‘Thrown under the bus’: Devon businesses give honest opinion on latest lockdown

DevonLive spoke to local businesses about how they’re feeling faced with a lockdown that looks set to last until at least mid-February.

Geographic spread: Axminster, Cullompton, Ottery St Mary, Rockbeare, Barnstaple, Torquay, Crediton, and Salcombe

Charlotte Vowles www.devonlive.com

On January 5, the country was forced back into lockdown for the third time in an effort to combat the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

With many businesses already facing tighter restrictions upon how they operate, the lockdown measures meant that some businesses including gyms, beauty salons and zoos were forced to close their doors once again.

Non-essential retail outlets such as clothing and homeware stores can operate only if they’re offering click-and-collect services and the already hard-hit hospitality industry must close its venues unless they’re offering takeaway, click-and-collect or drive-through.

DevonLive spoke to local businesses about how they’re feeling faced with a lockdown that looks set to last until at least mid-February.

High Grange Devon

“The whole industry has been thrown under the bus”

Luke and Sara Vandore-Mackay moved with their three children from West London to East Devon in September 2019 to set up their dream lifestyle business – High Grange Devon.

They planned to have a cookery school with feast nights and private events and butchery, foraging and curing masterclasses along with everything from yoga to dry flower arranging.

But the pandemic put a stop to their planned activity. Luke said: “Sadly, because of Corona, lockdowns and social distancing we haven’t been able to get going. We are at heart all about communal dining, sharing platters, making new friends and conviviality. Almost by definition, you can’t do a socially distanced feast so we decided to wait until we could.

“We haven’t earned a penny from the business since March, but luckily we have been able to fall back on freelance and consultancy work to pay the mortgage.

“I suppose that we are ‘lucky’ in that the virus hit before we had really got started – we would have been in much more trouble next year if, for example, had we taken loads of deposits and given up all of our freelance work.”

Luke, who has been in the hospitality industry for 20 years, added: “My heart breaks for all those restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars who have been sacrificed at the expense of other areas of society – the whole industry has been thrown under the bus with limited financial support and more unforgivably terrible communication at every stage.

“Last year, we felt confident that we’d be able to hold our first event in the spring. That now looks unlikely, and if we manage to open by the summer, we’d be grateful.

“We do feel confident that once the threat of the virus has gone, we will be in a fantastic position to capitalise – people will be holidaying in the UK, and we are in a gorgeous corner of East Devon, not far from the Jurassic Coast. I also sense that outdoor feasting and socialising will be hugely popular going forward, and we are all about fire pits, sunsets and warm hospitality.

“We also hope to build some log cabins in our woods in the next few months so people can stay and enjoy the whole High Grange experience – being woken up by Neville the Rooster.

“I dread to think how many pubs, for example, won’t reopen after the latest lockdown. Without small independent hospitality businesses, the world is a bleak place indeed. The Government needs to make it a priority to support each and every one. We’ll miss them when they’re gone.”

Bear Town, Cullompton

“Well, it’s been an interesting 12 months!”

Bear Town is an interactive children’s play centre which has had more than its fair share of upheaval during the pandemic.

When Ben Jordan came up with the idea for the children’s role-play attraction, the world was a very different place. He had already created the Bear Trail, the outdoor muddy adventure trail just outside Exeter and wanted to create something which would appeal to families with younger children and, importantly, would be open all year round.

He employed local builders and craftsmen, and Bear Town was created. It opened to the public on October 23 in time for half-term to positive reviews and feedback. Only to close 10 days later with the introduction of the November lockdown.

Ben said: “Well, it’s been an interesting 12 months! Full of ups and downs. If you were to create an environment not to open an indoor children’s attraction, 2020 would be it.

“However, strangely, the existing business ‘The Bear Trail’ actually had a fantastic summer as it was outdoors, socially distanced, and most of all, fun. That enabled us to ensure the finish of the Bear Town build was to the highest standard.

“We have struggled, as every business has, to manage the careful balance between ensuring we have good custom coming and being a safe environment. We have had to move many bookings for all three lockdowns, but our loyal customers have been very understanding and supportive.

“The staff have been amazing dealing with it all, and we are so lucky to have an incredible team. It sounds cheesy, and that it may be, but they are literally the most wonderful and inspiring people.

“We can’t wait for some stability so we can make it unstable with our crazy ideas club plans!”

Chunk of Devon, Ottery St Mary

“Covid has been a kind and cruel mistress to different people”

Multi-award-winning pie and pasty makers Chunk of Devon is just one of Devon’s businesses that have had to adapt during the Coronavirus restrictions.

Simon Bryon-Edmond, head of Chunk of Devon, commented that some businesses have struggled while others have thrived.

He said: “Covid has been a kind and cruel mistress to different people. Some businesses have had a feast, others a famine.

“Chunk of Devon has survived, despite the challenge of significant hurdles that came our way [such as] losing stadiums as an outlet for our pies and pasties.

“Our factory and office team have put in a monumental effort, working around the clock to keep the business going during lockdown.

“We consider ourselves lucky that we have had to change tack to jump on opportunities and have maintained a full team. We have survived and thrived as a result.”

Rockbeare Manor

“The distress and emotional lows that engaged couples have faced during this time is very real”

Rockbeare Manor is a grade I listed wedding and events venue just outside Exeter.

The venue, which is operated by PM Hospitality is a popular location for weddings and other special events, but the lockdown and the subsequent cancellation of events have presented a huge challenge for the team.

Even when the country opened up a little during the summer, the number of guests that could attend a gathering was hugely restricted.

Aimée Carveth, of PM Hospitality, said: “This has been a very difficult year for the hospitality industry, and the constant changes in restrictions and guidelines at very little notice has made it almost impossible to plan anything.

“Marriage is an incredibly important life event which takes months of planning, and it has been heartbreaking to see brides and grooms, left with no choice other than to postpone their wedding to a later date. The distress and emotional lows that engaged couples have faced during this time is very real, which is why we have done everything in our power to support them to make sure that they get the chance to celebrate their marriage – albeit at a later date.”

Aimée said that although they could host small weddings and events, they wanted to do something else to protect jobs and ‘keep the spirit of the house alive.’ So, they developed their Dine Stay and Unwind concept, and the doors of the beautiful Regency house were opened to the public for the first time in 260 years.

She added: “Whilst we have been able to host small weddings, we wanted to offer something which would ensure we could keep our wonderful venue busy by entertaining guests – which is what beautiful properties like ours were originally built for. It also gave us the best chance to retain our fantastic team, which was very important to us.”

Despite the challenges, there is much optimism for the future of Rockbeare Manor. They are still taking appointments for virtual tours for newly-engaged couples and booking weddings for the next two years ahead.

Aimée said: “We are now really looking forward to the spring when restrictions ease, and we can get back to doing what we love – hosting momentous occasions!

“We are positive that when these long-awaited celebrations take place, the experience of friends and family coming together will be enjoyed and appreciated more than ever before.”

Aleafia Fitness and Wellbeing Centre, Barnstaple

“If we don’t get support I don’t see how we’ll have a future”

Lauren Lepley-Caldon finally opened her business in August last year after having to postpone opening due to the first national lockdown.

The business would usually offer a range of services from massage therapy to wellness packages – and even has an onsite cafe facility.

But, as it is classed as a gym/leisure centre, they have also been forced to close temporarily under lockdown.

However, Lauren is trying to focus on moving the business forward: “Lockdown is giving us time to sit back and strategise. I couldn’t see how we wouldn’t go into a lockdown”, she said.

“I understand the need for it – I just wish we were given some pro-active decisions rather than knee-jerk reactions. My heart goes out to all the businesses – it’s so so tough.”

“We weren’t entitled to any grants during the first lockdown as we hadn’t started paying business rates.”

The business offers classes such as yoga and meditation – all of which have now had to move online.

Lauren said: “If we don’t get support, I don’t see how we’ll have a future.”

The Elephant Torquay

“We’re trying to make the best out of a bad situation.”

Run by chef-proprietor, Simon Hulstone and his wife Katy, The Elephant was the first restaurant in Torquay to be awarded a Michelin star which it has maintained for 15 years.

From them, Covid and another lockdown have bought both positives changes and challenges.

“Obviously, it’s very frustrating to keep stopping and starting”, said Simon.

“We’ve gained a lot of positives, we’ve opened ourselves up to new customers.

“Our customers are sensible – they understand the rules, and we’ve followed them from day one.”

Simon said the business had received support from the community, and they have been playing their part in community support too by helping to provide food to a housebound customer.

Simon said, “I think the hardest thing for us is to sit at home and do nothing. We’re trying to make the best out of a bad situation.”

The staff are currently taking a short break but will be resuming a click and collect takeaway service again from food from the middle of January.

Crediton Community Bookshop

“The impact of lockdown was dramatic”

Crediton Community Bookshop is a not-for-profit, community-owned, independent bookshop with invests its profits into social impact activities.

The lockdown restrictions mean that shop has had to close to customers, but its team have continued to meet the needs of the community and to replicate as much of its activities virtually to continue to engage with the community.

Bookshop manager Dee Lalljee, said: “This has been an incredibly tough time for so many businesses. Our high street is normally a busy, bustling place full of thriving, independent shops, and the impact of lockdown was dramatic.

“It was really important to us to ensure we could keep connected with our community -our bookshop is more than just a place for people to buy books, although, of course, it is that as well. But it is a place of connection and with our outreach work, a place from which we can support our community.”

In the March lockdown, the bookshop set up a distribution hub for traders to deliver to key workers, vulnerable and shielding people in the town. During December it gave customers the opportunity to buy a book for Crediton Foodbank and joined the Exeter Festive Appeal, donating books for food parcels which were delivered to hundreds of disadvantaged families across the city.

The bookshop also began offering people virtual tours via Facebook, walking them through the shop and helping them to choose their books. Staff also gave telephone consultations and delivered books by bike to local customers.

Dee said: “We are so grateful to our customers who have continued to support us throughout this time.”

The team is currently developing a further programme to reach people who are isolated due to the pandemic.

Salcombe Brewery

The brewery said that they would like to see better support for breweries from the Government and are urging people to contact their local MPs to lobby for support to save local breweries.

In the meantime, they’ve been forced to adapt.

Mark Higgs, general manager said: “We adapted our business in the first lockdown in March to ensure that we were still able to get our much-loved beer to consumers even when pubs are closed.

“We have always had an online shop providing nationwide delivery of our bottled beers, but during the lockdown, we are also providing free local deliveries of both our bottles and bag in boxes.

“We set up ‘Fill Up Fridays’ in the first lockdown, allowing customers to fill up their own containers at the brewery shop for just £1.25 a pint. When the pubs shut in November and also during this lockdown, we moved to offering Fill Ups every day of the week.”

“If you live locally, try our doorstep delivery or visit our on-site shop 1-4 pm weekdays to pick up some beer or cider. If you bring your own container, you can fill it up for just £1.25 a pint.

“For those further afield, our online shop provides nationwide deliveries of our beers, including some great gift sets perfect to send to friends and relatives in need of a pint of Salcombe cheer.”

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