Resilient Thanet businesses are adapting to cope with the continuing Covid restrictions but some are reporting a drastic drop in income.
Lockdown 2 seems to have been less stringent than the first national measures between March and June but the continuing rules that businesses need to operate by and, in some cases, a drop in customer confidence means local firms across a variety of trades have had to get inventive.
The second Lockdown was easier to foresee than the first, giving independents time to prepare and, for those that could, organise online shops or takeaway and delivery services.
Nationally the picture has been bleak, particularly for retail, with the latest Data Company and PWC report revealing accelerating closures – a record 11,120- but also consistent openings of 5,119 – the highest since 2017.
In Thanet closures included large venues such as Genting Casino, DW Gym, Laura Ashley, Carphone Warehouse and redundancies made at sites including Margate Theatres and Dreamland.
But there have been new ventures too including Please Sir sandwich shop in Broadstairs, Happily Ever Afters tea parlour and studio and Little Seaside Town in Ramsgate and Under 1 Roof Kids Thanet opening at the former Bumble Beez site in Pysons Road.
Silvers café, bar and events space with a dance school downstairs opened in Margate High Street and The Ravensgate Arms opened a pop up site at Ramsgate Boating Pool.
The Data Co and PWC report says there are signs of a resurgence of interest in the High Streets, particularly independents over the chains.
PWC says: “With people now spending more time working from home, there’s been a resurgence of interest in local high streets. In this environment, multiples (chains) are likely to be at a disadvantage to local independents. Not just because consumers are more likely to support local independents, but because multiples are no longer where consumers are spending more of their time.”
So, what has the experience of some of our Thanet independent businesses been?
The Dalby Café, Margate
The Dalby Café in Cliftonville is owned by Mark and Anne Ezekiel and is probably the oldest in the town, first opening its doors in 1946.
For the last 20 years Mark has been at the helm, taking on the business when he was just 19-years-old. He has made the Dalby Road café a destination of choice for everyone from hungry families to Cliftonville’s resident musician Pete Doherty.
Boasting awards for the best breakfast in Kent and famed for its mega breakfast challenge, The Dalby Cafe this Summer also scooped Tripadvisor’s Traveller’s Choice award – putting it in the top 10% of rated restaurants worldwide.
As an established business, there is a good customer base but the need for covid secure equipment – at a cost – and the restrictions have seen current takings dip to around a tenth of “a very busy day’s trading.”
Mark, who lives in Westgate, spent a considerable amount on covid secure measures, ripping out and replacing the kitchen, installing new counters and new seating booths.
Some £300 was also spent on a contactless hand sanitiser station and measures to ensure government guidelines are adhered to.
After reopening in July there was an up tic in trade – especially during the Eat Out t Help Out scheme – but lockdown 2 has meant adapting again with a takeaway and delivery service.
Mark said: “We are taking about 10% of what would be a very busy day’s takings at the moment. We are doing take#aways and deliveries and the situation focuses you to think outside of the box. But we do not want to offer this service and let it lower standards for customers in the actual café (when reopened).
“With the fits lockdown there were grants to pay bills. This time around I think many of us were better prepared, it was anticipated and we could see the virus was not going away.
“A good thing is that our staff are covered although we are paying national insurance.”We have been established for a long time so I think it will work out for us but it must be worrying for people who do not have that customer base because they have just started out. There have been winners and losers.
“Last time was hard but in July we got back some normality, then there was Eat Out to Help Out, but lives are more important at the end of the day.
“It is now a time of innovation, for people to get creative. We have to be as positive as possible and get through it and hope for better times.”
Nice Things gallery and shop, Ramsgate
Suzy Humphries has run Nice Things gallery and store for 10 years but she says the bank account is now at zero and she has had to take out a Bounce Back loan.
She said: “We’ve been coping by me not taking any income at all and relying on the lucky thing that I’d taken a loan on my home mortgage to build a bathroom on our house, which I’ve not done and used the money to pay all our bills and living plus prop up the shop.
“I’ve been paying everything promptly so there’s no hidden debts. The online shop we built in lockdown 1, we’ve been expanding and adding new stock and Christmas things, and we had a weekend with 12 orders but they tail off, although it’s been ok. It does not compare in any way to the shop and the number of customers we would have – we don’t have the money to pay for SEO or google advertising in the way the big boys do and so it’s just impossible to reach a mass audience in reality.
“So, now we are at zero in the bank and no way to continue except taking a Bounce Back loan to be able to continue trading.
“What we are taking online is 20% of what we took in the shop for the same dates last year. There’s no cushion to sustain that loss of income.
“If our rent was covered it would help – our basic functioning costs for the space and business equipment is £500 a week (without wages), so this is a constant drain whether we sell anything or not.”
Find the online shop at https://nice-things.co.uk/
Happily Ever Afters, Ramsgate
Just up the High Street is Happily Ever Afters tea parlour and performing arts studios.
Having moved the tea parlour from Margate, owner Heidi Moran opened the Ramsgate venue in September, between lockdowns.
While the dessert parlour and craft boutique side of the business has been able to switch to takeaways and online, the performance studios and community space has taken a hit.
Heidi said: “Our venue is quite unique in the fact that we are a coffee shop, sweet treat dessert parlour, plus a boutique for local crafters to sell their items and a community space/performing arts studio on site.
“The Happily Ever Afters side has switched to reduced opening hours and takeaway only via collection. We have also worked very hard to get all of our crafters’ items online, via a virtual Christmas market. Customers can browse and then click and collect.
“The community space has been affected as all of our local hirers have had to stop using the space, so we have dance groups, theatre groups, fitness, baby groups, all now having to either take another break from running or run online.
“Our performing arts academy has gone completely online, running our full timetable via Zoom, to help our pupils keep up with their training and development, as well as give them a bit of normality and help with mental health and the social side.
“It has been a challenge, lots may not have the greatest internet connection or devices to use, or some may not have as much space or a quiet room away from family or pets, but we have done lots to adapt the sessions and help them all to be able to take part in one way or another.
“We are also working towards lockdown badges and certificates, as well as moving some of our regular exam and grading sessions online. We are creating challenges and videos for them to be part of, which replaces the fact that we are unable to do all of our performing we would normally at this time of year.
“It is a very tough situation, all small businesses need support from the government/ council, if they are going to survive this. As we were not running as this business set up during the cut off periods for certain funding we missed out on lots of help and grants, and I know lots of others who have missed out or been excluded from the government help.
“More does need to be done to support the small, local businesses, as these are now the backbone of our community and high streets, due to all the chains moving away.
“If the chains are struggling and closing, then it shows how hard little businesses have to work. They should be championed and rewarded, not thrown to one side.
“I am lucky to have very loyal, supportive customers, who have adapted to the changes well and helped it all to adapt, so I feel for those who aren’t in that position.”
For Thanet Cars the lockdown impact has been less extreme this time around as customers get used to the services offered and many prefer to avoid public transport.
Boss Andy Doody said: “The feedback from local businesses is that it was almost expected so where possible many have concentrated on creating or improving an online service for purchases and trade. We have been ticking over for several reasons. We were getting feedback from many of our loyal customers along with new to us customers that they were wary to use the local buses, especially with all the school children travelling, and felt much more at ease to use our service.
“Our drivers and staff had passed on and explained the information that we had and have prioritised their safety by investing on vehicle sanitising equipment and by the drivers getting their cars sanitised/fogged at the office on a regular basis.
“The drivers carry information in their cars on when this was last done, and this has definitely put many at ease. Many of the Thanet Cars drivers have also had bespoke Perspex screens made specifically for their cars by our friends at Allstyle in Birchington which are so much better than the flimsy film versions.
“These actions as well as masks, sanitiser gel and cardless payments, has kept us leading the way forward into the future with this dreadful virus.
“We have also registered with the countrywide Go-safe-Go-taxi scheme meaning that we abide by all the protocols advised by the Government. I think the combination of these measures as well as all our regular customers still being able to talk to telephonists and staff they recognise and drivers they have seen regularly has meant that this time the work has picked up compared to the first time.
“Customers have got used to the extra services that have been put into place such as the shopping ‘click and collect service’ and feel comfortable in asking to have prescriptions picked up or parcels collecting.
“No doubt Christmas will be a totally different one to what we have experienced before, and a lot obviously depends on the course of action the Government have to take for December 3.
“We here at the 333333 taxi offices have already started to take some early bookings and also answered many enquiries along the lines of would we be able to help out with collection and deliveries over the festive period. We are able to do this and with a bit of common sense and local businesses working together it may well be better than some are expecting.
“It would be useful to have a council led initiative for a community business help line/office/department that could help in getting businesses in touch with each other to create productivity and answer queries relevant to the small business owners and the self-employed who feel they do not have anyone to ask for guidance or to bounce ideas off.”
Second round of business grants now open
Thanet council has now opened a new round of grants for businesses hit by the second lockdown.
These are the Local Restrictions Support Grant (Closed) Addendum scheme and the Additional Restrictions Grants scheme.