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How to run a business in lockdown: Rachel – the hatter, haberdasher and The Hare’s head honcho

The Hare, village pub in Milton under Wychwood

How to run a business in lockdown is our series about how small business owners are leading their companies through the coronavirus crisis. To share your story, message us: hello@tide.co, Facebook or Twitter.

Over 750 Tide members run pubs or bars and nearly 2,000 run cafes and restaurants – on 20 March 2020, they found their industry paralysed overnight when the Government ordered them to close to slow down the spread of coronavirus.

We spoke to Cotswold-based entrepreneur Rachel Hawkins, who owns not one but three small businesses, about the impact the coronavirus outbreak is having on her work, her staff and her finances.

Rachel, third from left, with some of her team at The Hare in Milton

How are your businesses affected by the lockdown?

The Hare

The friendly pub at the heart of village life

Rachel’s main business is running The Hare, a small pub-restaurant in Milton-under-Wychwood near Oxford. The Hare employs 20 people and it’s the only pub in the village. Along with every other pub in the UK, The Hare closed to public after service on 20 March 2020.

Rachel has worked in the pub trade for nearly 20 years, starting out aged 14 as a waitress. For 15 years, with her aunt Sue, an interior designer, Rachel has owned and run several pubs, restaurants and small hotels around South Warwickshire and the Cotswolds. The pair’s business model is to buy what an estate agent would call a ‘project’, renovate it, grow the business into a popular pub/restaurant and then sell it to move onto the next challenge.

“Before The Hare had to close, many older lunchtime customers stayed away. Younger parents and drinkers were supportive, promising they’d keep coming. Customers fell into two camps: stay at home or ‘Dunkirk spirit’. Then of course everyone had to stay at home.”

For now, the staff are furloughed, the door is locked and the villagers are temporarily without their meeting place.

Interior at The Hare, Milton

The Cotswold Hat Club

The side-hustle that became a growing business

Hiring out hats for ladies attending horse-racing events started as a side-hustle for Rachel two years ago. She then turned it into another business: the Cotswold Hat Club.

“The hat company started as a hobby. Friends would borrow hats – then I was lending hats to friends of friends… I thought, ‘hang on, I ought to at least break even’.

Hand-made hats for hire from the Cotswold Hat Club

“This area – the Cotswolds, Cheltenham etc – is horse-racing mad so there was a gap for my business. I started it as a hobby but was much more popular than I expected. Last year I hired out all my stock so this year I bought and had stock made.

“I was preparing to hire out 350 hats for Ascot. But the racing is off. All the hats have been made so I’m getting bills daily, customers have cancelled orders, and my insurance doesn’t cover it. No-one I know has insurance for this. It’s not covered by policies.”

Last year Rachel began renting a shop in Stow-on-the-Wold, open by appointment only. Fortunately, because she has this premises, the company is eligible for a £10,000 Government coronavirus grant.

Rachel at the Cotswold Hat Club's premises in Stow on the Wold
At the CHC’s premises in Stow on the Wold

Sister Sister

Passing on entrepreneurial skills

Most recently, Rachel launched her third small business, Sister Sister, a ladies’ fashion accessories retailer, with her sister Francie.

Sister Sister's shop in Stratford-upon-Avon
Sister Sister’s shop in Stratford-upon-Avon

“We sell bold, well-curated, Anthropologie-style pieces at competitive prices. The idea started when I wanted to help my sister take the next steps in her career.

“First we did a few shows and fetes, sold loads then it just snowballed. We opened a pop-up shop in an empty unit in Stratford-upon-Avon last Christmas and in January, we decided to take a one-year lease. We knew the first few months of the year would be quiet but we broke even, confident summer would be busier. We never imagined we’d to have to close completely.”

Because this business operates from a premises where the sisters pay business rates, it’s eligible for a Government coronavirus grant.

Update 25 April 2020

Rachel and Francie have just launched the Sister Sister website and have been inundated with orders. As business owners are permitted to be at their premises, but not open to the public, the pair are spending their weekend at the shop, packing up and sending orders.

For a spot of lockdown retail therapy, take a look around the site and if anything takes your fancy, there’s currently free delivery in the UK with the code: LOCKDOWN2020
sistersistercollective.net

Sister Sister, shop interior

What coronavirus support will you get from the Government?

Rachel has put all the full-time staff at The Hare on furlough. This means they stay on the payroll and, through the Job Retention Scheme, the Government reimburses the pub for their wages while they can’t work.

“The staff know they’ll get back-dated pay. We had to let go a few people who occasionally help out, but they know they can come back when the pub re-opens.”

Five of the staff live at the pub with Rachel covering their rent and bills. During furlough, they’re using money they had saved up until they get their back-dated pay.

All of Rachel’s businesses will get a grant. Because she pays business rates on the pub she owns and the two shop premises she rents, all the businesses will get either the Small Business Grant or the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant (business can only get one grant, not both). They’ll all have a business rates holiday, not paying rates for the rest of the 2020 to 2021 tax year, and if they wish, they can defer making VAT payments to HMRC.

“Bizarrely, both the pub and Sister Sister will get £25,000. The shop falls into the higher bracket for business rates so it gets the bigger grant. Which seems strange because the pub is much bigger business. We’re grateful the shop will get this grant so we’re thinking carefully about to spend it. It might even be enough to allow us to employ someone.”

Rachel herself is self-employed and pays herself through dividends so she’s not eligible for a grant through the Government’s Self Employed Income Support Scheme.

When the coronavirus closures looked imminent, Rachel and Sue quickly organised an overdraft. Having just paid their personal tax, Corporate Tax and VAT bills, and worried about suppliers not giving credit, the overdraft is a buffer in case the pub developed a cash-flow problem. (The overdraft was organised before the Government introduced the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme).

For now, since there’s no borrowing on the pub other than the overdraft to tide them over while closed, Rachel is confident her businesses are secure and she’s communicated this to staff so they’re reassured they have jobs to go back to.

Find out what Government support your business might be eligible for with our eligibility checker.

What’s your #1 lockdown tip for small businesses?

For Rachel, open, clear and two-way communication – with staff, suppliers and customers – has always been key to her success.

“Communication is so important, now more than ever. I emailed all our suppliers and explained we can’t pay our bills just yet but that we’ll get a grant. Suppliers thanked us for keeping them in the loop.

“The same goes for our staff. Whether they’ve been with me for months or years, I feel a responsibility to make sure they’re happy, have money and have a sense of their prospects. With the staff who live in at the pub, I asked them to reassure their families that they were safe. When the outbreak started, I reminded them that they could leave if they wanted to.”

This open communication and concern for their wellbeing means that in return, Rachel’s staff develop a sense of care and responsibility towards the pub. How many other pubs have a head chef who nips round to mow the lawn?

To remind customers that this concern extends to them, the pub staff put a note on the door of the pub, on social media and The Hare’s website asking them to get in touch if they needed help and to reassure customers they’d be there ‘on the other side’ of the coronavirus closures.

Can you continuity plan for a pandemic?

Rachel and her business partner Sue do scenario planning – but only to a degree.

“Running previous pubs, we had ‘key man insurance’ which would pay out if something happened to mean I couldn’t work. We no longer have this insurance because we have longer-established staff like Henrietta who could take over.

“We don’t currently owe a lot of money – but we never expected that we’d have to shut for three months. Who plans for a pandemic?

“With our head chef Matt, we looked at doing take-aways and delivery. But it just wasn’t viable. We wanted to work but not if we’d have made a loss.”

Rachel is currently working from home, planning for re-opening her businesses.

What have you learned from working in lockdown?

Having to close her businesses and work from home, Rachel has been reminded of how work gives her a sense of purpose and achievement.

“For a week, I was still working like normal: finishing things up, negotiating discounts and better rates for things like the bin collection. I made a re-opening list, jotted down ideas. Work gives me a sense of purpose. Being forced to stop, I can’t imagine ever fully retiring.”

From home confinement, Rachel keeps the businesses ticking over and reads the newspapers but not obsessively. Optimistic as always, she’s patient but can’t wait to re-open.

What are your plans for re-opening?

No-one yet knows what the guidelines will be when the UK emerges from coronavirus lockdown. Rachel wants to see stronger direction from the Government than at the start of the coronavirus outbreak (when Boris Johnson asked people to stay out of pubs before he ordered them to close). Hours might be curfewed, customer numbers might be limited. Businesses will have to adapt quickly.

“Limiting numbers in the pub wouldn’t be viable. We want customers to feel comfortable in the pub, not monitored. How can we encourage people to come but not appear irresponsible?”

“People will want to support the pub but they’ll be having cash-flow problems too. It’s likely they’ll want to spend £15 per visit rather than £30. We’ll probably extend our lunch options, maybe do a café-style or tapas menu. There’s a strong community spirit in Milton and we want to stay at the heart of the village.”

Smiling drinkers at The Hare
Locals at The Hare in 2019

With the pub closed, Rachel has more time than she anticipated to work with Francie on the website for Sister Sister. And the Hat Club is on hold while racing, weddings and other events requiring a fancy hat are banned.

Rachel – along with every pub, shop and service – hopes that customers come back to support them. Regardless of budget, British people like to celebrate, dress up and have fun so after months locked in stay-at-home quarantine, Rachel’s hoping for a summer that’s busier than ever.

Have your say

How is the coronavirus affecting you and your small business? We’re keen to hear from you – get in touch with us on LinkedInFacebook or Twitter.

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Photos from Instagram, courtesy of The Hare, Cotswold Hat Club and Sister Sister.

Suzanne Worthington

Senior Writer

Tide Team

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