Posted: Mon 16th May 2022
The Black Business Fund – set up by Uber Eats in collaboration with Be Inclusive Hospitality and Enterprise Nation – gave grants of £50,000 in total to 10 small Black-owned businesses across the country that were affected by the pandemic.
Though over 150 food establishments applied to the fund, only 10 could win. Each winner received a £5,000 grant and mentoring from Be Inclusive Hospitality.
One of those winners was the Breakhouse Café, based in Hackney Wick in London. Here, we talk to founder Chloe Bailey-Williams about the process of starting a new business during a pandemic and how money from the Black Business Fund provided a much-needed lifeline at a difficult time.
Chloe, tell us about your background and why you decided to set up your business.
I've always been in hospitality. Mainly events like festivals. And I used to manage a nightclub near where the café is now. When the club closed, the landlords at the time were taking over old warehouses and doing them up and then subletting them. So they offered me a job helping them do that.
But I've always wanted my own space, so I asked if they had one where I could start a little deli or wine bar or something like that. And funnily enough, they were about to take over a café.
Its lease was up, it had been there 15 years, and the area was changing. The café as it was didn't really fit with how things were going. So the landlords offered me the space, and my partner and I took it on.
What were your plans for the café?
I wasn't really prepared for owning a café, but that's what happened! I wanted to keep it simple – coffee, toasties, pastries. But loads of people were telling me I needed to do breakfast, full English and so on. And that's a whole different thing. With food, it's a lot more serious – you have to know HAACP, for example. There's a lot more room for error.
We opened in September 2020, in between the two lockdowns. The former café owner hadn't left until February, then lockdown happened. We couldn't get in until July.
We had the option not to take the place on, but my partner and I thought it was a great opportunity. Because we knew the landlord, it's close to our house. I've worked in the area for many years and I knew the clientele.
And we didn't have to pay a premium. When we were looking for places previously, even for a kebab shop it was a £70,000 premium. It's crazy. So with this, it would have been silly for us not to give it a go.
You opened during the pandemic. How did grant money from the Black Business Fund help in that uncertain period?
When we launched, all businesses had reopened. But two weeks later, the masks and the QR codes scanning people in on Track and Trace were all introduced. And then in the New Year, it went to takeaway food only. So it was a lot to deal with.
The main way it's helped is with staffing costs and rent. Basic needs really. Because that was the issue – we shut for two weeks and obviously bills were still coming out but we weren't bringing any money in.
We had to pay staff their holiday. We weren't earning money and we needed to give them something so they weren't completely out of pocket. That wiped us out.
We were also at a kind of crossroads because of the VAT. When we opened, it was 5% and we worked with that for a while, knowing it'd eventually go back up to 20%. It went to 12.5% for a bit, then up to 20% in April. And that increase hit us, at a time when we were struggling to find staff.
Our head chef had left. And the staff who remained were great, but they didn't have the leadership or passion needed. So we were worried about the kitchen and the standard of food slipping. And then our supervisor wanted some time off, so we were looking for a new supervisor too.
We couldn't find anyone so we decided to close the business for two weeks and reset. The fund was a massive lifeline because it gave us a little bit of a cushion. And in those two weeks, my partner and I looked at the books and realised it wasn't working as it was. That was when we first spoke to our mentor.
Explain how the mentoring you've had through the Black Business Fund has benefited you.
It's been nice to meet someone who's done it before. Because he's very financially savvy, and he's owned restaurants as well. But he said he wasn't going to tell me what to do. He was very open and likes mentoring to be a two-way thing where we learn from each other. We've only had one meeting up to now, but it was really good.
I told him we'd decided to close temporarily and that we were letting some staff go, which we had to do just to survive. And his view was that if something isn't working, you have to be brave enough to pivot and adapt to it. I'd felt like we were going down a path that we didn't really necessarily want to go down.
I'm really looking forward to doing some more stuff with him. We have a lot more mentoring sessions booked in.
What changes have you made as a result of the challenges you've faced?
We've stripped the menu right back. At the moment, we're just offering toasties, ciabattas, pastries and coffee. And because of that shift from what we were offering before, takings have dipped a bit. So we just need to build it back up.
I think what happens is you open and you listen to people around you about what you should be offering. And then those people move on or decide it's not quite for them, and then you're stuck.
I've always wanted to do events and have a space that I could open up to the community. So we've started hosting acoustic gigs, and I have a lady doing an independent book launch. Not having the stress of being open seven days a week and needing to churn out breakfasts and then worrying about whether the place is busy has been a massive relief.
What are your plans for the future?
We've applied to change our licence. We have an alcohol licence but it's quite limited, because it's with food. If people want to have a drink here after work, they have to eat a meal as well. Or if we want to do special events, we have to put food on, and chefs are expensive. So we want to change that.
We also want to show films. We've applied to be able to do that – we already have a projector, which we got for the football European Championships.
And then we'll continue to work on the lunch menu and the grab-and-go selection. Because everyone's really busy around our area during the week, but not everyone has time to come and sit down. They want the convenience.
So we'll make sure Monday to Friday is the core business, and then on the weekends and evenings we'll try to open the space up so people can use it for interesting stuff, creative stuff.
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