Is our café a hero or a villain?
- “The battle for optimism and morale in retail”
- “Sustainable confusion”
- “What to do about January?”
- “Is the Christmas boom sustainable?”
- “2019 and all that”
My first article for Speciality Food was five years ago in 2015 and since then we have experienced three general elections (amazingly), the Queen’s 90th birthday, a major Royal Wedding, Brexit and several weather extremes. However, nothing even remotely compares to the effect of Covid-19 on our businesses.
Talk about the new normal, the learning curve has looped the loop literally and the current pandemic has knocked the socks off all other challenges. The lucky part is that as food retailers we have been able to keep trading each day, albeit with less customers than ever before, but the average spending of each one has risen which helps a lot. And recalling (from my own lockdown experience) the song from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, “From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success,” we have had the opportunity to have a long hard look at what we are doing in the shop. And the result is that there could be one notable casualty – the café, at least in its current form. In my own mind I have often struggled with whether to regard the café as a hero or villain. Admittedly it brings in between 10- 20% of sales revenue depending on the weather, and some customers swear by it. On the other hand it seriously increases wage costs, raises a lot of service issues and some customers swear at it. The question remains how can we improve it without losing its benefits?
When well managed and in good weather I am sure the answer to running an in-store café is a resounding thumbs up, but managing two parallel and often competing retail activities profitably under one roof is not as easy as it looks.
I know several deli owners who have franchised their cafes out or reduced them significantly. However, without the major upheaval of the past few months I confess I would not ever have considered taking these steps. However, since Covid-19 not a single customer has bemoaned the closure and reduction in scale of the café – especially since we opened our take away section at the front door.
The retail world is comprehensively moving in the direction of experiential shopping – the aim being to find the retail version of the Holy Grail: increasing in-store dwell times. So as customers are continually requiring a more engaging and memorable experience, to remove a café would surely put that in jeopardy? In the Covid-19 era the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle of two concepts. Having a popular café and drinks counter but removing the formal catering elements with fewer tables in less confined spaces. This has incidentally been my 50th Article for Speciality Food. I am very grateful to the esteemed publication and Editor for allowing me to bear the soul of the shop in print for so long. Best wishes to all through these still difficult times.