Entrepreneurs

How This Hospitality Business Not Only Survived, But Thrived During The Pandemic

The hospitality sector was one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, a result of the closure of bars, restaurants and hotels during lockdown. It sparked a year of uncertainty and disruption, with complex Covid-19 legislation, and costly venue reopenings followed by sudden closures, leaving business owners battling to stay afloat.

The key to surviving the crisis was resilience, and like many in the industry, Tim Roberts, owner of No.Twenty9 bar and restaurant in Burnham Market in Norfolk, had to dig deep.

With a background as a building developer, Roberts had spent two years converting the Grade ll listed property at a cost of around £1.8 million ($2.5 million). It had been trading for just two years when the pandemic struck, triggering the first U.K. lockdown in March 2020 and the immediate closure of all hospitality venues.

“It was announced at 6pm on a Friday that we had to close our doors at 11pm the same night,” he recalls.

Originally from Cambridgeshire, Roberts had served an apprenticeship in construction, and by the age of 24 was running his own successful building development company. Three years later he joined the fire service and worked as a fireman for 17 years before an injury forced him to retire from the service.

In 2013 he moved to Norfolk. A regular visitor to Burnham Market, an affluent village near the coast, Roberts spotted that a store in the village was closing down. He says: “It had previously been a hardware store, a fruit and vegetable store, and a home interiors store, but I thought it would make a nice bar and restaurant, something the village was badly in need of, and I decided to give it a go.”

Offers were invited, Roberts won the bid, and he began making plans to convert the Georgian Grade II listed property, whose history dates back to the 18th century. It was a huge project that saw the entire building stripped to the bone.

Floorboards were lifted, numbered, treated, and re-laid in the same position, and the modern plasterwork was stripped and replaced using traditional techniques. The kitchen, dining room, and outdoor courtyard also had to be built.

For the interior design Roberts broke with the tradition of sand dunes and seagulls-themed artwork, so typical of coastal venues, and instead adorned the walls of the bar and restaurant with black and white photographs of iconic Hollywood stars.

He says: “I wanted something a bit quirky. It may not be a typical north Norfolk look, but it sits comfortably with the building’s history and Grade ll status, and the customers love it.”

No.Twenty9 finally opened in 2018 and over the next two years attracted a growing clientele, a mix of tourists and second home-owners, as well as locals.

When it had to close during the first lockdown, the business thrived by operating a lucrative outdoor bar, serving drinks through the front window, permitted under the rules, and a busy food take-out and delivery service.

“All of our staff had been furloughed, so it was just me, my head chef, and my general manager keeping things running,” says Roberts. “The weather was amazing, and we were incredibly busy.”

On July 4, hospitality businesses were allowed to reopen, albeit, under strict social distancing guidelines that reduced the number of tables in the restaurant. Undeterred, Roberts opened two sister companies, a bakery, Number Thirty3, and a pet boutique, Eric and Dolly’s, within the same property. The addition of six luxury guest rooms and the securing of a civil wedding ceremony license provided entry to the lucrative wedding market.

Four months of buoyant trade came to an abrupt halt in early November when a spike in Covid-19 cases prompted a sudden four-week national lockdown. The restaurant closed, leaving Roberts and his team planning once again for an uncertain future.

While most of the 33 employees went back on furlough, the team of chefs spent two weeks creating a new menu in preparation for reopening on December 4. In the end it ran for just three weeks, because after Christmas Day the U.K. was once again back in lockdown. “It was a waste of time that cost me around £30,000 in salaries,” says Roberts.

The first three months of 2021 were the toughest as limited trade made opening unviable. Business came to a standstill. However, Roberts ramped up an already strong presence on social media with a proactive marketing strategy designed to keep thousands of its customers engaged and eager to return. On April 12, when restrictions were eased, allowing food and drink to be served outdoors, they did.

He says: “It was pouring with rain and freezing cold, but we provided heaters and rain covers, and we filled all of our outdoor tables. The staff were amazing, and that first week out of lockdown was one of the busiest ever, even for normal circumstances.”

Weatherproofing outdoor facilities incurs costs, and some venues chose not to open, despite having the space to generate some much needed revenue. “After so long without any trade, it didn’t make sense not to open, plus, getting back to work was good for everyone’s mental wellbeing,” he says.

In a challenging year, the resilience of Roberts and his team has seen the business not only survive, but thrive. But he insists that maintaining high standards in the toughest of times is just as crucial. He says: “Whether it’s the facilities, the food, or the service, you set your own standards and personal expectations and rise to the challenge of upholding them. We’ve done that throughout the pandemic, and that’s what keeps customers coming back.”

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