In our Your Story series, we speak to business owners about the challenges they’re facing and the steps they’re taking to overcome them. Michelle and her husband Fintan are the co-founders of bakery and café business Gourmet Tart.
Here, Michelle talks about how government support and a keen team of staff have helped things keep moving during the coronavirus outbreak.
When coronavirus (COVID-19) hit, we could have kept our Gourmet Tart shops and bakery open if we had wanted to, but we decided ourselves to close the business. This in itself gave us a sense of control.
There were a few reasons behind this decision.
The main reason was that our staff are on the front line; we, ourselves, are behind the scenes. It seemed unfair to leave the staff exposed and it didn’t feel right for our business.
We noticed at the beginning of March 2020 that the atmosphere in the shops began to change. The customers were anxious and this, in turn, had an effect on staff morale.
We’ve been blessed over the years with a great crew and we wanted to make sure that we didn’t damage that relationship.
Once we knew that the staff would be looked after by the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP), we decided to close on 16 March.
We knew that for us, we’d made the right decision.
We didn’t allow ourselves to be distracted by other similar businesses. We’ve always run our own race and we don’t tend to look over our shoulder.
Also, we make all of our own food, so our business model is different to most other bakeries and cafés.
Every business has its own unique challenges and we can really only focus on our own. If coronavirus had hit at an earlier time in the lifecycle of our business, we might not have had the option to close for nearly four months.
On opening again, safety has been our top priority
My husband Fintan, who has a PhD in chemistry, was very keen to get the reopening right and we have endeavoured to cover all angles.
Obviously the first step was to deep-clean the six shops and the bakery unit.
The staff volunteered to do this themselves and they organised themselves into teams. I think it was their way of thanking us for staying closed for so long. They were more than ready to come back to work and we were delighted that all of them returned.
Before opening, we repainted all premises and bought canopies for outside to accommodate queuing. We also installed hand sanitisers and wrapped all exposed products.
In addition, we bought equipment from AMBI Safe – a local company that has designed antimicrobial face shields, door handles, light switch covers, and so on, that ensure the virus doesn’t stick and so adds an extra layer of safety.
“Government supports gave us the headspace to be creative, which is vital for the growth of our business”
As well as maximising safety, we wanted the shops and products to look their best. We spent time choosing the correct perspex screens and hanging system for our shops, which Fintan cut and installed himself.
In effect, a whole new system of checks and measures to work has been implemented, in conjunction with our existing HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Point) system.
This even included changing our menu in our flagship café in Salthill to allow for better social distancing in the kitchen. All the dishes on the new menu can be completed by one chef from start to finish. Our seating capacity has also been reduced by 33%.
In terms of staff, our managers also completed a three-hour online course in coronavirus safety.
We basically tried to consider every avenue that would protect our customers and staff.
Government supports have been critical
Also, our staff were on PUP while the business was closed. And as a result of our 100% drop in sales for nearly four months, staff then qualified for the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS) when we reopened.
These supports gave us the headspace to be creative, which is vital for the growth of our business.
If we’d been constantly worrying about bills, we wouldn’t have been able to focus on product development and the business would stagnate.
However, the TWSS will finish at the end of August and we won’t qualify for the extended scheme, the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme.
Our sales have not dropped enough to qualify for the extension and while this is disappointing in one way, the funding will be of more benefit to others. As I see it, we need the whole town to recover and it was a great help to have the scheme for two months.
We were also delighted to be one of the companies selected for the online trading grant from Enterprise Ireland.
This grant will allow us to build an ecommerce website for our new corporate hamper business and we aim to have the site up and running before Christmas.
The hamper business is already bringing in revenue and our production unit is ideally located right beside the large multinationals in Galway, which so far are our main customers.
Last week we delivered, via courier, 200 hampers to their employees that were working from home. This was a massive success and we got great feedback.
“We missed the business when it was closed and we realised how important it is in our lives”
It’s something we now intend to pursue properly and it is very exciting for us.
In terms of cash flow, our wage bill, which is our main expense, was sorted by government supports. For the most part, our landlords have been understanding and we’re now paying full rent again and will revisit our finances in a few months’ time when everything has settled.
We personally cut our own wages and took a mortgage holiday.
All going well, so far
The business is going very well. We’re very happy to welcome back all the familiar faces.
And one good thing from this is I feel there’s definitely a renewed desire to support local and our business couldn’t be better positioned for that.
Also, our six branches all offer takeaway and this is what the customer is looking for more than ever. We’re lucky that we are not overly reliant on sit-down trade, because this is most impacted.
Our ready-meal business has also grown substantially. We opted not to open our deli counter in the city centre premises yet and the customers are buying our meal deals at lunchtime.
Working together is key
We’ve learnt that we have a very strong customer base and our staff members are vital to the success of our business.
We missed the business when it was closed and we realised how important it is in our lives.
Also, we’ve always had a good relationship with other bakeries in town. We have so much in common and we were able to support each other through the pandemic, and it’s great to see them all open again.
My top three takeaways
1. Choose your own path
Make sure you’re making decisions that are the best for your business and for yourself personally. Don’t panic when you see other businesses making different decisions.
Everyone knows their own business best.
2. Don’t be afraid to sit tight
Don’t drastically change your business just for the sake of a few months. It might be better to sit still – though this can be a difficult thing to do.
3. Ask for advice
Take time to think and don’t be afraid to ask for advice. People are only too happy to help each other.