Local writer and poet Mark Chamberlain speaks to local shop owners about the impact of COVID-19 and their hopes and fears for the future.
After the events company she worked for made her redundant, local resident Olivia Mesce needed a new job. At a time when COVID-19 has left the city, the country, and more-or-less the whole world closed for business, barring essential needs, for many this would be the worst time to look for a job. But Mehmet Guzel, owner of Simply Fresh on Roman Road, was recruiting and Olivia found herself a new job in his grocery store along with seven other new joiners.
‘Our staff are absolutely amazing,’ said Guzel. ‘Me and my core team have been working 12-15 hour days, sometimes until 2am getting the shelves stocked up for the morning. Our usual supply chains have collapsed. Deliveries haven’t shown up. It’s been a huge challenge, but we’re now working with new wholesalers and are nearly back to full service levels.’
Like Guzel at Simply Fresh, pretty much everyone highlighted issues with their suppliers. ‘Wholesalers have been running out of stock,’ said Tina Patel of Massingham Chemists. ‘We have to order double to ensure we don’t run out. All my time is spent keeping on top of buying. You need one person ringing suppliers all day.’
It’s important for customers to realise that margins are being squeezed too, so when we find certain items are more expensive than they used to be, it’s unlikely that it’s because shopkeepers are taking advantage.
‘Eggs are more expensive,’ said Jimmy Topalca, manager of Inci Food Centre. ‘But we’re now only making a 20% margin on them. It used to be 40%. We’re doing what we can to keep prices as low as possible.’
Dennis Mehmet, owner of Bow Wash Laundrette, had to close for a few days at the beginning of the outbreak. ‘We had staff living with elderly parents. They were scared about catching the virus, so we shut the laundrette.’
The shop has since reopened, but customers have gone elsewhere. Mehmet may shut again. He’s applied for a government grant and is waiting for a response. He’s also tried the banks but can’t get through to anyone.
‘It’s impossible,’ he says. ‘I was on hold one time for nearly three hours. When I did speak to someone, they said they would call back the following day. They never did.’
For over 10 years Mehmet has been serving members of the community at his laundrette, including this author, and it’s sad to see how much they’re struggling. If there’s anyone who needs laundry services, do check them out and give them some support.
For other businesses, the story is very different. Even during our interview, Gavin Peckover, owner of Peckover Butchers, was overrun with customers and a queue down the street. ‘It’s like this all day every day,’ he said.
Pamela Tironi, owner of the Pizza Room in Mile End, sent out an online survey to customers asking if they thought the restaurant should continue with takeaway services. ‘We had a dilemma. Do we shut down completely in the interest of public health, or do we continue to serve the community, at a time when they need support?’
It’s important to stress that there’s no right or wrong answer to this question. Around 200 people responded to the survey, with 75% saying they thought the Pizza Room should remain open for takeaways. 81% of staff thought the same.
Supporting the community has been the chief concern for Debbie Connor, owner of The Camel pub. She’s been selling off her cellar stock to customers who bring their own containers to the pub between 5 and 6.30pm each afternoon (by the time you read this, her products are most likely sold out). With the money she makes she plans to throw a party for NHS staff when circumstances allow.
Connor is also cooking for vulnerable people in the community: staples such as chicken soup, shepherd’s pie, and roast dinners. She encourages anyone who thinks they could benefit from this to get in touch with her. Her contact details can be found with a quick Google search.
It seems hygiene, social distancing, and other measures to stop the spread of the virus is of paramount importance to everyone.
‘The hardest thing is ensuring people maintain distancing and respect our rule of two people only in the shop,’ said Giuseppe Pollifrone from the deli, restaurant, and wine bar Symposium.
‘On the whole, people have been good about keeping their distance,’ said Robert Ragukarn at Ye Olde Corner Shoppe on Morgan Street, but others have had challenges.
‘Some people just don’t want to wait,’ said Annie Wakerley from Thompson’s DIY.
Despite their different experiences, one thing common to all business owners is a heartfelt passion for what they do. ‘This shop means so much to me,’ said Wakerley, blinking back tears.
Sarah Harrison, co-owner of Sazzy & Fran café, currently closed, said, ‘We don’t know how long this period is going to be, but we’re excited to come back. We love making coffee, and we can’t wait to serve our customers again.’
There’s optimism too. ‘People are thinking about what’s important,’ said Tironi from the Pizza Room, while Wakerley from Thompson’s is touched by the acts of kindness she’s seen. ‘We have so many people coming in to pick things up for their neighbours, helping out in the community. All sorts of people. We even have people coming in asking us if we need anything and going to queue up at Tesco for us.’
Despite all the difficulties and uncertainties for the future, to the extent that we can, and often going beyond what is expected of us, the Roman Road community is continuing to trade, serve, and support each other.
Mark Chamberlain is a local poet and writer. You can find him on Twitter at @_Mark_Ch_
If you liked this piece, you might also be interested in our comprehensive list of Roman Road businesses that are still operating during Covid-19.
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