Re-opening: small businesses in Hackney

Since ‘non-essential’ shops were allowed to re-open in the UK on 15 June – and salons a few weeks later – we’ve visited towns and cities across England to find out how business is going for independent shops and salons.

After seeing for ourselves how the drop in footfall is damaging trade in Central London, we were optimistic about trade in a residential area of the city. If no-one’s in the city centre, surely business is thriving in Hackney? Tide writer Suzanne Worthington went to meet local traders and discovered it isn’t that straightforward…

Well Street, Hackney

Well Street in Hackney (or Homerton, depending on who you ask) plays an important part in the history of London’s West End.

The street connects Mare Street in Hackney to Homerton and it’s been a shopping area for centuries. In the nineteenth century, the street had manufacturers too: rope and boot makers and leather craftsmen.

Tesco founder Jack Cohen famously started out in business here, selling surplus groceries on Well Street Market after he’d served in the First World War. Tesco still has a presence here: the supermarket now controversially dominates the street in a modern unit which started life as a toy shop.

On the day I visited, London was in the middle of an aggressive heatwave. At mid-morning, a market trader was selling fruit and vegetables in front of the sells-everything-you-can-think of hardware store, and locals were out shopping, having coffee and chatting in the street. It seemed busy enough. But to find out the real story, I spoke to staff in some of the street’s independent businesses:

Well Street Kitchen

To the side of Tesco on Well Street Market is Well Street Kitchen, a small friendly café which is popular with locals for breakfast and lunch.

Owner Lija explains that she took over the business just two weeks before lockdown. With this unfortunate timing, the café wasn’t eligible for the Government grant or the Job Retention Scheme so she couldn’t furlough staff.

Since the café has re-opened, Lija is trying to keep the old staff, even if they just have 20 hours a week rather than full-time. Today, alongside Lija were two servers and a kitchen porter.

The team are pleased that the café has been busy on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August with customers aware of the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out discount. But as a result, the Well Street Kitchen is suffering on weekends. Lija explains that the café would usually be busy for brunch on Saturdays and Sundays but because people are on furlough, they’ve shifted their ‘weekend’ activities so Monday and Tuesday have become the new weekend.

Breakfast at Well Street Kitchen, Hackney
Breakfast at Well Street Kitchen

Trade isn’t what Lija had hoped. In the café, clients chat with the staff so she’s hearing that locals are being more careful with their money, aware they need to save up a ‘rainy day’ fund for the end of furlough and possible redundancies.

Does Lija regret taking over the Well Street Kitchen? Not at all. She used to work offices but found this like being back in school, constrained by timetables and rules. She prefers to run her own business and although she works long hours, she finds it less draining.

For now, Lija is managing the business week by week. This isn’t her family’s sole source of income – her partner runs a pizza restaurant in Hackney Wick. Like the café, they wish trade there was busier too but the restaurant provided them within income over lockdown because they sold take-away pizzas. Like all pizza and pasta businesses, the profit margins on these foods are high so they were able to operate at a profit. Fortunately, locals were keen to support the independent business, rather than choose a chain pizza delivery service, and as Lija points out, “people always want pizza”.

From Instagram: @wellstreetkitchen

Plant-based Supermarket

Initially I thought this was the description of the shop but ‘Plant-based Supermarket‘ is indeed the name. I can only admire this ‘Ronseal’ approach to naming the business (‘it does what it says on the tin’).

Shop assistant Harrison was on duty when I visited. He’s been working in the store since the end of April. The core customers are younger Hackney residents who are into eco-friendly purchasing. They come to top-up on refills (such as laundry detergent and washing-up liquid), and to pick up items by brands not stocked by mainstream supermarkets. Harrison tells me the store’s top sellers are milk alternatives and vegan cheeses.

Before lockdown, Harrison was working as a skateboarding instructor for Better leisure centres. When the centres were closed, staff were furloughed. Under the terms of the Job Retention Scheme, furloughed workers can’t work for the employer that furloughed them, but they can work or volunteer for another organisation. So Harrison looked for another job and was pleased to find this position, near his home and doing something positive for the Hackney community.

Plant-based Supermarket - Open sign

At the start of lockdown, the shop closed for a few weeks while the owners worked out what to do. When they re-opened, initially the shop was busy and Harrison senses business has now tailed off because people seem more confident going into supermarkets and ordering online.

Like the other business owners I spoke to today, Harrison says there’s a tension for many customers: furloughed people have lots more time to spend their money but know they ought to squirrel it away for winter in case they lose their job.

For now, the Plant-based Supermarket still has lots of repeat customers and many new faces popping in, often because they’re starting out as vegan. People go vegan for many different reasons but Harrison’s noticed that often a media event will bring in more people – recently, a Netflix documentary about vegan athletes prompted a flurry of enthusiastic new vegans.

Part of the role of shopkeeper in this store is to give advice to shoppers. For example, Harrison says customers often ask about protein sources. The advice from financial forecasters might be to save money ahead of the global recession – but this is advice the shop won’t be sharing. Regular customers all say they want the shop to continue – but this won’t be possible if they stop spending money here.

From Plant-based Supermarket’s Instagram: @plant_based_supermarket

Perlie Rides

Perlie Rides, Well Street, Hackney
Perlie Rides cycle store

At Perlie Rides cycle store, the perfectly-named owner Adam Rider and his mechanics Steve and Jordan were mending bikes for clients and attending customers.

The shop is stuffed with close-packed rows of cycles: waiting to be worked on, waiting to be collected, and some for sale. The Government has encouraged Brits to cycle more instead of using public transport, so business must be booming.

And it is – the team at Perlie Rides have more work than ever. But it won’t make any of them rich anytime soon. Adam and his mechanics are each earning around £10 an hour. Bike mechanics spend months training and it takes years to become highly skilled, so why is the pay so low? Even as the business owner, Adam can only pay himself this basic wage.

Adam explains that running a bike shop seems to be considered a ‘hobby’ business. Something you do for love not money. And the law seems to agree – there’s no regulation for bicycle mechanics, unlike for car, van and motorcycle technicians, electricians and so on. This is disturbing when you consider that people’s safety is at stake.

And the shop can’t make decent margins. Customer won’t pay the £60 an hour they might for a car mechanic. And at the moment, parts aren’t readily available – to sell a £60 wheel recently, Adam had to spend £55 on parts. Factor in his time and he hasn’t even broken even.

Adam Rider, owner of Perlie Rides, Hackney. Photo courtesy of Adam Rider
Adam, owner of Perlie Rides
Photo © Adam Rider

Like many other cycle shop owners, Adam loves cycling and cares deeply about his business. But the industry doesn’t make life easy for him. It takes him a long time to train a mechanic and then inevitably they leave to move out of the area, set up their own store, or worse: they quit the trade entirely to take a job with better pay.

If the Government are serious about more people getting around on bicycles, Adam recommends we look to other European countries for best practice. For example:

  • Regulation
    Nationwide training programmes with official qualifications. With mechanics trained to recognised standards, quality would be raised across the industry and staff recognised for their skill.
  • Training and resources for Government schemes
    For example, the £50 offer from the Fix Your Bike Voucher Scheme during lockdown. (Adam notes that this was rushed out without sufficient information or checking that the cycle industry could support it.)
  • Better cycle lanes
    More cycle lanes and with better planning, to protect cyclists from traffic. (Adam lists places around London where blips in lane planning has created accident blackspots.)

During lockdown, the shop was closed to the public but the team was working at capacity, servicing bikes belonging to key workers such as paramedics. The conditions are poor: lots of work under time pressure, physical effort, working with grease, dirt and dust, and for low pay. And today, there’s a literal element to this ‘sweat shop’ culture because it’s 32°C outside and the shop has no air-con.

It’s clear the team are doing their best so you’d expect customers would appreciate their service. Many do but I was appalled to hear about the behaviour of some of their customers. Many demand priority service, expect their repair to take just minutes and then try to haggle down the price. This is particularly baffling because their safety (or their child’s!) is at risk. Everyone knows a cheap, fast repair isn’t going to be any good, don’t they? Obviously not.

Luckily not all customers have this attitude. Adam says his store is busy on word-of-mouth recommendations because people want mechanics they can trust. He even has customers from New York and the Netherlands, who only trust Adam to fix their bikes.

If you’re planning to get your bike serviced by an independent cycle store like Perlie Rides, Adam recommends that you:

  • Book ahead
    Call or pop in to book your repair well in advance of when you need the job doing. Expect the shop to be busy – if you need a repair urgently, offer to pay more.
  • Look for quality
    Ask about the mechanic’s qualifications. Check the workshop is calm and organised.
  • Lobby the authorities
    Email your local council and MP to request better infrastructure for cyclists.

I’d like to add to this: give a tip when you receive good service. We do that for waiters, hairdressers and taxi drivers, so why not add a bit extra for your bike mechanic? An extra fiver in cash buys their lunch or a round of coffees for the team. Also useful when you’ve had good service is to post a positive review, for example on Google Maps.

Before I leave, I ask about the shop’s name. ‘Perlie’ is nothing to do with London’s Pearly Kings and Queens. Perlie is in fact owner Adam’s cat. Or rather, was Adam’s cat. As Steve calls from the back, “He died of over-work too!”

Perlie Rides cycle workshop. Photo courtesy of Adam Rider
Perlie Rides cycle workshop. Photo © Adam Rider

A G Price Florist

Display at A G Price Florist, Well St, Hackney, London
Display at A G Price Florist

Owner Joanne’s family florist A G Price has been trading on Well Street for over 100 years.

During lockdown, the shop was closed to the public and staff were furloughed for seven weeks. Joanne and the shop manager continued working: fulfilling online orders and creating floral tributes for funerals.

Now the shop is open again, Joanne tells me business is at a reasonable level. She’s believes we’re currently riding a wave of Government help and at the end of furlough in October, people will start cutting back on spending. Then we’ll see even more belt-tightening in December and January.

Flowers for sale at A G Price Florist, Hackney, London
Flowers for sale at A G Price

Previously, A G Price was making many deliveries to offices in the City of London. But as offices lie empty, clients aren’t ordering the usual gifts of flowers for birthdays and celebrations, or for decoration.

As for local customers, staff tell me many locals are away, taking the opportunity to get out of the city before children return to school.

Compounding the drop in sales, the wholesale price of flowers is currently double what it usually is. This is because with Europe in lockdown, suppliers in the Netherlands couldn’t deliver. Flowers can’t be stored or put on hold, so supplier had to destroy crops. They replanted – but florists now pay double. The price reflects the usual price for the flowers plus the same amount again for the destroyed crops. This means that on everything Joanne and the team do sell, there’s less profit margin.

While sales are down and the wholesale priced is double, Joanne can’t put up her prices because the shop competes with Tesco which is just across the road.

Sign outside A G Price Florist, Hackney
Sign at A G Price

I ask Joanne if she might diversify what A G Price offers, such as hosting classes like florist and Tide member Jamie Christopher in Birmingham. This isn’t on the cards because Joanne doesn’t want to be running her business 24/7. She prefers to keep her evenings and Sundays free. One initiative the shop tried has been successful: they now deliver to a wider area via Interflora and this has increased orders.

The A G Price Flowers shop on Well Street has been through two World Wars, previous recessions and the rise of the supermarkets. Joanne’s relatives were here selling flowers long before the Tesco store opened. With luck, Hackney residents will choose to support their local independent shops. And although flowers can seem like a frivolous non-essential purchase, there’s no better way to bring natural beauty into your home and remind yourself that nothing lasts forever.

From A G Price’s Instagram: @agpriceflorist

London Barber

London Barber, Well Street, Hackney

Like the Plant-based Supermarket, London Barber’s name states what they do. And similar to the Well Street Kitchen (which owner Lija took over just two weeks before lockdown), independent salon London Barber opened just two weeks before lockdown in March. The salon decoration is still unfinished: they’re creating a giant chalk mural on one wall.

The salon re-opened in July when the Government announced it was possible. Currently the team are offering haircuts only, no shaves or treatments at the moment. Today, waiting outside in the scorching sunshine, barber Jurgen wondered if he’ll have any clients today.

Jurgen says residents are out of town for the summer holidays or somewhere else in London. He thinks people are out enjoying the sunshine rather than ticking off ‘get haircut’ on their to do list – because if you’re furloughed, you can do that any day. The barbershop team also think that because many people only see their colleagues now via Zoom, men have been less fussed about getting regular haircuts and shaves.

Like Harrison in the Plant-based Supermarket, Jurgen is on furlough from another employer (Nuffield gyms) and picked up this job in the salon in July. He trained as a barber as a teenager but his passion is personal training.

Jurgen started as a PT four years ago and it quickly took off. He travels with equipment and trains clients in parks. Most of his clients are in wealthier areas of London where residents have more money to spend on services like PT. At the moment, he’s far more in demand as a PT than as a barber.

In fact, lockdown has been positive for Jurgen because gyms were closed but people still wanted someone to help train safely, and to motivate them. Jurgen is confident this will continue: his clients have cancelled gym memberships and want to continue training with him.

Jurgen is so busy that he fits in five clients a day, before and after work at the barbershop. That’s five a day, seven days a week! And he also finds time to train himself, daily. I express my surprise (and an element of worry) that he takes no downtime. But this super-fit multi-skilled man says he must take the opportunities now, while they’re available to him.

Jurgen recommends others adopt his strategy for succeeding during lockdown and the recession which follows: find different ways to make money and work hard while you can. His advice is appropriate for everyone: when you find something you love doing, you’re motivated to work hard.

Tide exists to serve small businesses

Here at Tide, we can’t do anything to bring back shoppers. But we do make life easier for the 200,000+ small business owners who are members of Tide.

If you’re investigating how to adapt your small businesses post-Covid, you’ll also be reviewing your outgoings. If it’s been a few years since you opened your business bank account, it’s sensible to shop around to see if you can get a better deal. Did you know that the cost of a Tide business account starts from… free?

While it isn’t yet as quick as switching a personal account, moving your business account could save you hundreds of pounds a year. And with Tide, you can also do your invoicing, calculate and file your VAT return and more. All for FREE.

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All photos by Suzanne Worthington © Tide, unless otherwise stated

Suzanne Worthington

Suzanne Worthington

Senior Writer

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