Paul Goodgame is the managing director of The Chesterford Group which comprises of Churchill’s, fishnchickn, and Bankers. We catch up with him to discuss some of the hard decisions he and his team have had to make recently in the wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How many staff do you employ at the Chesterford Group? And across how many sites?
We employ 550 superheroes, no staff! With 39 sites over 3 brands; Churchill’s, fishnchickn, and Bankers.
What were the different challenges between each site in the group that you had to take into consideration?
People safety! The speed of changes in the run-up before the lockdown was phenomenal.
Very quickly, we were trying to adapt and change to understand and meet government guidelines. Keep our people safe as well as reassure them that we were doing what we could to protect them.
We quickly introduced social distancing, card only payments. We even made the decision to close every store for 30 minutes daily to carry out a deep clean and sanitise all surfaces.
On the final day before we closed, we had a total of 63 staff self-isolating, so keeping every store open and teams safe had almost reached a breaking point.
What were your first thoughts when you started to see the country moving toward a lockdown/self isolation state?
I had my eye carefully on China, and then Italy, Spain, and France, so it wasn’t necessarily a shock. I did study that movement and turned my focus towards modelling for delivery and click and collect only sites.
How long did you try to stay open for? When did you realise it just wouldn’t be feasible to remain open?
We closed our restaurants in line with the Government request on Friday 20th of March and then followed suit of McDonald’s and closed the takeaways on Monday 23rd at the end of the night.
We agonised over this decision as we did have delivery and click and collect model ready to go.
The issue was to complete a thorough risk assessment, map out new social distancing structures, consult with our primary authority, change our menu, change our trading times, restructure a team rota, and train all this out with nothing less than excellence, was obviously going to take a while, so we just needed to close to give ourselves the time to plan and the headspace to work this all out!
What were your biggest concerns about closing?
Money! We have worked hard to reposition our finances to a much stronger position in recent years and was ready to go on a growth path. We had 4 sites in our focus, then this came along!
We are in as strong a financial position as we’ve ever been. Like most businesses, we don’t have an endless pot of money and therefore the longer we’re closed, the more it increases our debt and our ability to trade in the same way we did before.
Certainly, in the short term, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions to get through the tough challenges ahead.
Did you ever consider doing a delivery-only model?
Yes, in great detail!
After having the time to remodel the business to delivery and click & collect only. And after taking the time to consult with our team and local authorities, we are now ready to reopen 21 sites over the next 2 weeks.
We have deployed a robust risk assessment that mitigates the risks to our teams and gets our brands back out there servicing their communities during these incredibly difficult times when people are genuinely struggling to access food as supermarkets simply struggle to cope with demand.
Nothing would make me more proud than our team being recognised as frontline staff that contributed to local communities at their time of need.
How important has it been for you communicating with staff?
Critical, we send out a daily video message and ensure that every single team member had direct access to a director!
Without our teams on board and engaged, our brands can achieve nothing! Simple as that!
With staff on furlough, how have you tried to motivate them and keep them informed of the situation?
We have a private Facebook group where we can post videos, have fun and engage. We also have area WhatsApp groups and myself and James personally called every single manager we furloughed (120) to keep an open line of communication.
How do you think the government have been throughout the process?
On the whole, I think they have done well under the circumstances, maybe a little indecisive at first and a bit unclear on the details but you have to say they are trying. You do get a strong sense that Boris is doing his best!
What is your biggest fear about the lockdown? Especially if it lasts 6 months.
In my opinion, the hospitality and retail landscape will never be the same, many businesses will just not get through this.
Customer habits will be broken, and some will not return to what they used to be. We’ve probably fast-forwarded 5 years in term of going cashless. Businesses won’t take cash anymore, and customers will not want to handle it as much.
Thousands of more people are shopping online, will they ever return to the shops?
I think higher levels of hygiene and customers wanting hand washing/sanitising, even in pure takeaways.
Will customer the get hooked on delivery and click and collect, and walk-in revenue channels start to massively drop? Will customers quickly fall back into queueing 20 people deep in a small takeaway/ pub? It will undoubtedly take a while I think, and why would you, when you’ve got used to click and collect and done the hard part of setting up your account?
I’m not an economist, but a recession and mass unemployment are almost certainly on the cards, scary times ahead for a lot of people. Still, those that have their people on board and are able to quickly adapt to a new landscape could find a silver lining to this dark cloud.
Has any company/organisation you deal with not been helpful and likewise helpful?
We have great relationships with our suppliers, and they have all been there for us and adapted with us!
Likewise with our Banks too, they’ve been accommodating and fully supportive. That doesn’t happen by accident, our board have worked hard to forge these great relationships, and it’s times like this when you realise their value!
Albeit I do think the NFFF is an incredible organisation, we don’t necessarily use much of their resources being the size of the company we are.
I do admire what they do for the industry, I think independent fish and chip shops are lucky to have them, and Andrew Crook has alway been there for us, even if it’s just to have a chat and use each other as a sounding board.
What are your thoughts on the industry, takeaways etc. after all of this?
Not everyone will survive! Many businesses have been struggling with back to back challenges with fish and before that potato prices, along with rising labour cost. It’s been a tough few years and a swift changing couple of years, with lots of movement towards digital orders too. I would summarise by merely saying to adapt or die! (Sorry it’s a bit morbid)
Do you think the industry can recover from this?
Yes, 100% but it won’t be easy! We’re a fantastic industry with an abundance of great operators, we will get through this, and as an industry, we will position ourselves as the nation’s favourite takeaway again!