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A Rollercoaster ride: Running a bricks and mortar indie hospitality business.

“The most consistent part of running a city centre ‘bricks and mortar’ hospitality business is the inconsistency in footfall”.

For many years, I ran my business from home, a messy hobby that became my creative outlet, a form of therapy if you like. It took over at times, commercial sized packs of cake boxes lined the hallway of our modern 3 bedroom house in Hackney Wick, on Friday nights you couldn’t see the TV because I had to use every available surface to stack and store my bakes before I ventured out in the early hours of Saturday morning to deliver across East London, by 8am I would be setting up our pitch in London Fields, sleep deprived, running on sugar and caffeine and very aware of the state I had left our home.

Pushing myself to produce what I could without the pressures of meeting high rent and service charges meant that I was able to play and experiment more.

After a significant run of my ‘cottage industry’ I knew for the sake of my relationship and the décor of my home, I had to move the cake out. It has been 14 years of cakes and bakes and we have always prioritised production space over customer space, we were blessed to have loyal followers who stood all weathers, patiently queuing to get their hands on our bakes, over the years we had a scattering of stools or a borrowed bench but have always been ‘takeaway’, back in East London, this model was not unusual, dinky cafes with tiny floor spaces, maximising on production and coffee, you would be lucky to find a perch of any kind. Some of the very best places would operate at weekends only with a hatch carved out the side door or a counter pushed under the roller shutter of a railway arch, it was no secret that you couldn’t step inside.

In 2020 we relocated as a family to Colchester, just when I was ready to hang up my apron and set about starting some other crazy idea, I remodelled our offering and we moved into our first ‘bums on seats’ bricks and mortar model. How hard could it be.

Early on, this felt like a thrilling rollercoaster ride, each day brought new challenges, opportunities, and uncertainties. The most consistent part of running such a business in a new city, with a fresh demographic, is the inconsistency in footfall. No two days, weeks, or months are the same, and while some might find this exciting, as a small independent business owner, it can be daunting and, at times, terrifying.

In September this year, we experienced our quietest mid-week ever, it was both depressing and worrying, when you get a week like that you cannot help but think, this is probably the end of my business now because you forget that the weeks balance out, because it has never been like that before.

“Uncertainty is the new norm”.

A common question from others “why aren’t you open 7 days a week?” with a statement that follows “surely you would make more money?”, you would think so, and to the untrained eye “yes” that should make sense.

The reasons are easy to guess and hard to solve. The only thing I can predict is that it costs too much to open on certain days.  A survey of 500 hospitality businesses in September found that 61% had been forced to reduce its opening hours, 41% of these were due to staff costs and produce \ ingredient costs.

With less predictable customers living unpredictable lives it is near impossible to forecast your potential over any week.

When we opened on 5 November 2020, we knew that for a time we would throw ourselves in and work like dogs to get us up and running, this again is normal, but we thought that the business would grow, and we would eventually be able to open fully and staff all areas comfortably.

“I was quickly burnt out”.

Consumer behaviour can shift overnight, gauging how many customers will walk through your doors can feel like trying to predict the weather. Factors such as local events, seasons, economic conditions, the weather, and even social media trends can influence footfall.

This inconsistency can be particularly challenging for newcomers to the business scene, especially those who have just set up in a new city. Without historical data or a loyal customer base, independent business owners often find themselves navigating uncharted waters, relying on instinct, market research, and a dash of luck.

While it might sound daunting, there is an undeniable excitement in running an independent business. Every day presents an opportunity for a fresh start, a new connection, or a surprise surge in sales. We have no choice but to adapt and innovate constantly.

I am constantly experimenting with new marketing strategies, products, or services to entice customers and keep them coming back. This dynamic environment can lead to the discovery of unique selling points and a deeper understanding of what truly resonates with our audience. For every campaign that works, many others fail and are buried for now.

Our roller coaster ride continues to take many twists and turns, having navigated our way through a pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis, the cost of doing business and all the economic uncertainty as well as our relocation/remodelling into a new city we absolutely need to catch a breath.

Behind every indie hospitality business right now, from pubs to restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries is someone working too many hours, for little financial reward, no matter how well it looks like they might be doing, they are undoubtedly hiding hidden expenses and putting a determined brave face on it, because they LOVE what they do and are passionate about sharing it with you.

I think I am right in saying “there is still a high degree of uncertainty in hospitality”.

It doesn’t make it better, but it makes it easier to swallow knowing that I am not alone, that my concerns and fears are being shared by others both in my immediate city centre location and those back in the big smoke and beyond.

I have no idea how this will pan out; all I do know is that it won’t disappear without a fight.

So grateful for every person that chooses to walk through our door.

Kiersten George.

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