The city centre restaurant owner opens up about what it’s been like to run a business in survival mode.
It’s been over a week since Cultural Quarter restaurant Chutney Ivy should have reopened on July 4.
News that the first local lockdown was being placed over Leicester was shattering for its owner Shaf Islam.
“It’s become the Leicester lockdown Truman Show,” Shaf said.
“I can picture there’s a glass dome over us and everyone’s watching us, that’s what it feels like as a resident and businessowner.”
He believes there is a tendency to ‘blame the BAME’ community here in this situation but that there are other factors that contribute towards the Leicester Covid case spike.
“Poverty and low income, underlying health issues, and cultural living habits make it more common for the Asian community to be exposed to the virus.
“If there are jobs available then people are going to work. The onus should be on the employers to make it safer for them to work.”
"An injustice has happened to Leicester"
Before this, the team were excited to reopen with the rest of the pubs, restaurants and cafes across the UK on July 4. They’d spent over two weeks preparing.
“We were looking into buying equipment worth thousands of pounds for parasols, outside heating, fogging machines, screens, visors, and other PPE. It was back breaking work to move all the heavy lounge furniture to the basement to create more space for socially distanced dining.
“And then they announced Leicester had gone into lockdown, very unjustly in my opinion. This should have been done across the country. You only need to cross the street and you’re outside the lockdown zone, which isn’t helping anything.”
The last four months under lockdown were tough for Chutney Ivy as they were for other establishments. Shaf explained the moment he heard the news back in March was like a ‘media bomb’ going off.
“Within five minutes of the announcement, Curve theatre, which brings in 30% of our annual turnover, had shut their doors and we had a restaurant full of pre-theatre goers who weren’t aware of the closure yet.
“The phones started ringing about cancellations. We had 380 people cancel bookings in that week alone. Post-civil ceremonies and birthday parties all cancelled. We lost around £9,000 in business that week.”
March was set to be Chutney Ivy’s busiest March ever; a would have been highlight for its 10th anniversary this year.
Business was booming and things were going so well that Shaf even bought out his business partner late last year meaning the pandemic ‘couldn’t have come at a worse time’ for the restaurant owner.
At the time, Chutney Ivy ran a small takeaway business that made up less than 5% of its annual turnover. Staff agreed they wanted to try to continue working and the takeaway service took off successfully.
"We must stay positive, keep calm and curry on"
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson caught the virus though, this to Shaf was a ‘second media bomb’ going off for the business.
“It knocked us all for six in terms of our confidence. If the prime minister could get this then so could we coming into contact with a lot of people.
“Some staff said they didn’t want to come out of the house, which was totally understandable. I always told them if they didn’t want to do this then their safety is paramount to me. Our philosophy was ‘health before wealth.’
“So with a heavy heart we decided to close. We have to give kudos to the chancellor Rishi Sunak for getting this [furlough and business grant] all sorted in a short amount of time. These things can sometimes take years so kudos to him, the next prime minister in waiting I think.”
Chutney Ivy remained closed for the next four weeks giving Shaf time to reassess and remodel the business. His projections showed he couldn’t afford to remain closed for more than another five weeks.
To get by, he reopened the takeaway arm of Chutney Ivy with staff who agreed to work.
Shaf said: “The reputation of our brand is so strong in the business community, and with being the after-party venue, you get a lot of contacts. So we were lucky enough to have an email from a global company who had eaten here before.
"They asked if we would supply their workforce with food for a family of four every week for four weeks which was a huge help to us.
“As the bulk order ended and lockdown was eased, people were becoming either more complacent or confident, and our takeaway business dwindled. The public had a wider choice. But this is an example of when you have to believe in your brand and take risks.
“The global company came back with feedback from their employees asking us to continue the order and we’ve since had big takeaway orders for birthdays.
“This has given us confidence to approach other companies because we know now that we have the infrastructure to supply 600 meals in a weekend alone. It’s had to be at heavily discounted prices but we’ve never compromised on quality.”
"Let’s show the world how we can follow the guidance"
Chutney Ivy is known locally for its commitment to the community and this continued under lockdown. The abrupt decision to close in March meant a large amount of food had already been prepped.
The team volunteered to cook 500 meals from it which were donated to NHS staff, police stations and care homes.
As well, Soft Touch Arts has been running online cooking masterclasses that Shaf sponsored and volunteered his time to help the charity set up, run and host.
For the future, Shaf says the glass must be half full. “An injustice has happened to Leicester but we’ve shown how well we can live together, let’s show the world how we can follow the guidance and stay safe.
“We must stay positive, keep calm and curry on – it’s good for our immune system.”
Chutney Ivy is still running its home delivery service. Order and pay online via the app.