How local businesses are adapting

Innovative firms across South Cambridgeshire have been adapting to life under lockdown. We share some of their inspiring stories.

If your business has diversified as a result of Coronavirus, or has an uplifting or innovative story to tell, email communications@scambs.gov.uk.

Histon Produce, Over

Histon Produce staff packing fruit and veg boxes

“The day Boris Johnson announced all schools would close, we were sitting on £25,000 of fresh stock, intended for hundreds of them. Demand for our business all but vanished overnight,” Mark Channell says.

Faced with the prospect of furloughing staff and ditching stock at his fruit and vegetable wholesale firm, Histon Produce - with a £3 million turnover - Mark came up with an innovative solution.

“We’re not a cash-rich company but we don’t owe the bank any money and I have such a great team that I wanted us to keep going. Not to make a profit but to cover our business costs and support our local communities.”

After advice from his elderly parents in Bar Hill, Mark decided to adapt his business to deliver essential food supplies to vulnerable residents over 70, people having to self-isolate and key workers.

Used to supplying large orders, he had to quickly adjust to large numbers of small purchases, averaging £8-£10. Mark launched a Facebook group page for eligible people to join, rearranged his assembly line to meet social distancing rules, set up cash payments, distributed order forms and manned the phone.

In 48 hours they were inundated with calls and today 25 staff and volunteers – his ‘army of box-making fairies’ – work flat out to deliver up to 200 orders a day, five days a week within a 10-mile radius of Over.

They also pack up to 1,100 boxes a day for the Operation Shield relief effort in Hertfordshire.

Mark explains: “My staff have really risen to the challenge and I’m so proud of them.”

The Dog & Duck, Linton

“We lost thousands of pounds of Mother’s Day business when we had to close our pub doors in March, but we were determined to keep going,” says landlord Sam Ghaith.

Forced to furlough a 20-strong team, he and his partner Julie Manning started a food box service for the local community and within a matter of weeks had turned The Dog & Duck from pub to grocer.

When Facebook orders grew, they set up an online shop using their regular suppliers, and are now serving up to 100 families, including key workers, vulnerable residents and people having to self-isolate. The initiative is also supporting community groups and charities, such as the local foodbank, by supplying items at cost.

Most customers pick up their meat, fruit and vegetable and beer and wine boxes in the pub car park, in line with social distancing rules, but for others who can’t leave their homes, the pub offers a twice-weekly taxi delivery for a nominal £2 fee.

The initiative has seen one member of staff return to the pub and if plans to cook takeaways in the kitchen go ahead, Sam hopes to unfurlough more.

“The shop really saved our bacon,” says Sam. “We’re keeping the business ticking over, ready to start up again as soon as the Government says we can and it’s safe to do so.

“Our focus is on serving the community and retaining jobs. We have a lovely pub with a great thatched roof and an interesting history but our staff are the most important resource we have.”

Sam recognises the support they’ve been able to access in “steadying the ship”; avoiding redundancies under the Government’s furlough scheme and deferring payment of a £30,000 VAT bill under temporary new HMRC rules. They may also apply for funding under the national Bounce Back Loan scheme.

Harvey & Son, Little Shelford

Harvey & Sons car boot filled with plantsJo and Robert Harvey had to temporarily suspend orders at their 90-year-old family nursery after a flood of new business in the wake of going into lockdown.

The couple usually grow and sell plants, fruit and vegetables at Cambridge market, but had already put their stall on hold before lockdown because they needed to keep their elderly mothers safe.

They had diversified, setting up a website to sell plants to families with home-schooled children to help them learn how to grow.

However, after lockdown began, many customers were unable to collect their purchases and with new enquiries mounting as other outlets closed, the couple stopped taking orders for three weeks to catch up with the backlog. Their Facebook page had grown from 300 to 500 followers and they were struggling to cope.

“It was a steep learning curve for us but we have extremely loyal customers who have been so supportive and we wanted to ensure we could meet their needs before continuing,” says Jo.

While Robert tends to thousands of plants, she delivers orders in her trusty Volvo – in bulk where communities have grouped together. Some customers collect while on essential trips, always observing social distancing rules.

“Our stock is so important to people young and old, particularly now” says Jo. “To be able to grow and eat your own veg or enjoy the colour and scent of flowers in your garden or window box is so important for your mental health.”

The Chequers, Pampisford

Chequers pub in Pampisford

“A £10,000 small business grant from the Council was the only thing that stopped me from handing the keys back to the brewery.”

So says publican Mark Chater, who suffered a “disastrous few weeks” at The Chequers leading up to lockdown.

Having taken over the pub only a few months earlier, he saw customers he’d worked hard to attract start to dwindle away. As the coronavirus crisis deepened, business staff from nearby Granta Park began to social distance and retired customers stayed at home.

“It was a nightmare,” says Mark. “Without the council’s help, I would have walked away. It was just too big a mountain to climb without any support.”

But, thanks to the cash lifeline from the Small Business Rate Relief fund, Mark was able to diversify his business and carry on trading, albeit at reduced capacity.

He is one of around 1,900 small businesses to receive almost £22 million in Government assistance grants from the Council during the COVID-19 crisis.

After furloughing three full-time staff and letting other members of his team go, Mark started a takeaway service and is now selling 200 meals a week from his pub kitchen.

Customers order their fish and chips, Sunday roasts and other meals by phone, then collect and pay at the pub door. Mark has even rigged up a card machine on the end of a two-metre-long pole to follow social distancing guidance.

He had already invested in a state-of-the-art oven when he took over the pub but he’s since had to source takeaway packaging, work out new order and payment systems and set up promotions on Facebook.

There was also the worry of paying his rent, which the brewery waived on lockdown until the end of April and has since reduced by 50%. But Mark lost £1,000 worth of beer that he couldn’t sell and has a major stock of snacks and soft drinks which he says will be out of date if the pub doesn’t reopen by September.  

Mark says: "It's been a very difficult time but I'm grateful to our regulars and our new customers who keep coming back to The Chequers to enjoy the traditional British takeaway meals we're able to provide."

Milkman Bernie Ingrey, Guilden Morden

Milkman Bernie Ingrey knows what it takes to deliver the perfect pinta – he’s being doing it for almost 60 years. But since the COVID-19 crisis, demand for his milk has soared by 30% and he’s even had to turn new business away because he doesn’t have the capacity.Milkman Bernie Ingrey standing next to his milk van

With supermarket delivery slots in demand, new customers have had to find more traditional ways of getting fresh milk for their breakfast cuppa and cereal and regular customers have increased their orders.

“The day after the Prime Minister said we were going into lockdown, the phone was ringing off the hook,” he says.

“It’s just me and my grandson doing the rounds so we can only cover our traditional areas – around Guilden and Steeple Morden, Abington Piggots and Litlington.

“We’ve had requests from other residents who live outside our patch but we just couldn’t take on any more.”

Today they’re delivering around 440 pints a day – some to vulnerable people who cannot get to the supermarket and others having to self-isolate. Thankfully, Bernie has enough spare capacity in his cold room to store the extra bottles, which he sources from a Cotswold dairy, at 2°C.

Although it means having to get up at 4am 7 days a week Bernie’s used to it, having worked on the family’s former dairy farm after leaving school. On occasions, his wife Mary and daughter Sarah help out on the rounds too.

Many of his customers are so thrilled to get their daily supplies that they’re even leaving him handwritten thank you notes and gifts, such as bottles of beer and chocolate biscuits.

He says: “It’s great to be appreciated. I love what I do but if I know I’m also helping people in some way, that’s an added bonus for me.”

Litlington Post Office & Stores

Dilshan Johnpillai and his Litlington Post Office & Stores have been a lifeline for many in the local community during COVID-19.

Dilshan Johnpillai, owner of Litlington Post Office & StoresThe kind-hearted businessman has delivered essential supplies free-of charge to vulnerable residents and others self-isolating in lockdown.

At the height of the pandemic, when his supplier was only able to deliver a tenth of his regular order, he drove to a Royston supermarket to get what they needed.

Since then, he has worked closely with local COVID-19 support group volunteers who manage door-to-door deliveries for people at home.

Their shopping bags often include donated items from Dilshan and others, such as hand gel, toilet rolls and gloves as well as vegetables from a local farm shop. One generous customer spent £30 on essentials in Dilshan’s shop for others to share.

Dilshan’s community spirit hasn’t gone unnoticed – there are numerous thank you messages on Litlington Live Facebook page as well as cards in his shop.One says “Thank you from all the over-60s in the village for your kindness.” Although his longer-term plan is to refurbish the shop, his immediate focus has been on helping the community.

“Now is not the time to be thinking of making money,” he says. “The important thing is that we help one another. This is a lovely little village and its residents are like a family. They’re very community-minded and look after each other. I’m proud to be part of that.” He says he wouldn’t have been able to do this without his loyal staff who’ve worked normally during lockdown. “I can’t thank them enough,” he says.

In store there are safety measures to keep them and his customers safe; a screen at the till, gloves and hand sanitisers at the ready and shoppers are limited to three at any one time.

He has seen his footfall double during lockdown as regular customers and new faces shop locally and he is hoping people will continue to support his business once life returns to ‘normal.’

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