Lockdown may have been over for a few months now, but the fact that office workers haven’t returned to city centres is having a huge effect on café operators. Brian Stormont went out and about in Dundee city centre to see how business owners were coping.
Cafes are heavily reliant on the footfall created by office workers who pop out for a coffee, a sandwich, a cake or even their entire breakfast or lunch.
While some businesses have slowly seen the green shoots of recovery, others are still struggling with many workers not having yet returned to their offices – and may not do so until January 2021.
With so many offices based in the centre of Dundee, the continuance of home working means many of these workplaces are empty – and that is hitting trade hard!
One such business is Henry’s Coffee House which has two cafes in the centre of Dundee – one in Seagate and the other in City Square.
Owner Jonathan Horne says times have been tough and his businesses still remain in the region of 30% down on this time last year – and that is even with the bonus brought in by the government’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme.
He said: “Since lockdown our footfall has been down across the board about 28% and that is through August with Eat Out To Help Out which has been a great help, a great scheme I think. But overall footfall is still down.
“The week leading up to lockdown people were advised not to go to coffee shops, not to go to restaurants, not to go to pubs, but as a business we were still trading, but the public weren’t coming so that week before lockdown was the hardest point because you were making changes every day as to how we were operating the business.
“You were watching the news, reading what you could online and trying to do what you could to help things – putting signs on tables and making tables unavailable, but we hadn’t got to the point we are at now with screens and masks and recording information, but overnight the footfall had just gone and we had to reduce staff.”
Jonathan believes it is still too premature to gauge what the impact returning customers have had on the café scene.
“In the month that that we have been open it’s too early to tell to be honest. We opened the City Square location on the 15th when you could, but we didn’t open this location (Seagate) until the 30th of July because we didn’t know what the demand was going to be like – I didn’t think there would be the demand for both,” he said.
“City Square has outside seating so, from the whole Covid environment we were all dealing with, having somewhere with outside seating seemed the sensible place to start.”
Office workers key to recovery
Office workers are a huge source of trade for businesses like Henry’s, and Jonathan believes office workers returning is absolutely key to recovery.
“With footfall down in August with Eat Out to Help Out, who knows what things are going to be like.
“Without the office workers back in town it’s going to be difficult until that changes. It’s going to be difficult until there is a vaccine or treatment, but I think at the moment, as we know a vaccine seems like it will be a long way off, the biggest thing holding us back or making things difficult is the fact that people are still being told to work from home.
Anyone I have spoken to here who has offices, whether that’s an accountants or lawyers or people in media are saying they don’t expect to be back at all until January next year.
Jonathan Horne, owner, Henry’s Coffee House.
“Down south they have been told to go back to work where possible, but here it is still work from home where possible.
“Anyone I have spoken to here who has offices, whether that’s an accountants or lawyers or people in media are saying they don’t expect to be back at all until January next year.”
There has been a good side to the end of lockdown, added Jonathan, as he saw regular customers enjoying returning to the coffee houses.
“Familiar faces have been back, people are delighted to be back,” he said. “They’re so happy to come in and get their coffee and see the staff and interact, especially if they have had a difficult time, especially if they have been living on their own.
“Those people, especially, have been very relieved to see some things opening up. It’s been good to see that.”
But, as for the future, Jonathan really can’t honestly estimate how things are going to develop for the industry.
“Tricky, it’s just so uncertain. Until we have a better understanding of what the roadmap out of this might look like it’s so difficult to work out will happen or what might happen?
“Who knows whether we will have a local lockdown like other cities? That would have its own issues and how that impacts on what your trajectory would have been without that. I think we have to take it one step at a time and adjust as you go.
“As a business owner it’s really difficult to predict what’s going to happen because of Eat Out to Help which was great but skewed things a little.
“Who knows what this month is going to be like? I think in a month’s time it will be a clearer and what we need is for the government to send people back to work.
“I think everywhere is going to feel the impact. It’s going to be a long road out of it and you do worry about how it is all going to be paid back and what taxes will be put on businesses in the future, but there isn’t time to dwell on those matters you just have to do what you can the best you can.
“No one has a crystal ball but it might be in six months’ time business needs more help from government whether that is Westminster or Scottish who knows? Difficult times ahead for sure – uncertain.”
Gradual return to normal
Over on the other side of the city centre, Coffee & Co in Reform Street has seen a gradual return to normality, while working extremely hard during lockdown on takeaways to keep the business going.
Heather Sharp said: “It’s actually been quite good and it’s picked up loads since lockdown finished. Even when in lockdown we were only doing takeaways here and slowly picked up through word of mouth that we were open – I think we were one of the only ones that were open. It’s been a slow build up but it’s been great to see things get busier.
“Unfortunately during lockdown I had to furlough all my staff and I just worked on my own.
“I worked from 7 in the morning till 2. It was quite good because I still got some of the regulars that I would normally get at seven in the morning. It was beneficial to open for them, so they still had a coffee to go to their work with.”
And with the business only shut for a couple of weeks while other coffee shops were closed indefinitely, Coffee & Co attracted new trade.
Heather added: “We also picked up new customers who would normally go to Costa or Café Nero, Starbucks or wherever, but they were all closed so we got new customers coming in.”
A lot of the older clientele have started coming back, they were a wee bit nervous about coming back in. They are starting to come back in seeing that life is going on and seeing other people of their own age coming in.
Heather Sharp, owner, Coffee & Co.
And she is now seeing a lot of familiar faces returning as we gradually get back to normal.
“There have obviously been quiet times but on the whole it has picked up really well.
“A lot of the older clientele have started coming back. They were a wee bit nervous about coming back in, but they are starting to come back in seeing that life is going on and seeing other people of their own age coming in.
“They are meeting up on a regular basis. It’s good to see them out – and they are glad they are out as well.”
Eat Out scheme boost
Although Heather didn’t feel compelled to put on any special offers to bring customers in, Eat Out To Help Out was a boon.
“We were glad we took on the Eat Out to Help Out – that was really good,” she added.
“And it helped us lot, we were packed, packed out. It was very busy, it was a good scheme.”
But what does the future hold for a café like Coffee & Co? Heather says office workers returning is absolutely key to their business.
“I think it will settle down eventually but I don’t think it will be until next March, April that we will see it properly settle back down again,” she said. “Hopefully we won’t get another lockdown and it will slowly pick up again.
“Hopefully with all the works going back, the offices and things like that, that is major for us. When they start going back in we can breathe, that will be good.”