Hard Talk with . . . Cihan Oktem, The Packet Bridge Fish & Chips

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Cem Oktem (left) & Cihan Oktem (right)

Hard Talk is about talking to people making hard decisions under exceptional circumstances.

In this instalment, we talk to Cihan Oktem of The Packet Bridge Fish & Chips in Bolton-le-Sands near Carnforth.

What were the risk factors you considered before closing?

When it comes to risk, you need to measure the likelihood versus the impact to understand what should get your attention. This whole thing moved very fast, so the ‘likelihood’ was changing quickly and therefore it was difficult to keep on top of the priorities.

My primary consideration was always the staff. I’m very close to my brother (Cem Oktem), so was obviously concerned about him, but all of our staff are valuable and make our business what it is. So the first risk considered was them getting coronavirus from customers in the shop and taking it home to their families. We could deal with that as a business, but then you have to consider the risk of escalation and ask yourself at what point are you not going to have enough staff available to continue? 

Operational Risks were considered, such as our supply chain. What would we do about ensuring continuous stock/deliveries for example? If we were to start deliveries, how could we manage the impact on our day-to-day? What is currently missing in order to do delivery and what additional measures would need to be in place to have this operate safely? 

Reputational Risks were a concern too. Did I really want to be a conduit for this virus to spread? Did I want pictures of my business put on social media, being slammed as a place that encouraged people to gather? What lasting impact would that have on my business when we are the other side of this and open again? 

Of least importance to me were the financial risks. Paying banks, loan and lease repayments etc., were something I’d work out later. More immediately was the question of how I would make sure my staff didn’t suffer. The last thing I wanted was for them to lose their homes or go into arrears. I decided (before Government made the commitment to cover 80% of the wage bill) that I could access savings, credit cards and even take a loan if I had to in order to see this through. 

When forming your decision what would have been the reasons to stay open?

If we could have operated safely and I knew my staff were not at risk, then I would have remained open in order to provide a service to people who needed meals (elderly, vulnerable etc.) but also to those families who just needed a break from cooking and isolation. Fish and chips is a great, wholesome meal, which is relatively healthy and doesn’t cost the earth. We probably wouldn’t have made any money, but that wouldn’t have been my driver to stay open anyway. 

What made your final decision to close?

I was watching from a distance due to being at work overseas. I saw how people were behaving and just not taking things seriously, and so the decision was simple. We could introduce all the control measures we liked, but we could never control the public and what they exposed themselves to before coming into our shops. They just weren’t being responsible, so myself and Cem discussed it and decided it was only heading one way – better to make the call sooner rather than later. 

Soon after, all the large chains started to close their stores along with other shops in the industry we respect so we knew we had read this one right. Closing was the correct decision for us. 

How important has it been for you communicating with staff?

Extremely. I consider us a ‘team’ so it’s very important to keep them informed and give them the opportunity to discuss any concerns. Being overseas, we have used WhatsApp groups, letters and other forms of communication to stay connected. I want my team to feel very comfortable discussing anything with me. On the evening we finally decided to close, Cem called a team meeting and it was a group decision to shut – we had buy-in from everyone because they were clear on our reasoning and concerns. They understood we had their best interests at heart and that we would do what we could to look after them. 

What were the challenges of dealing with this situation from abroad?

Being detached is always an issue and it is always difficult dealing with things from a distance, but I’ve done this for over 10 years now and so I’m pretty used to it. This has been a particularly challenging time as I’ve been part of a crisis team here, dealing with Covid-19 and trying to manage risk and business continuation on minimum manning. 

The workload has been huge, however, working for a large oil company who were very advanced in preparations for this, taking action immediately, meant I was actually very well equipped to manage the businesses at home and work with Cem throughout on our decisions.

Sometimes there is an advantage to being detached from a situation – you can see things with clarity and less emotion. 

With staff on furlough, how have you tried to motivate them and keep them informed of the situation?

I understand what my staff must be going through, so focus is just really around the pastoral side of things, making sure they are okay and are kept up to date with the latest information. I’ve generally done this over WhatsApp messages and asked them to get in touch directly if they have any issues or concerns, whether just personal advice with their finances or where to get supplies etc. Other than that, our message to the staff has been clear – stay safe and enjoy this opportunity as much as possible by spending time with your families. 

How do you think the government has been throughout the process?

I’m impressed. I think they have done incredibly well. This word has been used too much, but this is a remarkable time and they have no experience to fall back on here or history to deal with this. They are trying to look out for the entire population here, and what has impressed me is that they have really looked after the low earners and small businesses. Their proposals haven’t worked for everyone, but they are still working the detail of a lot of this so support may be available for others too in time. 

Has any company/organisation you deal with not been helpful?

I’ve not noticed or dwelled on it to be honest. In these situations, you have to focus on the positives or on solutions. I have the opinion that when you take on a business, you decide to take on that responsibility – don’t expect it to be sorted by others. I guess if I was to think about it, my bank and business manager have been very quiet, but I have also not really explored it yet because things aren’t clear and I’m managing what is within my control. When it gets to a point where the rest of my house is in order, I’ll look to engage with the bank. 

Has anyone been surprisingly helpful?

My accountant has been great – very proactive sharing information and giving me updates. He is always helpful and will do what he can on my behalf, knowing that I have a lot on and the distance factor while I’m overseas. 

Colleagues here in Iraq – I have some good friends here and some pretty level-headed and strategic people to discuss things with. Sometimes talking about the chip shops is a welcome topic over lunch rather than talking work! 

Stelios at Ceres has been great and shared some very useful stuff. The short episodes (Hospitality Insights) have been a good listen and pertinent to what was going on at that time. 

What are your thoughts on the industry, takeaways etc after all of this?

I’ve learned a lot about our industry (and others too) over the last few weeks. Things need to change and improve if we are to be stronger on the other side. We have all been given a great opportunity to understand our businesses and industry a lot more and improve on our weaknesses. 

It was clear which businesses were resilient and able to make choices, preparations, and plans for themselves. There were others that were waiting for direction from Government or an official body. There is nothing wrong with that, but it’s your business, and taking that approach means you potentially aren’t in control. 

I think during this time, people really need to look inside themselves and recognise where they need to improve personally and/or professionally. Owning a business doesn’t make you a business person. Making money doesn’t make you a success. There is a lot to learn, and I will certainly be looking to polish many things when it comes to my structure and perhaps even how much I set aside and hold within the business to manage difficult times like this where cashflow is so important. 

After this, who can predict? I just hope that as businesses we are far more supported by people rather than them choosing the bigger chains. I hope people appreciate what we do more, and also consider us part of the community (if not already). I hope that we all learn something and, as a whole, we are a better industry prepared for the next 160 years. 

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