Our Lockdown Story – 1 year on

The Start of 2020

2020 started off as such a great year for us. We started it in New York visiting our son, Louis and daughter in law, Kirsty, with our other children and then having a lovely break in Florida with Kirsty’s parents. We arrived back in early January, recharged (it was our first Christmas off in 10 years) and full of hope and expectation for the year ahead, save for some tests Elaine was having about a clicking feeling in her neck, but they felt pretty routine and nothing to worry about (how wrong could we be), and in March, Lunya would be 10 years old – quite an achievement for a couple who had no experience in this industry beforehand.  We had so much to look forward to.

2018 and 2019 had been tough years for the business.  The impact of the Brexit referendum saw a huge drop in the euro exchange rate which really pushed up the prices of all of our Spanish produce by over 25%, a cost which we had to absorb ourselves, coupled with a drop in consumer spending, with a worry about the future and what impact Brexit may have.  Rich or poor, everyone seemed concerned about the short-term economic prospects and were spending less.  For us this resulted in a drop in income and two very hard years for us. But 2020 saw the UK depart from the EU, and whatever your view of that is, a year ago, there was a degree of optimism that certainty was a lot better than the two previous years of uncertainty. For us January and early February showed a real prospect of it being a very good year, sales were up, I’d been discharged from the fracture clinic after breaking my arm in August, we were thinking about cycling the Camino again and things were looking up.

In early February, we got a  lovely surprise from our daughter-in-law who treated us to a short return trip to New York to celebrate Louis’ 30th Birthday in the middle of the month.  There’d been mention of a virus spreading in China but not much mention of any impact in the UK, save for a curtailment of Chinese New Year celebrations.  We jetted off to New York (and remember seeing a passenger with a face mask on and thinking what an over-reaction that was!); we had  a wonderful week.  I can still remember flying back and a few more people on the plane were wearing face masks and there was more talk about another SARS virus, but without really registering the impending doom about to hit us.

When we got back in the last week in February, there was daily coverage on the news, the start of bringing people back from Wuhan and quarantining in Arrowe Park hospital in Wirral.  Trade was slowly being impacted and we started to get mildly worried, but still thinking this may like the swine flu or bird flu from years ago, and it wouldn’t really impact us.

March & COVID Hits

By the beginning of March, it was obvious that this was not going away and the newly named Coronavirus started to became a daily part of our lives with lots of speculation as to what might happen.  Yet still, it seemed like something affecting London and not Liverpool – it was hitting Italy and Spain but not us.  In the second week of March, we had a party for our 10th birthday, slightly muted but still a great celebration.  We really never thought Lunya would develop the way it did.  We are fantastically proud to have got this far and achieve what we have, and that night we were with family and all the friends we had made through the restaurant celebrating this achievement, momentarily, without a care in the world.  We did a 10 year retrospective (read it here) and came up with some incredible facts, notably, in our first 10 years we had paid over £7M in tax (well lover £8M if you include the tax our staff pay through their jobs) and that is exactly why government need to support small business – we are the bedrock of the economy.

But things were moving very quickly, there were daily updates on the news, and exactly a year ago, the message was given out advising people not go out to restaurants and make non-essential journeys.  Elaine and I met with our three General Managers to discuss the situation and make a plan for the week – trade was ebbing away.  By the time I had written the notes up of our meeting on the Tuesday, our plan was out of date.  Fortuitously, we made the decision to stop every single direct debit we had on our account – we had loads, nearly 40 of them.  We had to be in  control of what went out of our bank, and on that day, we had a balance of £128K, with a payroll in just over a week of nearly £90k to make – we had to honour that, if nothing else.

To me, it seemed the writing was on the wall that there would be (and should be) a lockdown and the government were procrastinating, advising the population what to do rather than telling and enforcing.  We decided to close our three restaurants that Wednesday (18th March).  We were beyond terrified of the implication of that, knowing that we had probably signed our business’ death warrant.  We went around all three very quiet restaurants to tell the staff, barely able to contain our tears and shear fear as we thought we would never open again.

That Letter & Tweet

That Wednesday morning, I attended the very first meeting of what was to become a Liverpool hospitality support group. It was obvious from the beginning of that week that our sector would have to close.  When you open a business, you build up lots of experience of opening but never think about and plan for closure.  We didn’t know what to do.  Early that week, I had tweeted out asking other restaurateurs if they were interested in meeting up to share our ideas and plans for closing to see what we could learn from each other.  We met in Luban.  It was a grey miserable day, and by the time I had walked from Hanover St to the Baltic market, I was wet and downbeat.  A camera crew from the BBC were waiting there to capture the thoughts of Liverpool restaurateurs.  The meeting was great, helpful and anxiety provoking in equal measure.  We shared our plans and lots of fears.  Many of us were meeting for the first time. That group has now developed into a very active WhatsApp forum where we share our ideas, concerns and plans, discuss how changing government policy might impact us.  It’s been fantastic and something very special to all of us.

My head was spinning.  The government had announced they would make loans available for businesses, but back then, security would be needed (we had virtually nothing to offer up as security anyway as our house was mortgaged to the hilt to fund the business), but the principle of borrowing to pay banks and landlords stuck in my throat.

I walked back from that meeting in the pouring rain, my head spinning, utterly terrified, crying my eyes out, thoughts racing through my head, full of anger, despair, shame and fear – and probably the fastest I had moved in a few decades!  I got back to the restaurant as lunch service should have been starting, we were empty – it had been the right call to close that night.  A red mist had descended on my and I went to the nearest table and got my laptop out and started to write a letter to Boris Johnson.  I’ve never done anything like that before but I needed to get the thoughts out of my head and tell him just what it was like as a small business owner and in particular the unfairness of being asked to sacrifice our only house to protect our landlords thousands of houses.  In Liverpool, we have two wonderful landlords who have been supportive throughout.  This was not about them, it was about the principle that the government were asking of all small business owners.

In 20 minutes it was done.  I never proof read it (that’s plain to see!) and tweeted it out to number 10 (Link here).  It was done, there was no plan for it, just a cathartic response to everything going on.  I couldn’t stop crying, everything was coming out and hitting home.  Elaine was having final cancer investigations, my elderly parents were needing more help than ever, and every second was taken up worrying about the business, giving them no time. I still feel utterly ashamed about that, of not giving enough time to them.  I composed myself as best as I could, we had one table in for lunch and I’d scare them off if they saw me like that.  Furthermore, we had nearly 100 staff to tell about our closing.  Just after 2pm, I noticed that we were getting a lot of social media messages, and one of our friends sent us a video they had made of BBC Parliament of Alison McGovern (one of our local Merseyside MPs) reading out my letter (written 2 hours previously) to Rishi Sunak at the Treasury Select Committee – the power of the internet! – asking him what he was going to do for small businesses like us and pointing out the unfairness of putting up personal security for a loan to potentially pay lenders and landlords.

Within a few days, the loan terms had all changed and there would be no need for security – we never expected to change policy, but my letter obviously played a part.  My phone then started to go crazy.  Virtually every media outlet that day wanted an interview.  The letter and tweet had struck a chord and within 48 hours over a million and a half people had seen it. Today, over 2.3M people have seen it and we were deluged with messages of support and so many other business owners telling us they were going through the same experience and range of emotions. We tried to respond to all of them, but the sheer volume meant we inevitably missed some

Media Frenzy

The next week was a blur. Once the letter was read out at the Treasury Select Committee, the media interest was phenomenal, and it has continued pretty much to this day.  Over 50 TV, radio, newspaper and magazines have interviewed myself and Elaine and kept in touch with our journey – we went international including CNN, French newspapers and German radio – even turning down Bloomberg as we were too busy!  The initial interviews were raw.  That first week, I couldn’t stop crying, so profoundly worried about the business and Elaine (with every test, they kept ruling Thyroid cancer in and it was confirmed at the beginning of April).  I’d compose myself for the cameras, but as soon as the question was asked (and everyone did ask it) ‘how are you feeling’, the tears flowed.  Our children had a running joke – how do you make dad cry?  Put a camera in front of him!  If we had been paid for every one, we could have halved our debt!

I started a daily audio diary for a programme that Radio 4 were planning, following 4 people through the pandemic.  It never saw the light of day, but yesterday, a year later, I listened to the first recording for the first time.  I bawled.  The emotion, the stress and absolute fear coming out is to hard to listen to.  I don’t think I’ll be able to listen to subsequent ones for a while yet.  They covered a very dark period in our lives.  The media interest has continued throughout the last year.  At times, our restaurant seemed to be a permanent studio, with a different crew in each week.  We said yes to pretty much every request – after every TV, radio or newspaper article, our sales were boosted and so important to carry on.  Hopefully talking sense and not making too much of a fool of myself.  There is something about our story which has resonated.  We’ve always been willing to say it as it is, and although we have had some really desperate moments, our story is one of hopeful optimism, and we really hope a happy ending (though who knows when that might be)

Staving Off Bankruptcy

Our heads were completely spinning at the time.  We had written to all of the lenders and leasing companies that we owed (in normal times, although a lot, perfectly manageable with our level of trade) telling them that we were unable to pay them a penny and had cancelled our direct debits.  Virtually immediately, most replied threatening us with action.  Interestingly a few didn’t and acknowledged the situation we were in through no fault of our own and started to offer helpful solutions.  Within a week or so, the rest all replied back helpfully – presumably the government had leant on the regulators or trade bodies telling lenders to be supportive and understanding.  All except one, however, Nucleus Commercial Finance who hounded us and about 10 weeks later, or so, called in the loan and passed it to the hands of debt collectors – in our opinion, a despicable (and isolated) act, and slapped on a near £6K ‘fine’ for the costs in doing so. How do they think that is going to help things?  Ironically, Nucleus were to be approved by the government months later to administer CBIL loans.  God help anyone borrowing from them! We tried to reason, plead and to no avail.  We had a number of local MPs writing to them on our behalf – their intransigence, lack of empathy and aggressive recovery action still did not change.

It was essential that we froze all spending, and the tactic worked.  We prioritised all of our suppliers to be paid as soon as we could and proudly managed to do that over the Spring.  Our landlords were supportive and granted us rent holidays.  To date, we owe over £300,000 in unpaid rent and now just starting discussions about that debt, hopeful that we can reach a compromise that won’t endanger either side.

Back at the end of March, we had payroll to meet and no income.  Furlough hadn’t been announced at that point.  We were convinced that were going under and thought that with the £138k we had in the bank, we would pay all of our staff their outstanding pay (close to £90K), as many suppliers as possible and then we expected we would go under – we were insolvent.  When income stops, that is the end for a business.  Because of the challenges of the last 2 years, we lived off cashflow and our business strategy was to see off the loans and when we did, the money going into those repayments would become our profit.  Imagine filling a bath with the plug out.  If the water from the taps (income) is coming in fast enough, whilst the water drains out (your expenses), as long as the flow coming in is faster than that going out, there is always water in the bath (your bank balance).  Turn the taps off and your in deep trouble, it empties and you run out of water (cash) – as long as you quickly put the plug in, you can preserve what little balance you have. That was our strategy.

The best investment we ever made

Also, from the very outset back in 2010, we had a small feedback card we placed with every bill and gave an opportunity for guests to sign up to our newsletter which we emailed out every month.  After 10 years, we had 60,000 contacts on our database. I decided to send out an email at the end of March, telling people how it was and if they wanted to help (we were getting lots of offers), that the best way to do it was to avoid the likes of Amazon and order some fabulous Spanish groceries from us.  In a normal week, we would send out maybe about 15-20 parcels.  That next week, we sent out over 500 and our sales went up over 3500%.  What a response, even if it was a one-off, with the revenue generated, we would be able to pay off more suppliers.  At this stage, we weren’t thinking we would survive, our plan was just to liquidate all of our stock so we left no-one with unpaid bills.

As soon as we closed our doors in Manchester and Lunyalita, we brought all drinks stock to my house as we figured it would be a security risk keeping them in empty sites.  I had a room piled from floor to ceiling with the best part of £20,000 of wine, spirits and beer in crates.  Tempted as was to start on them, I resisted as I was convinced if I started, I’d never stop!  It took us nearly 2 days to do that, there was so much, then we were informed by our insurers (more about them later), that they weren’t covered in my house, so we had to take them all to Hanover St.  What a palaver! We closed our restaurants on 18th March as it felt the right thing to do; at the evening press conference on Friday 20th, Boris Johnson instructed all restaurants and bars to close by 7pm that night.  I was stood in our empty deli at 6pm that night, looking across at the pubs the other side of Deansgate packed to the rafters, astonished that the message didn’t seem to be getting to them that stay at home was the new norm.  Full lockdown was about to hit us.

COVID infection becomes real for us

All through mid March, the reports from London were frightening; high infection rates and hospitals starting to get full. Sophie, our daughter was living and working in London and had been working form home all of March already.  Liverpool (or more precisely, Oxton, where we lived) seemed a lot safer.  We devised a plan of her getting a taxi to Euston, masks and gloves worn on the train, sanitiser used and we’d meet her straight off the train at Lime St.  With a lengthy lockdown impending and working from home can be done anywhere, it seemed the sensible thing to do. Just before Lockdown happened towards the end of March (no rule breakers here!), Sophie arrived home and within a few  days was showing all of the symptoms of Covid; in just under a week, Elaine and I were, too, then a few days later, Tom and Ian in Lunya.  We’d become super-spreaders.

But in those 3 days, we had this huge spike of online orders and were frantically trying to deliver 70-80 orders each day across the area.  It nearly finished us off.  We had no software to create sensible routes, we were desperately short of packaging and had to learn quickly as we were going.  Our chefs were learning to cook and pack frozen cook-at-home meals and tapas and doing a magnificent job. 

Those first orders made a huge contribution to prevent us going under. I remember getting home one night and starting to cough, this would be the start of our quarantine and the next day, we closed everything completely for 2 weeks, the risks were too high and we all needed to get home and isolate. We took our website offline, sent out hundreds of apologies to people whose orders we couldn’t fulfil and concentrated on getting better.  That week, Elaine got her Thyroid cancer diagnosis.  Could things get any worse, could they?  Actually, little did we know, that they could.

Free meals for carers

At the beginning of lockdown, we were really emotionally impacted by a news report featuring a nurse in a car crying as she couldn’t get what she needed in the shops as people were panic buying and she had no time working all the time.  We decided, that night, to start doing free meals for NHS staff and other carers.  It really took off.  To date we have done 6000 of these and are still going strong.  We have done them for NHS staff, carers in support agencies, carers looking after shielding relatives and lots more.  It makes a huge difference. Only this week, we have committed to supplying CIC and MyTime (two local caring services) free meals for their carers for the next year

We also had our jewel in the crown – our deli.  I’ve always seen Lunya as a deli with a restaurant attached (in revenue terms, it is quite different!), but as an essential retailer, we were able to keep our deli open – just in Liverpool.  Manchester was a different kettle of fish, and with all offices empty, we thought there would be little or no trade and it would be too costly to keep the deli open.  That proved prophetically true. Straight away, we decided to boost our online offering, get our website updated and in particular make frozen cook-at-home meals.  We had always had an online shop, but in reality its sales were pretty quiet, peaking at Christmas but importantly giving us another channel to sell the wonderful products we had in the deli, and enabling customers who visited the restaurants from afar to stock up on their favourite Spanish goodies. 

The start of a new trading life

Two weeks later, Elaine and I had done our quarantine, Sophie had recovered and we were ready to go again. Ted, our youngest son who lived with us had been furloughed from his job, and together with Ben, a good family friend, we started off again with our online business – it went through the roof.  Tom and Ian needed longer to recover and with our family and friends volunteering, Lunya came back to life.

We desperately needed cash, and we had lots of stock.  So we decided to have a fire sale and drop the price of all of our booze to a little over cost price.  It worked.  We created mixed cases of wine which went down a storm a great way to get through our excess stock levels.  One of our suppliers, Morgenrot, had some very close to date Argentinean beer, Quilmes, going at a hard-to-resist price. Following on from the success of our wine cases, we decided to take a chance and bought a whole pallet load (in effect the lot). We tweeted out and within 24 hours, it had all gone.  We made about £5 a case, but selling over 70 cases, it was much needed cash.  Based on this success, we started to buy up any stock that importers had of Spanish beers – with restaurants and bars being closed, they had no-one to sell them to and like us, desperately needed to raise cash.  Within a week, we were selling three pallets of beer every week, at knockdown prices but generating enough revenue to keep on top of more of our overheads.

Ted and Ben proved as good as anyone (and they would argue better!) and were the force behind our online efforts.  We kept up our weekly newsletter simply telling everyone exactly how it was and how that week, they could help us.  We didn’t want charity, but were constantly suggesting things to buy that would give lots of joy and really help us.  Our fantastic customers, new and old, really responded to this and quite simply saved our bacon. We were fast selling out of stock.  Our original plan of just liquidating stock and the company folding was (thankfully) in tatters.  We needed to order more stock in, and slowly we could see a way out of this and we may just survive – optimism was creeping back in.

Furlough had kicked in at this point to meet the cost of 80% of wages; we didn’t qualify for the government grants that were around because our rateable values were too high (if they were a little bit lower, we would have got £75,000 which would have saved our Manchester site) – how could government get their policy so wrong for entitlement for these grants.  We were a small, independent, family owned business, but happened to have sites on expensive parts of the high street – we needed the funding more than anyone!

We quickly settled into this new life through April and May.  We would send out a weekly email, generate hundreds of orders every week and with that fabulous support, government financial support and the help of a CBIL loan from Nat West, we were avoiding going under.  We couldn’t thrive in these circumstances but were doing as well as we could. We were gradually able to bring more staff off furlough.  Everything we were trying was working (probably more good luck than judgement).  We created deli treat packs of meats, cheeses, sweet treats and drinks – they were flying out. We were now doing substantial weekly orders from our suppliers.  The love and support we got from our customers was generating orders from wholesalers and keeping a whole load of other small independents going.  How fantastic is that!

We started cook-along packs, everything from Paella, tortilla, tapas banquets to cheesecake, where people could buy the ingredients from us and we would do a Facebook or Zoom based video cook-along.  They have proved immensely popular and a few thousand people have tried them.

Cancer (no. 1)

Things were not so great on the domestic front.  Elaine had this sword of Damocles hanging over her of Thyroid Cancer.  She couldn’t have immediate surgery because there was so much Covid in the hospitals, but towards the end of May, we got the news we’d been desperately waiting for, she had a date to have Thyroid surgery.  We now had to quarantine again to make sure that Elaine would be Covid free for the operation.  A small price to pay for a life-saving operation.  To cut a long story short, by the middle of June, we found out the operation was successful and the cancer was gone. Things were looking up, the government had announced tentative dates at the beginning of July for exiting lockdown.

Our online sales continued to do spectacularly, we now had BBQ packs for the summer which were flying out, but across the board sales were superb.  We were ordering more of some stock than in normal times, pallets of ham were arriving from Spain, each month. Our strategy of going for lower margins and higher volumes was working. Each week, pallet loads of packaging were arriving and we were starting to really worry that we wouldn’t have the space to do our online business and have the restaurant open at the same time.  Every week we were 2500-3000% up on the same week last year.  Admittedly, even though that is a brilliant figure, our overall revenue was 80% down.  You simply cannot recover the revenue lost from closed restaurants.

The closing of Manchester

We now had to plan and prepare for reopening in a month or so’s time.  That was a mixture of  financial modelling and practical preparation.  The financial modelling confirmed what we suspected.  With reduced capacity, and the reduced income, we couldn’t afford to run 3 restaurants.  We looked at all sorts of ways to make the money work, but nothing showed anything positive with 3 all making a loss of some sort.  Our two Liverpool landlords had been historically supportive and we knew Liverpool had a resilient domestic and international tourism market.  Our Manchester landlord had been historically unsupportive, the city centre (whose strength in good times was its business district but now was its biggest weakness) was devoid of the office workers (and likely to be so for a year at least), and was barely wiping its feet before the pandemic, was the site we had to make the very difficult decision to close to save the business.  We could afford to keep 2 sites open but not 3.  We’d been dreading this conclusion – all through lockdown we suspected it.  We had a fabulous team and a huge number of lovely, regular customers that made the site a joy.  We entered discussions with the landlord about a lease surrender.  Expecting complete rejection and considering either a CVA or a pre-pack administration, we weren’t hopeful.  But to all our surprise, we were able to reach agreement to buy ourselves out of the lease.  We now had to inform our 30+ staff, most of whom we knew personally and were very close to.  I’d managed to keep all of this from Elaine as she was preparing for and then recovering from her operation.  It was the last thing she needed.

I have never known a more intense, stressful and difficult time in all my life.  I was dreading having to tell our staff, as I knew the reality was that many would really struggle to find a job of any sort in the then job’s market in Manchester, and sadly that proved to be the case.  The hardest part was not being able to have a face to face meeting with everyone.  Conducting the meeting over Zoom seemed so impersonal.  Originally scheduled for early evening, I just couldn’t do it and we ended up meeting a few hours later when I could hold myself together to tell everyone.  There were many tears and much sadness. They were a wonderful team and Isaac and Dimi, in particular, who had led the team there had done such a wonderful job (and thankfully have gone on to great leadership jobs in our industry).  We now had to tell the outside world.

Everyone was shocked.  We were a strong, viable and popular business going into 2020. But the harsh reality of a huge amount of debt on the business (today in March 2021, we now owe over £1M) and not enough government support, coupled with a Covid-devastated Manchester city centre made it inevitable.  To this day, we still get a few messages every week from customers telling us it was their favourite place in Manchester and how much they loved it.  We feel so guilty to them and our staff that we let them down so much.

We had to pull ourselves out of the doldrums, concentrate on re-opening our two Liverpool sites. That meant losing nearly half of our covers to achieve the necessary social distancing, introducing sensitisation stations, lots of Perspex screens and really enhanced hygiene practices, plus going cashless (something which is here to stay; in fact in some shape or form, I think all those measures are here to stay).

Reopening in the summer

Our biggest challenge was going to be how we both managed a busy restaurant and a busy online trade.  All the way through lockdown, our huge restaurant floor space had been our packing room.  Our Liverpool 1 landlords came to the rescue and offered us the empty upstairs space of what had been Reds True BBQ to see us through.  It was a life saver, we couldn’t have coped without it

We reopened in July with so much trepidation, but immediately had all our fears allayed.  We were full in both sites at all the times you want to be and even though our covers were reduced by nearly half, we were having more visitors each week, with people more willing to come out at traditionally less popular times when it wasn’t so crowded.  We were getting great feedback about our Covid measures and these gave people lots of confidence to come out.

August was dominated by Eat Out to Help Out, which filled both restaurants in august and gave us an enormous financial boost, yet it did feel like a government funded infection scheme, too.  Whilst well ventilated restaurants had been shown to be very low level vectors of infection, the buses, trains and car parks people were using clearly weren’t.

September continued to trade well, in everything we were doing, but talk of another spike was emerging and another lockdown seemed inevitable.  In late October, it happened. Liverpool went into a tier 3 lockdown which meant the restaurants would close again. At least this time we were ready for it and knew what to expect.  Our online sales shot up again, we started to do Zoom based tastings: wine, cheese, gin, beer and a lot more.  They proved immensely popular just tonight, we had 200 people all over the UK on a Rioja tasting).  As our income dropped from the restaurant being closed, we were able to replace some of it with another new innovative activity.  Christmas was coming up, and we had to take huge financial gambles of ordering Christmas stock, not even knowing if we would be open.

Lockdown no. 2 and the astonishing experience of Christmas

Our weekly emails kept up, telling our customer base how it was, what we were doing, what a difference they were making and what they could do next.  The experience of this second lockdown was so different.  We had experience and optimism.  We knew if we were allowed to reopen in December we could have a great Christmas.  Clearly large Christmas parties were not going to happen, but with a good online Christmas and families coming out in December, we had a chance of recovering some of the losses from November’s closure. Plus, we had the great idea of creating Christmas gift boxes for companies to buy their staff in stead of their usual Christmas party.  These proved to be a runaway success and throughout November we had thousands of orders.  By the beginning of December we had over 3000 advance orders to fulfil.  This gave us a potential enormous headache – how could we manage a profoundly busy December, online order wise and in store.  It was unbelievably hard, but we did!

The whole Liverpool City Region had a fantastic response to Tier 3.  The restrictions and freely available testing resulted in the figures rapidly dropping and Liverpool was able to come out of its Tier 3 lockdown and at the beginning of December we reopened.  Straight away we were very busy.  Online has been beyond words.  In the first 10 days of December, our sales were better than the whole of 2019 – absolutely astonishing.  We finished the year 1800% up in online sales, even though our overall revenue was decimated with being closed and opened with restrictions all of the year, but we’re still here.

With all of the surrounding areas being in Tier 3, Liverpool was a magnet for visitors.  We were in for a brilliant December and increasing infection rates!  The deli was full of fabulous Christmas stock, the Christmas tunes were on non-stop and our online sales were booming.  We took on 8 extra staff to cope with our online demand.  At our peak, we were sending out nearly 500 parcels a day.  The support from our customers and local corporate base was superb – they are why we are still here.  It is hard to capture just how busy we were during this time.  We had staff working shifts literally around the clock to pick and pack.  Every available space that you cannot see was devoted to storage and packing.  When our guests left in the evening, we quickly turned our restaurant floor into a packing area and returned it to restaurant use in the morning.

There is something magical about a full restaurant (even when half the covers are gone), the sound of chatter, of people enjoying themselves – it’s addictive. It was a wonderful month, people obeying the rules and having a great time.  No big Christmas parties but small groups of families and friends, eager to support us.  Sometimes it was hard to get anything done.  When virtually everyone there had come to both enjoy themselves and support us, it was incumbent on us to chat and spend time with all of our guests.  Such a special time and such a special group of people.

It clearly wasn’t going to last. As we went through December, infection rates were rising throughout the UK and it was a case of when (not if) the next lockdown would occur.

Cancer no. 2

Throughout this time, we had our own domestic worries.  In October a standard blood test had thrown up some readings that seemed to worry the doctors; probably nothing to worry about, but best to check again, they said.  Through November and December, Elaine had more tests and each time, it never ruled out something to worry about.  It was all pointing to possibly a blood cancer, but you have this eternal optimism that maybe the next test would rule it out.

Christmas was on us.  We’d had a wonderful December, trade wise. We weren’t expecting to be open at New Year so concentrated on trying to have as good a personal Christmas as we could in the circumstances – the quietest one we’ve ever had; not that we were alone there.  Like all the country, not able to have the big gatherings or have family travelling from Tier 3 areas to visit.  The announcement for national lockdown came towards the end of December – the one we were all expecting.  We were used to it by now.  We set about our close-down procedures, moved our online packing back down into the restaurant and hoped that we would still get the great customer support in January, when it was traditionally very quiet.  They did not let us down and the new year started off with superb online sales again, with our Zoom-based events doing particularly well.

January was dominated for us with loads of tests and more biopsies.  It was a hard time and by the end of the month, the diagnosis we had been dreading came out – Myeloma, blood cancer.  We were reeling from this, and at the same time trying to manage our business so we did not go under.  This was going to be a long lockdown.  We knew chemotherapy was looming and with that, complete shielding for both of us.  Valentines Day was looming and we had created these cook-at-home Valentines day meals.  They were an incredible success.  Nearly 300 sold and, in fact, it was our best Valentines Day ever, who would have thought it? Mother’s Day proved equally popular.

1 year on from Lockdown

Anyone who is familiar with Lunya, know that Elaine and I work 7 days a week and every waking hour, we are an ever-present.  The prospect of not being there at all with shielding filled us (me in particular with dread).  I am writing this nearly 2 months into shielding, not being physically present in the business is so hard.  We love our business, the people in it and as challenging as it is, it gives us so much joy and pleasure.  Today is exactly 1 year ago when all restaurants were instructed to close.  We’ve made it.  By rights, we should have gone under; we were insolvent.  But a combination of our own grit and determination, the great work of our staff, support of our landlords, local and central government support and most of all, the incredible never-diminishing support of our customers, we are still here.  We are now £1M+ in debt, but we haven’t lost our house, we still have our fabulous business which is now just two wonderful restaurants.  Personally, we are still here too. Elaine is a fighter and is progressing well through chemo.  I only know one response and that is to fight.  Every week, we have a new idea for our business; we have such wonderful support and those ideas work. 

We hope it keeps on; it wouldn’t take much to put it all in jeopardy again.  This week, over half the adult population (us included) have been vaccinated.  Hand sanitising and social distancing are clearly hear to stay.  I imagine mask wearing will be here (especially in winter) for some time to come.  We have never felt stronger and more optimistic, despite what this last year has thrown at us.  We have a huge amount to be grateful for, still lots to worry about, but we are here, determined to be here for some time to come and the best news yet for us, we’ll be grandparents for the first time in the summer and Louis and Kirsty return from New York.

If you’re reading this (this is the short version!), you are likely to have played a part in our story and survival.  Thank you so much for that support, we would not be here without it.  When we opened Lunya, we did so out of a love of great food, inspired by the fabulous places we had visited in Catalunya and throughout Spain and wanted to bring a little bit of that to the UK.  We love the look of joy on someone’s face when they try something we have created or just made available in the UK for the first time.  We plan to do this for some time yet.  We need to, we have £1m of debt pay back!  We used to be just a deli, restaurant and bar.  Now this is also what we do: Zoom based tasting events, video cookalong classes, cook-at-home meals, deli treat packs, discount beer and wine cases, online food, music and drink quizzes. And perhaps, our proudest achievement free meals for carers and NHS staff – we have just passed the 6000 meals mark.

Thank you

It’s been some year. Thank you so much.  Please keep on supporting us and all the other fabulous small independents.  We have all been through something very similar and all want to be here, on your high streets to provide the great opportunities for fun and enjoyment that good restaurants are know for.  As soon as lockdown is over and shielding finishes for us, we’ll be in the restaurants to welcome you with (sanitised) open arms.   Thank you x.

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