is was talking to my chef trying to figure out how much chicken curry to make the next day when a customer walked in, wrapped head to toe in protective gear, wearing a scarf tightly wrapped around their face, sunglasses, hat and gloves. It was the first day I opened my new restaurant, Nasi, and it was a sign of things to come.
I had opened Nasi – Malaysian for rice – as a small take-out cafe to complement my restaurant, Sambal Shiok Laksa Bar. Four days later, right after the Prime Minister announced the lockdown, I closed them both on purpose, to protect the health of my team, my family and my clients. I couldn’t leave any of my new team members as they joined after the government deadline. I was taking away their livelihood – the feeling was horrible.
The first month immediately after, I spent canceling the direct debits, closing the contracts with the suppliers. I used the government small business grant to pay supplier bills and partially repay loans I took for the Nasi renovation. I was in preservation mode while mourning the loss of my fledgling business. It was as if my world had collapsed: I was numb and in shock.
I chose to stay closed for two months, even though take out was allowed to stay open, for personal reasons – to support my other half who went through a fear of cancer and my mother who needed to protect herself. I knew I could do either – help my business stay alive during Covid-19, or take care of my loved ones. The latter won hands down. I started making plans to reopen Nasi, but a friend tragically passed away. It was as if the world was telling me that it was not yet the time for me to go back to work.
In early June, when things had settled down on a personal level, I reopened Nasi mainly to bring back a staff member, Benedetta, whom I was unable to leave as she had recently joined the team. We discussed the options and she agreed to take a pay cut and move to an hourly contract as I needed that flexibility in case this new business didn’t work. I’m unpaid, but at least we both still have jobs. I have always been open and honest with my staff about running the business, and we knew we had to support each other under these impossible circumstances.
I had to completely rethink Nasi’s menu for the relaunch, reducing the menu to make the operation possible between the two of us. We offered just one combination of ready meals – meat and two vegetables, with rice – that customers order online to be picked up or delivered and reheated at home. I renamed the cafe into Malaysian delicatessen and offered a whole range of new pantry sauces and curry powders to sell alongside our meals. After a few weeks we started offering hot food and took the orders in person. Reinventing coffee on a daily basis for the first few weeks was an exhausting process, but you are doing what you need to survive.
The adoption was okay for the first month, but despite our best efforts, it has been mortifying to see sales drop to £ 100 a day since the start of July as competition increased from restaurants reopened in our region. I don’t see the on-site dinner as a viable proposition until a Covid-19 vaccine is available and the onerous physical distancing requirements are relaxed. My primary responsibility is the health of my team and myself, then of my clients. I did not apply for an outdoor tables and chairs license because I just don’t have the money. There was hope that the councils would grant automatic and free licenses to hospitality venues, but this did not happen and I cannot access the “eat out to help” program because of it.
Since March, the owner of Nasi has temporarily accepted 50% of the monthly rent instead of the quarterly, which is something, but again insufficient. We need a government-mandated commercial rent cut, like what happened in Australia, where rent cuts were based on falling tenant turnover to ensure the burden is shared between owners and tenants.
Covid-19 made me realize how vulnerable the hospitality industry is. At the start of it all, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said he would “do whatever it takes” to help us. It turned out to be a lie. Only the big players with abundant cash reserves and the most resilient independents will survive the wave of closures that will occur in the coming months without further government assistance, especially in terms of rent.
The government’s decision to give companies a £ 1,000 bonus for every staff member on leave they still have on their books in January only rewards the biggest players for keeping staff they would have brought back. way. Those of us who survive will have to charge more to stay afloat, especially when VAT drops back to 20% in the new year. In the end, the customer will lose out when the main streets are filled with only seamless chains with expensive and uninteresting products.
If attendance does not return to normal in the area, Nasi will simply bleed slowly. I’m grateful for the few locals who made coffee a regular lunchtime stop, but without a government-imposed rent cut on rent turnover, I’ll soon have to pass judgment. The end of September is an important milestone as the moratorium on forfeiture of leases ends and the remaining 50% of the rent is due. If the owner asks then, I will have no choice but to shut Nasi down for good. Until then, all I can do is wait.
• Mandy Yin is the Malaysian chef-owner of Sambal Shiok Laksa Bar and Nasi Economy Rice, both located on Holloway Road in London.