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New Order of Business: From closed doors to doorstep drops, Sheffield's indie traders adapt to lockdown

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Smith St Coffee Shop, temporarily closed during lockdown.

In Now Then #144 we heard that Sheffield's independent outlets were under pressure. There was real appreciation for local punters supporting their favourites, but traders stressed challenges including rents, business rates and the city centre's perceived decline.

That was before coronavirus. Countless news reports leave no doubt of the pandemic's shuddering economic impact and many small businesses are especially vulnerable. At the best of times these ventures survive on fine margins and cooperation with other local firms. Now the lockdown and waiting periods for government relief could wipe some Sheffield indies off the map.

However, while business owners I heard from were clear on the virus's threat to their livelihoods, they were also striving to serve customers under the current restrictions and finding new ways of working to that end.

Smith St Coffee Roasters

With their premises closed, Trevor Neville and Tasha Wymer "gambled" and wedged a new coffee roasting machine into their kitchen. So far that bet seems to be paying off; online orders, which normally form less than 10% of their business, have increased sevenfold during lockdown.

"We've had lots of messages from people asking how they can buy coffee," said Tasha. "It's been very touching. I always think Sheffield's really good at supporting local and this has taken it to another level."

Alongside mail order, Trev has been averaging 20 deliveries per day, six days a week. After leaving sanitised bags of coffee at customers' doors, he values "moments of conversation from a safe distance".

While Smith St's supply of beans has held steady, Tasha highlighted a challenge which is likely to have hit many new businesses; because they don't yet have a year's tax return for their coffee shop, the couple can't access government support for that side of the business.

Trev said the level of threat to small cafes could depend on whether restrictions extend beyond three months. "We don't know which businesses will be there when we re-open for wholesale, which is very sad."

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The Get Wurst food truck at Peddler Market, pre lockdown. Photo by Ellie Grace.

Get Veg

While some traders have had to padlock their premises, what about those which rely completely on external venues?

Paul and Lindsay Melbourne would usually be slinging sausages from the Get Wurst food truck, which serves at events in Sheffield and beyond. Their packed summer schedule was wiped out within days as the coronavirus response accelerated.

"Everything happened so fast," said Paul. "We thought some bigger events would be cancelled. Then it was: 'Shit, everything's cancelled.'"

After a call from Paul's cousin in Rome, the couple paused Get Wurst before the Government ordered most businesses to close. Both self-employed - Lindsay also works as a photographer - they suddenly faced "zero income" beyond statutory maternity pay for their 12-week-old son.

But when Paul saw established traders struggling to meet demand for fresh produce deliveries, he spotted an opportunity.

"We knew suppliers from Get Wurst and we have a prep unit," he said. "We thought we could meet people's needs and pay our rent and bills."

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Get Veg boxes

Since setting up Get Veg, Paul has been collecting stock with social distancing in mind, then dropping veg boxes on doorsteps before talking to customers from a few metres away.

"It's nice they want to chat," he said. "People love getting stuff delivered, especially food. And they like supporting independent business."

Paul's main worry so far came when he was pulled over by police. In fact, the officers just pointed out that his van door was open, then asked about buying veggies. "They were just being helpful. I gave them some free eggs, which they were very happy with."

Asked when his bratwurst business might return to normal, Paul said that even a September restart could be optimistic. He added that the pandemic could be particularly damaging for food truck owners who have shelled out for spots at now-cancelled summer events.

"Traders who do all the festivals could have laid out thousands. Some operators might be fine about giving fees back, but I've heard about companies not wanting to."

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Jules Gray outside the former Hop Hideout shop on Abbeydale Road. Photo by James Beeson.

Hop Hideout

As well as owning Hop Hideout bar and bottle shop, Jules Gray is a Director of Sheffield Beer Week and had just coordinated the annual Indie Beer Feast at Abbeydale Picture House before the wave of closures in March.

Jules spent two days calling insurers before being told she has no cover for this scenario. To make matters worse, she can't claim a government grant because Hop Hideout's position within Kommune on Castlegate means it doesn't have a required business rates account.

"There's so many small businesses in markets, enterprise parks or at hotdesks in workshare spaces which fall through the net of help," Jules said.

Jules and partner Will currently offer online mail order and delivery boxes, which they pack after sanitising each bottle and can. "It's more workload for less revenue, but we're humbled and grateful to still have this lifeline.

"Positives are difficult to find in current circumstances, but we feel a deeper, more genuine and honest connection with our customers."

The impact of closures included the loss of pubs as places where people "socialise and find solace" when they could be struggling with their mental wellbeing, Jules added.

But Jules highlighted businesses' attempts to bolster fellow locals, such as Abbeydale Brewery's offer to credit cash from online orders to drinkers' preferred pubs. Elsewhere, designer Stuart Bell has donated proceeds from his prints to his former workplace The Rutland Arms.

"It's just about surviving at the moment and trying to help sustain a Sheffield high street for when we can all return," Jules said. "Please, please support Sheffield independents where you can."

Everyone's situation is different and the pandemic has meant a re-evaluation of priorities for many. But if you can buy from small traders, you are also reducing queues outside - and numbers inside - bigger chain stores, helping us all to maintain social distancing.

Even small purchases during the coming weeks could ensure that local people keep their jobs - and that our favourite Sheffield indies are still there when we're allowed back out to visit them.

Filed under: #Coronavirus

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