As most operators will appreciate, opening a restaurant is traumatic and exhilarating in equal measure. On 4 November 2019, Sam’s Riverside finally opened - 18 months late with all the roller coaster highs and lows that the early days bring. But by February 2020, we knew we were on the right track with strong sales (even in traditionally quiet times), loyal customers and staff.
And then stop! Corona beats the trauma stakes hands down. The what if, when, how… the uncertainty is excruciating, and no one has answers. This was certainly not in the business plan.
Initially, on the week prior to full lockdown, we soldiered on. Then, on full lockdown, we toyed with the idea of opening a shop in the restaurant, for takeaway and delivery. Staff wanted to work, we wanted to work, customers wanted the service, but finally we made the hard decision to fully close. It was safer (staff out of harm’s way and I am asthmatic) to hunker down, analyse the business to date, review what we were doing well and what improvements might be needed, work on future projects, and return bigger and better whenever given the green light of a lift on the lockdown.
We will all need a certain amount of cash to re-open - without it, I envisage a lot of heartache. My business partner and I knew there was a lot of a love and support for our new restaurant, so we launched a Go Fund Me Pledge page. We have been blown away by the response. So far, we have raised an astonishing £42,000, and every day there are additional pledges of support. This extra boost of cash means we are able to pay our team and not wait for the government furlough cash. We are going to keep the pledge page open, and I hope this allows us to build up a small reserve to help re-open.
This will plug a hole, but what we really need is access to the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), and with our bank not yet on the panel of lenders, it is very difficult as a fledgling business to get a foot through the door of another bank. However great the restaurant’s initial performance, and however much we have raised through pledges, we only have four months of trading under our belt.
Good business is about adapting and doing what it takes to ensure survival. With the responsibility of 40 people employed by us, survival is vital for them as well as for our many suppliers, some of whom have been hit tremendously hard.
"Those that will survive will be the
most forward-thinking and those
who put their teams and customers first"
I struggle with the idea of operating with social distancing restrictions. If we are still paying 100% overheads, but only taking 50% less in takings, it simply does not add up. Restaurant margins are incredibly tight even in normal circumstances. With these sorts of restrictions in place, is a restaurant even viable?
We are in the hospitality business, not just food providers. How do we create a buzz in the dining room while still being vigilant about spacing and contact. Will people still want to go out until things are much more settled?
With no restaurant crystal ball, we have to be creative and diversify. How long will it take until our top line sales return? We will need additional revenue streams to survive. At Sam’s Riverside, we have a storage and office space that we will be turning into a food shop - ‘Sam’s Larder’ - when we re-open. We will also launch our outside catering service, so that our customers can enjoy our food from the comfort of their own homes.
None of us know what the landscape will look like on the other side. Those that will survive will be the most forward-thinking and those who put their teams and customers first. Luckily, I feel that as a local restaurant attached to the much-loved Riverside Studios, we have a strong platform to build on. But I want to think about who we work with and why, and am committed to staying close to my local community. We are already working with the Hammersmith Community Gardens Association, and intend to do a lot more with them in terms of sourcing all of our fruit and vegetables.
As someone who had his own mental health concerns in the past, I am acutely aware of the toll that this has taken on so many of us. At Sam’s Riverside, we work with a charity close to my heart - the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, and now I feel it is time for us to up our game and see what more we can do as so many people face mental health issues.
No doubt this is going to be a long journey back…..
Sam Harrison is owner of Sam's Riverside