I was speaking to my kitchen manager trying to figure out how much chicken curry to make the next day when a customer walked in, wrapped up head to toe in protective gear, wearing a scarf tightly wound around her face, sunglasses, hat and gloves. This was the first day of my new restaurant, Nasi, opening, and it was a sign of things to come.
I’d opened Nasi – Malaysian for rice – as a smaller takeaway cafe to complement my restaurant, Sambal Shiok Laksa Bar. Four days later, straight after the prime minister’s announcement of lockdown, I closed them both down voluntarily, to protect the health of my team, my family and my customers. I was unable to furlough any of my newest team members as they had joined after the government’s cut-off point. I was taking away their livelihoods – the feeling was horrendous.
The first month immediately afterwards I spent cancelling direct debits, closing down provider contracts. I used the government small business grant to pay supplier bills and to partially repay loans I took out for Nasi’s refurbishment. I was in preservation mode while grieving the loss of my infant business. It was as if my world had collapsed: I was numb and in a state of shock.
I chose to stay closed for two months, even though takeaways were allowed to stay open, for personal reasons – to support my other half who went through a cancer scare and my mother who needed to shield. I knew that I could do either one or the other – help my business stay alive during Covid-19, or look after my loved ones. The latter won hands down. I started making plans to reopen Nasi, but then a friend tragically passed away. It was as if the world was telling me that it was not yet time for me to go back to work.
At the beginning of June, when things had settled down on the personal front, I reopened Nasi mainly to bring back one member of staff, Benedetta, who I couldn’t furlough as she had recently joined the team. We discussed options, and she agreed to take a pay cut and move to an hourly contract as I needed that flexibility in case this new venture didn’t work out. I remain unpaid, but at least we both still have jobs. I have always been open and honest with my staff about the running of the business, and we knew we’d have to support each other through these impossible circumstances.
I had to completely reimagine Nasi’s menu for the relaunch, cutting down the menu to make the operation possible to execute between just the two of us. We offered just one combination of ready-made dishes – meat and two veg, with rice – that customers would order online for pick up or delivery and reheat at home. I rebranded the cafe as a Malaysian deli and came up with an entire range of new pantry sauces and curry powders to sell alongside our meals. After a few weeks we started to offer hot food and took orders in person. Reinventing the cafe on what seemed like a daily basis over the first few weeks was an exhausting process but you do what you need to to survive.
Uptake was OK for the first month, but despite our best efforts, it has been mortifying seeing sales plummet to £100 a day since the start of July, as competition increased from reopened restaurants in our area. I don’t see dine-in as being a viable proposition until a vaccine for Covid-19 is available and the onerous physical distancing requirements have eased. My primary responsibility is the health of my team and I, and then of my customers. I’ve not applied for an external tables and chairs licence as I simply do not have the money. There was a hope that councils would grant automatic and free licences to hospitality venues, but this has not happened and I cannot access the “eat out to help out” scheme as a result of this.
Since March Nasi’s landlord has temporarily accepted 50% rent paid monthly instead of quarterly, which is something, but again not enough. We need a government mandated commercial rent reduction, like what has happened in Australia, where rent reductions have been based on the tenant’s decline in turnover to ensure that the burden is shared between landlords and tenants.
Covid-19 has made me realise how vulnerable the hospitality industry is. At the beginning of all of this, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said that he would “doeverything it takes” to help us. This has turned out to be a lie. Only big players with bountiful cash reserves and the most resilient independents will survive the wave of closures that will happen in the next few months without more governmental help, especially in relation to rent.
The government’s decision to give businesses a £1,000 bonus for each member of furloughed staff they still have on their books in January only rewards the biggest players for keeping on staff that they would have brought back anyway. Those of us who do survive will have to charge more to stay afloat, especially once VAT returns to 20% in the new year. Ultimately the customer will lose out when high streets become filled only with homogeneous chains with uninspiring, expensive products.
If footfall does not return to normal in the area, Nasi will simply bleed out slowly. I am thankful for the few locals who have made the cafe a regular lunchtime pit stop, but without a government-mandated rent reduction to turnover rent, I will have to make a judgment call soon. The end of September is an important milestone as the lease forfeiture moratorium comes to an end and the remaining 50% of rent is due. If the landlord calls for it then, I will have no choice but to close Nasi for good. Until then, all I can do is wait.
• Mandy Yin is the Malaysian chef-owner of Sambal Shiok Laksa Bar and Nasi Economy Rice, both on Holloway Road in London