Sarah Heward, co-owner of The Real Food Café in Tyndrum- Lessons learned during the pandemic
I opened The Real Food Café in 2005, transforming a derelict Little Chef into an award-winning roadside diner with a turnover of £1.6million. I have faced many obstacles over the years, obstacles that taught me valuable business and life lessons. However, I have learned more in the past year than ever before.
Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, we were making record profits, and just on the verge of opening a new unit. Fast forward to March 2021 and if we can re-open then, we will have traded for just 15 weeks out of the previous 54, at a seriously reduced capacity. The first few months of the pandemic were particularly stressful, we scrambled to get loans from our bank from the get-go to safeguard the business and protect our 20 permanent staff members. It was a very gruelling process for my husband, Alan who is the Managing Director of the business.
During the first lockdown, we invested heavily in Covid-19 safety. We built extra handwashing facilities outside, kitted our team out in new high vis staff uniforms (they were outside taking and delivering orders to customers’ cars) and restructured the inside of the café. We made sure that we were registered with relevant Covid-19 safety schemes like VisitScotland’s ‘Good to Go’ and the AA’s ‘Covid Confident’. The process of achieving these accreditations helped us ensure we were complying with government guidelines (none of us are Covid experts) as well as reassuring the customers that our operation was safe.
Before re-opening in July, we invested in an online ordering platform and went cashless. This was to offer a safer and faster service to customers. The introduction of this system represented a major change for both our customers and our team and one we are still working to perfect in the areas of communication, staff training and e-marketing.
The online ordering system has yielded some astounding statistics. During the 15 weeks that we were open we took revenues of £435K which was 80% of the sales achieved for the same period in 2019, but this was achieved with only 61% of the number of transactions compared with the same period last year. In other words, without the online ordering system and the higher average value sale, we would have taken £55K less during the period that we were open.
This learning has been without a doubt the best thing to come out of the pandemic. We may never have come to understand the value of online retailing if we were not forced to do so.
Planning & Communication
While we have been closed, we have used this time to continue to plan ahead. We’ve been working on fine-tuning the online platform, making it more enjoyable for the team and customers for when we re-open.
Pre-Covid we were looking for a new location in central Glasgow, and we have decided to continue to search for this site as a necessity now to help spread our geographical risk and create a new flagship fish and chip takeaway and delivery, with a dark kitchen behind it to fulfil digital orders. It will use the online ordering platform, so the learnings we are gaining in Tyndrum will be very valuable in Glasgow.
Throughout the pandemic, we have been in constant communication with our team (who are all furloughed). We have provided training and learning plans so they can continue to develop and learn new skills. We host a weekly team Zoom and 1-2-1’s for their mental health and wellbeing. It is important to us that our team feel included and are ‘fit’ and ready to come back to work when we eventually re-open.
Rural tourism infrastructure
Back in 2020 after the first lockdown was lifted and things returned to a ‘new normal’, the highlands and other rural areas of Scotland became overwhelmed by tourists, looking to escape the cities and urban life. It quickly became apparent how poorly equipped for mass tourism our rural infrastructure is. This has led us to forming an action group to do something about improving the situation in Tyndrum. Together with a small group of volunteers we are aiming to secure funding for an ambitious infrastructure improvement project which includes tourist information, public car parking, rural housing, waste facilities and most importantly new upgraded toilets, including a Changing Places toilet. We hope that this will be a tangible and lasting legacy from Covid-19 that will benefit the local community, tourists and disabled travellers.
The Covid-19 pandemic has become quite refreshing in a weird kind of way. Although stressful, the massive disruption has created a space for change and a fresh mindset of ‘anything is possible’.
It is a good time for growth as people are open to change, now more than ever after being latterly mind-blown by the pandemic. Furthermore, there is a considerable amount of generosity from the public and great hospitality industry spirit to help small businesses rebuild and recover. I won’t dwell on the political response or better put, the lack of it.
I guess one of the fundamentals for me is to keep the faith. Keep the faith in your ability and very importantly in your supporters and colleagues around you. No one gets through things like this on their own. Everyone needs at least a few great people around them to lean on and trust in their faith. Here’s to hoping that soon, we can pick ourselves up and rebuild our great industry.
The Real Food Café
Sarah Heward started The Real Food Café in 2005 in what was once a derelict Little Chef premises. It is now known for its great-tasting food from its famous fish and chips to its selection of home baking. Over the last decade The Real Food Café has won numerous awards and accolades including; Gold Awards at the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards in 2017 and 2018 in the Fish and Chip Shop category, being listed in the Lonely Planet Guide. In 2020 the Café won the National Fish Fryers Federation’s Quality Award Champion at the National Fish & Chip Awards and was crowned Best Informal Dining Experience at this year’s Thistle Awards.