05 March 2021, 08:45 AM
  • How are the UK's delis coping with Covid-19? Tracey Tannenbaum, chef and patron of Cold Bath Deli in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, tells Speciality Food the story of one retailer's journey through the pandemic
Pandemic diary of a deli owner

“What’s the target today?” Beth asked, pen in hand.

“Well, last year we did £795, so £796 would do nicely,” I replied.

“No, we’ll do over eight,” Beth said confidently, approaching the first customer of the day.

This year has been a challenge for deli/café businesses. Almost a year from the first lockdown, the upside-down tables and chairs pushed in every corner continue to mock us with their lack of use.

Piles of pre-rolled cutlery stand as sentinels to busier times and even the dishwasher seems to be thumping non-existent fingers on the floor in boredom. But… shhhhh… there’s been a massive upside to this, well, downside, in the café trade. Local people are finally shopping locally, and if your place is situated near a green space, like Cold Bath Deli is, sales have actually increased.

Like almost all small businesses, there was a time last April when we could’ve shut our doors in defeat. Reworking the menu, rota and ordering seemed overwhelming. But when our manager said she would rather walk the two miles into work then stay at home doing nothing, we realised how important it was to remain open. If we had the creativity and drive to continue opening our doors, we wouldn’t have to furlough staff.

So we looked around. The original use of Cold Bath Deli was a fruit and vegetable shop and we still had the old-fashioned display trolleys. We decided that a cosy 1940’s corner shop look would appeal during the pandemic – plus we took a gamble that fruit/veg would sell again. The external doors were double wide to give way for the vegetables, so Peter, my husband and business partner, converted an internal display table to one that had a lower shelf and wheels. We were able to not only bar the entranceway – since we were now a ‘take-away’ only essential shop – but it looked planned and inviting.

With the cooking side of things, we chose to focus on ready-meals at the beginning. We went for comfort dishes such as lasagne, mac ‘n’ cheese and meatballs. Perhaps, not so ready when one of the staff members accidentally turned off the fridge leaving all 60 portions over 25 degrees and fit only for the bin. Fortunately, a friend was nearby as was the amazing manager and between the three of us, properly spaced out, were able to recreate the food. Surely, a day of extremes!

Oddly enough, the comfort food wasn’t a hit. People, we soon discovered, wanted more of our experimental, global offerings. Everyone was cooking and/or buying ready meals in supermarkets. Instead, they wanted what we jokingly call, ‘foreign muck’.

Out went the lasagne in came the Vietnamese chicken with satay sauce. Chicken pie replaced with chorizo jambalaya – still a big hit to this day. The second wave of food trends was white – flour. After the third consecutive customer asked for bread flour, I got on the phone. First we were able to get the flour in 1kg paper bags, but soon there was a shortage. I soon felt like a desperate addict trying to get a fix as I called supplier after supplier.

When I finally struck gold with a wholesaler in North Allerton (a tip, I might add, whispered after hours by my butcher), we had six 20kg bags to weigh up. Soon, our back room looked like the best of Colombia, with white powder covering almost all surfaces; clean down becoming more and more lengthy.

Yeast soon ran in tandem – with all staff busily googling ‘fresh versus dried yeast’ to answer the myriad questions of wannabe sourdough bread makers.

And, without warning, there was a respite from the lockdown. We decided to open only our front tables and keep the interior shut. This was to ensure we could operate with less stress – and the advice was that fresh air was safer. We were ridiculously busy.

And whoosh, just like that, we were back in lockdown. But we were ready. Had our bags of flour lined up. Exotic food made. Sausage rolls prepared. Nope, that’s not what people wanted this time around. “Coffee, please. Half-caff mocha with oat milk. Got any salads? Sourdough? No, I’m not making that again.”

So, we’re scrambling and guessing again. Often wrong. But that’s not the point. We’ve remained open and we now know our neighbours that much better. We’re aware that their home schooling is hard and that their reward system is often a hot chocolate at our place. We know that they plan their daily walk with a stop to pick up an extra hot latte with an almond croissant.

But we’re not complaining. Today, we’ve even beat Beth’s guess.

Do you have a story you’d like to share with us? Get in touch with courtney.goldsmith@aceville.co.uk.