 2017 after quitting as head baker at venues in London.

He specialises in Viennoiserie – which translates as ‘things of Vienna’  and includes croissants, Pain au Chocolat and Pain aux Raisin and also in Beignets, which are French pastries. But he also makes a variety of buns and is currently fundraising for the ovens and equipment to bake a range of fresh bread.

At first baking from the premises of another business he soon became so popular that last November he opened his first shop at 2a Westcliff Road.

There has been no stop in trade for George who has seen steady demand for his goods from the community but he says business projections had also factored the anticipated tourist season.

He said: “We have had a wider reach in the community, who have been outstanding but I can’t theorise how this will affect tourism even next year. You can’t predict how the whole thing is going to develop.

“We have a loyal following of local regulars but it is hard to say how this has affected the seasonal trade as this will be our first Summer. But it has given me time to reassess the priorities  of what I make rather than how much I make.”

At the start of the pandemic George lost most of his staff and was working virtually alone but he now has a new, committed crew.

He has been eligible for the small business grant which has helped upgrade storage and clear some bills.

George said: “We are weathering the storm, it could be a lot worse. I am optimistic but you can’t see the future and there is that chance of a second wave in June/July. If that meant the government putting in serious lockdown measures then we’d have to shut the shop.”

George says that as a food business there are already many hygiene measures in place, such as using latex gloves which are regularly changed to stop cross contamination – although gloves have now become difficult to source.

Gaining supplies has also proved a little more tricky. George said: “My main supplier had to furlough practically the entire workforce so it was a bit touch and go but we are just making the best of it. The supply is there but it is harder to get people working in the right places for the chain. You can’t just order something, it now has to be done the day before with deliveries just on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. If you forget something you have to do without.”

Find The Modern Boulangerie on facebook here

ADM Home & Gardenscapes, Birchington

Amongst the struggles to reopen, there are also new shoots. ADM Home and gardenscapes, based in Birchington, is a new business launched despite the coronavirus crisis by Birchington entrepreneur Aarron Moore.

The 29-year-old dad had been working as a self employed contractor for other but decided t was time to set up on his own.

He said: “I’m a perfectionist with my work and was often frustrated, so I decided it was time to move on and start up my own business. I want to be able to deliver the work to a very high standard and ensure that my clients are completely satisfied with a job that will last for years and years.

“I’ve been working as a specialised ground worker and landscaper for 6 years, which includes everything from foundations to patios and lawns. When I was younger I worked as a painter and decorator and handyman, and have lots of experience with things such as fitting wood and laminate floors, tiling, fitting shelving and more.

“Outside work I’m very keen on the vintage lifestyle, and spend time dancing and going to vintage events. I’m a family man and love spending time at home with the kids, and also cooking and barbecuing.”

Aaron offers a range of services, find the website here

True Recruitment, Margate

Samantha Cox, from Margate, runs True Recruitment Ltd. She has previously worked with employability projects for training providers including helping young people with barriers such as poor mental health and learning difficulties.

Following a cut to funding for the role and an extensive job search Samantha launched her own recruitment firm.

True Recruitment is offering COVID 19 return to work assessments,

Samantha said: “Companies need to make measures to ensure their employees feel safe on their return to work and the best way to demonstrate good practice is a COVID 19 – Return to work risk assessment.

“At True Support and Training, we have an experienced team available to provide comprehensive support with developing a return to work plan, adapting working arrangements, communicating with employees and provide training following COVID 19.

“This will ensure employers are able to demonstrate good practice and are aware of what implications the virus has had and will continue to have.

“We will work with people to ensure they understand and are able to demonstrate the government;s recommended compliance  to reduce and prevent any employees being at risk from contracting the virus.

“Our service includes looking at, advising and directing, to gather the correct information to carry out a to risk assessment on a business and develop an action plan on how to take control to ensure all guidelines are understood and adhered to.”

The service will look at areas including health and safety procedures, cross infection, infection prevention, PPE and managing the end of fuloughing.

For details call 01843 220636 or email samantha.cox@truerecruitmentkent.com