SOHO Coffee Co, the ambitious artisan coffee shop chain, launched in Cheltenham in 1999 by Superdry founder Julian Dunkerton, is taking tentative steps in reopening as the Covid-19 lockdown loosens. Yesterday the company threw open the doors of its shops in The Brewery, Cheltenham and 19 Baker Street, London.
Penny Manuel, Managing Director at SOHO Coffee Co, said: “We have reopened our first two stores. I can’t describe how uplifting it has been for everyone – team and customers alike. The road ahead is definitely a long and bumpy one – but today has been quite simply joyous.”
When lockdown happened, SOHO Coffee Co closed immediately. “We considered doing home delivery but at that stage we didn’t want to take any risks with the health of our staff, so we shut up shop entirely,” said Penny.
“But at some point you have to wake the business up, so we are taking small, careful steps and will not ask any of our staff to take risks. All those who have helped us open our two stores have volunteered to do so.”
The company has installed Perspex screens at till points, takes the temperature of its staff before they begin work, provided markers to help distancing, restricted payment to card only and will only be providing a takeaway service. It is also unable to accept reusable cups for the moment.
SOHO Coffee Co will assess the success of the first two partial openings and then plan to open the next batch at the beginning of June, including its Cambray Place, Cheltenham store. “We are focussing on stores in high street locations with outdoor space,” she said.
However, there is no getting away from the fact that such reopening plans won’t cover any cafe or restaurant’s overheads, and won’t do for some time.
SOHO Coffee Co has sites in large shopping centres as well as on high streets, and is dealing with huge retail landlords as well as private ones.
The company, bought by investment company BTC UK in 2016, which in turn is owned by Qatar-based BTC WLL, has around 25 directly owned shops across the UK, including 13 in London, and a franchise business with branded stores in the UK, across continental Europe and the Middle East.
Penny paid tribute to industry trade association Hospitality UK, and its CEO Kate Nicholls. “She has been tireless in her support for companies such as ours.”
UKHospitality is urging the government to help broker a solution that solves the current stalemate on rent in the sector. Without this, it warns, there will be widescale job losses and business failures in the coming months.
In a letter to Business Secretary, Alok Sharma MP, UKHospitality has highlighted that, despite an announced moratorium on enforcement action, hospitality businesses are still being aggressively pursued by a minority of landlords. These businesses, the vast majority of which have virtually no income and are closed during lockdown, are still being threatened with winding-up petitions, having deposit funds taken and being served with County Court Judgements.
In circumstances where landlords have offered rent deferrals, this will just lead to an accrual of debt which will be incredibly hard to pay back as hospitality businesses will be trading below normal levels for the foreseeable future.
UKHospitality warns that although the Government has urged tenants and landlords to work together to find solutions, the commercial property market is effectively broken.
Penny added: “We are all tiptoeing through a very muddy pool. Every revenue stream has gone by the wayside. We have done our level best to make financial forecasts through until the end of the year, but obviously are adapting it to the ever-changing situation.”
SOHO Coffee Co was just four days off opening a new site at London’s Liverpool Street Station. “We had staffed up in our central production unit in Cheltenham scheme, everything was ready to go. Thankfully we have been helped by the government’s furlough scheme.”
The most recent company accounts show that Soho Coffee turned over more than £10 million in revenue in 2018, an increase from just under £9 million the previous year.