The prospect of a 17% rent rise combined with the forced closure of their restaurant due to the coronavirus pandemic saw Burton Road Chippy in Lincoln relocate last summer. Owner Lesley Graves talks about the challenges and opportunities associated with setting up shop again
When Lesley Graves and partner Des Anastasiou first opened Burton Road Chippy, they had no idea that ten years later they would be doing it again at different premises.
The takeaway and 60 seater restaurant was a popular part of the community. It won Best Restaurant at the 2015 National Fish & Chip Awards while the chippy came second in the Takeaway category two years later. Lesley and Des were still growing the business on the back of that success and saw themselves there for the long-term.
But when the lease came up for renewal in the spring and the landlord demanded almost a fifth more in rent – equivalent to what the business spends in six months on potatoes – it was a huge financial strain that no business could absorb.
“The landlord was after a massive increase so we had 90% decided to leave and then Covid hit. He still wouldn’t budge even considering everything that was happening. At that time the restaurant was still closed, we hadn’t reopened since the first lockdown, and we had no idea when it would. Although the takeaway was busier it was nowhere near making what we were losing from the restaurant. We served alcohol, starters, desserts, there’s a profit in there that you’re never going to achieve in a takeaway.
“We offered to lease the takeaway part and give back the restaurant side, which was not what we wanted, and he refused. Eventually, we had to make a decision, we had no more time to be messing about, so we said we’re off.”
The driving force to stay local meant an end to Lesley and Des’s days as restauranteurs as sit-down premises were hard to come by and they signed for a takeaway on the same side of Burton Road, just a few doors up.
“There‘s a real community aspect to Burton Road, we’ve spent years building up a relationship with other businesses, schools, universities, so it was something we didn’t want to move away from. It takes years to build that up – plus we had the name Burton Road.
“It’s still sad now not to have the restaurant. Obviously, you get to know your regulars in the takeaway but, because customers stay with you a lot longer in the restaurant, you get to know more about them and it becomes far more personal. You celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, you meet the kids, the grandkids and the extended family when they come up for a holiday. It’s been hard from a personal point of view, but from a business point of view it’s proved to be exactly the right thing to do. A takeaway-only is easier to manage and our overheads are far less.”
As much as has been possible, Burton Road remains inline with the previous set up for consistency – the same high quality food, standards and staff – although a slight variation to the logo and corporate colours hint at an evolution of the brand.
But opening in a Covid year was never going to be easy and the new business has had to adapt. The takeaway has shorter opening hours now while products that take longer to cook, or require more staff to prepare, such as poached and pan-fried fish, are temporarily unavailable. They are changes that, surprisingly, have been welcomed.
“We’ve had to simplify things so we can operate with staff working two meters apart and also get the customers in and out quicker. The smaller menu definitely works better. Whether we add the extra items back on, I think time will tell and customer expectations will dictate. Everyone has been very understanding so far but whether that continues remains to be seen.”
Making decisions about things like the menu and the rota looked like a distant dream at one point when British Gas refused to supply a meter at the takeaway amid concerns new hospitality businesses were too high risk during the pandemic. With rent and staff wages to pay while it was battled out, the future of the business looked like it could be over before it had even begun.
Lesley adds: “We offered to pay six months in advance for our gas but that wasn’t good enough. We offered to pay 12 months in advance and that still wasn’t good enough. It all came down to the fact that on Companies House we were registered as a restaurant, so we went and changed that but they still said no. The reason given was we might revert to a restaurant. I said show me where I’m going to fit that in? It was unbelievable.”
After much campaigning, including help from the NFFF and the local community that Burton Road had so wanted to remain close to, British Gas relented, but it had put the opening back by six weeks.
“I was livid. We had the range in, everything was done and ready to go, the gas pipe was there, it was literally just the meter. I had people wanting to work and a community wanting feeding.”
Moving to new premises with Covid still dominating made Lesley think about avenues she was previously closed off to. Building in two doors, for example, when specifying the new shopfront meant a Click & Collect service could be easily integrated, overcoming Lesley’s fears of customers being seen to queue jumping.
Click & Collect has had an instant impact on the takeaway – it now accounts for 30% of sales. And as an added arm to the business, Lesley prefers it to taking walk-in orders, adding: “Click & Collect makes running the whole business so much easier, knowing what you need ready for what time, what staffing levels you need, and it means the customer is getting a fresh meal at exactly the right time. It’s not very good for chatting to your customers but it’s so much more efficient from a business point of view.”
It’s clear from speaking to Lesley that running a takeaway-only appeals on many levels, but at the end of their first year, will they be turning a better profit? “It’s going to be so hard to tell because it’s a new business and it’s a covid year, so is it real? No, it’s not?
“We certainly hope we’ll be in a stronger financial position. But we can only go by what’s happening today and tomorrow. We certainly can’t plan any further than a week. It’s a strange one, that’s for sure. Normally I know how much fish and how many potatoes I’m going to need but, at the moment, I don’t know any of that.
“I’m not sure there are going to be many making a million this year but, ultimately, if we can keep our head above water until we are in a better position, then I see that as a win.”