Re-opening: small businesses in Stratford-upon-Avon
The school summer holidays are officially underway and UK citizens are emerging from lockdown. How are the owners of small businesses in one of the UK’s top tourist destinations experiencing the ‘new normal’? Tide writer Suzanne Worthington finds out.
RSC: live theatre on hold
One of the star attractions of Stratford-upon-Avon – the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – remains closed. While the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company, which runs the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Swan Theatre and The Other Place) is no small business itself, this major employer in the town attracts many of the visitors to Stratford who also spend money with the town’s smaller businesses.
Today however, the RSC has reopened the Riverside Café for takeaways only. Customers were able to buy from a window and take their purchases to the outdoor seating by the river.
Surveying the operations was the RSC’s Director of Marketing Chris Hill who was pleased the theatre was taking steps to reopen and hoped that the successful start of this initiative will continue.
Avon Boating: all aboard – at half capacity
Nearby at Avon Boating, which offers short river cruises and boats for hire, business is booming.
Stewards Henry and Olivia were welcoming passengers onto one of the company’s long wooden cruisers. They explained that for distancing, the capacity of the vessel is now 22 instead of 58. Of the boats for hire, only half the usual amount were available due to staff on furlough and the time required for extra cleaning between groups.
Avon Boating is one of the top-earning leisure activity companies in Stratford, only exceeded by the RSC and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust which maintains the historic houses of Shakespeare’s family and the RSC’s archives. The company appears to have weathered the coronavirus interruption well, paying their furloughed staff the 80% they can reclaim from the Government and topping staff pay up to 100% from their own funds.
Currently, Avon Boating’s revenue is at 30% compared to this month last year – but Henry and Olivia were optimistic. The company – always popular but competing with other leisure activities in Stratford – is now a very attractive option for tourists because their activities take place outside rather than inside. It’s perceived to be a particularly Covid-safe option.
Nearby on the corner of Sheep Street, the queue for Barnaby’s fish and chips was snaking down the road.
Again, rather than eating in a restaurant, customers prefer to buy a take-away and find a socially-distant spot on the theatre’s lawn to eat their lunch.
Some enterprising person was offering deckchairs for hire which, along with the aroma from the chippy, makes the riverside area feel like the seaside.
Stratford Gallery: creating a haven for collectors
Tucked into a historic cottage on Sheep St, Howard and Emma Clegg run The Stratford Gallery. Since opening in 2016, the Gallery has earned a reputation nationally and internationally for showing some of the finest living painters and ceramic artists.
Many of the Gallery’s clients rely on Howard and Emma to curate and supply only the best work from around the world to add to their own collection. What if you just want to buy a unique gift? No problem – the Gallery is open to everyone. Stepping inside, any visitor will immediately feel the sense of peace, away from the hubbub of the riverside, and surrounded by dreamy paintings and irresistible ceramic art.
A great gallery doesn’t just buy and sell – Howard and Emma enjoy guiding customers to find what they believe will become ‘important’ pieces in the future. They’re also part of the Own Art network, an interest-free payment scheme backed by the Arts Council, which makes buying contemporary art and craft more affordable.
So while the Gallery couldn’t open during lockdown, the team were busy responding to existing clients who had more time to enhance and invest in their collections, and new customers asking for advice. With delivery services still operating, the Gallery team packed and sent purchases out daily to customers around the world.
Howard and Emma are optimistic about reopening but two things will improve their 2020: firstly, the theatres reopening. All Stratford businesses will agree on this because the RSC brings in 1,000 or more visitors a day who enjoy the town’s shops and hospitality venues as part of their visit.
Secondly, the Gallery and many other businesses in Stratford are asking the town and county councils to re-think the new one-way traffic system and social distancing measures designed to allowed the public to stay further apart.
It seems to be a case of good intention but poor execution. Feedback from both shoppers and shopkeepers suggests that the measures aren’t working and in fact, they’re keeping away people who want to visit Stratford to buy items to take with them immediately.
Worryingly, several business owners I spoke to said that the traffic measures are so off-putting, customers are choosing to go to other towns instead. Traders are hoping that the normal road scheme and parking areas will be reinstated soon so customers will be encouraged to return.
With no set date for the theatres reopening, The Stratford Gallery has altered their business model to focus on online sales and London Art Fairs for the short to medium-term.
Sister Sister: brightening 2020 with accessories
What started as an experimental pop-up shop turned into a year-long lease in the courtyard. The shop is like a fantasy jewellery and accessories dressing-up box, selling both classic and Anthropologie-style pieces for any occasion from day-to-day casual wear to a day at the races.
During lockdown the pair fast-tracked the launch of their website and online shop, sistersistercollective.net As some women found they had money to spare – for example, by not commuting or going out – online shopping became a lockdown pastime. Sister Sister’s customers bought gifts for friends or treats for themselves. And with hairdressers closed, customers bought the store’s headbands and scarves as a quick solution to bad hair days.
Before they were allowed to reopen to the public, Francie and Rachel were spending long days at the shop packing and sending orders. Customers loved the hand-written thank-you notes from the owners.
Sister Sister would like to move a more prominent unit in the town – but the business rates are so high, it’s not an option for them. And ideally, we’d all have weddings, parties and events to go to which might require us treating ourselves to a new bag, jewellery or hair accessory.
But really, if you have a spare few quid, what’s stopping you from picking up a pair of Sister Sister’s sparkly lobster earrings to jazz up your video calls?
El Greco: welcoming back diners
Over at Greek restaurant El Greco, lunchtime diners were still arriving even though it was past 2pm. The popular restaurant reopened on 15 July, deciding on a ‘soft’ relaunch with just one social media post to inform customers. Locals and tourists haven’t stopped pouring in.
Owner/Director Flair and her team spent the preceding weeks coordinating their coronavirus measures. They’ve reduced the covers inside their premises from 126 to 78, offer a reduced menu, and a waiter brings hand sanitiser to the table as customers sit down.
In an initiative I haven’t seen elsewhere, Flair has had wooden screens specially made to avoid using the ‘shower curtains’ seen in other venues. The screens could be a good longer-term investment – rather than the interior of the restaurant being cloaked in plastic sheeting like a forensic crime scene, the wooden screens create booths so each table feels more like a private dining space, while still being part of the buzz that El Greco’s customers love. Smart.
The whole service team – who are all back from furlough – were wearing visors, rather than masks, an approach Flair says the customers have appreciated because communication is easier.
Things are far from back to normal. Obviously with fewer covers, the restaurant’s revenue isn’t at the same level as before. But customer behaviour is different too. Flair notes that diners prefer to be outside. (Fortunately our climate is currently allowing this.) People are more commonly arriving to dine in pairs – group visits haven’t yet picked up. And many people, nervous about going to a busy restaurant, are choosing to eat a late lunch to avoid the busiest times.
Flair says that the biggest difference in customer behaviour is that previously guests would stay an average of 1.5 hours for dinner at El Greco; now they take their time, spending more like 2.5 hours. She attributes this to several factors: because the theatres aren’t open, no-one has to rush off to catch curtain-up, and people are relieved to be permitted to socialise out and about again, so catching up with friends and family over dinner is to be savoured. There are other factors too: more people working at home means no early get-ups to commute so people can enjoy staying out for longer in the evenings.
Shabby Chic Sister: locals discovering independent clothes store
Behind El Greco restaurant is The Minories, a light and open courtyard which cuts from the market place to Shakespeare’s birthplace.
Tucked into a corner of the alley is clothes shop Shabby Chic Sister, run by Kate who walked away from a non-stop corporate lifestyle to live at a more steady pace as a small business owner.
The shop has been at its location in The Minories for seven years but the Stratfordians who discover it say they didn’t realise it was there. Kate sells her hand-picked selection of clothing and jewellery, many Italian designed and made, while her dog Albert looks on from his basket.
During the lockdown, Kate had to close the shop and because she doesn’t sell online, there was no option but to wait for the Government announcement that stores could reopen.
As a coronavirus measure (and again, fortunately permitted by the July weather), Kate has put rails of clothing outside the shop, allowing customers to browse and maintain distance. This has had the added benefit of attracting more customers who hadn’t previously found the store.
Most of Kate’s customers are tourists and most of her trade is in summer. With tourists starting to return to the town, and some of the summer still remaining, Kate is optimistic. However, as the owners of Sister Sister noted, with no big events or parties taking place, customers aren’t buying new pieces. Perhaps it’s time to instigate a ‘Dress Up Friday’ where home-workers cast off their leisurewear, buy a few new items for their wardrobe and do Zoom calls in their finery?
Plantarium: brewing up more trade than ever
Shabby Chic Sister’s owner Kate has noticed trade has picked up at her shop now there are more businesses occupying The Minories. One of the newer businesses in the courtyard is the Plantarium which opened in February 2019.
The café is Stratford’s only dedicated vegan/vegetarian venue and, after my fairly comprehensive survey, I reckon they do the best oat cappuccino in town. Want to go even more niche on your milk substitute? Try the pea protein option. Need something Instagrammable to post for your followers? Try a macha latte or cannabis tea with a wedge of vegan cake.
Barista and manager Eric chatted to me while owner Magda was busy in the kitchen. In June the café opened for take-away only and they reopened for sit-in customers earlier in July. From just a few tables outside, the team have added more outdoor covers, creating a buzzy terrace with plenty of space between tables.
With reduced hours and a change in customer behaviour, The Plantarium report that their revenue is 30% down on the same month last year. The team have also decided to change from closing on Monday to closing on a Thursday – Eric’s theory on why Mondays are busier than Thursdays at the café is that tourists stay in the town for a long weekend, Friday to Monday.
The café are taking part in the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, hoping to attract more customers on weekdays and especially budget-conscious young people and families financially hit by the lockdown.
With the Eat Out to Help Out discount and plus more and more positive reviews on TripAdvisor and Google Maps, Eric, Magda and the team are looking forward to a busy August.
HR Coffee Bar: bouncing back, with the help of their accountant
Over at HR Coffee Bar on Windsor Street, sandwiched between a busy coach park and the old Picturehouse cinema, manager Dan reported similar observations to Eric at the Plantarium.
HR reopened in June for take-aways and this proved popular as people wanted to buy something to take for a picnic by the river. Like many venues, Dan notes that customers prefer to be outside so HR’s outdoor tables have been popular.
But, similarly to the Plantarium, revenue is down 30% on the same time last year so HR were pleased to get a Bounce Back Loan which they’re using to maintain and invest in their business. Dan had high praise for his accountants who were truly earning their fee this year, keeping him informed about Government aid and making it as easy as possible for him to take up the support.
Tide writer Suzanne will be reporting from other towns soon.
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Photos by Suzanne Worthington © Tide