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Q&A: Bronte Aurell, Scandinavian Kitchen, London

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The Danish Londoner on how Covid-19 has impacted her Scandinavian cafe and grocery shop and why she decided to refurbish during the shutdown

Bronte Aurell (right) opened Scandinavian Kitchen, the central London café and shop selling groceries from Nordic countries, with her partner Jonas in 2007. They stayed open for take away for a few weeks after the lockdown was announced in the UK, but have since closed begun an extensive refurbishment of the premises.

Here she talks about the impact of Covid-19 on her own business and the wider foodservice sector and how she has managed the challenging situation.

How has the pandemic affected your business?

Covid-19 has impacted our business in every way possible, both positive and negative. When your business is suddenly expected to close – as was the case for our café in London – the initial state is panic and fear. What about our people? How can we help them? Will we survive as a business?

Luckily, we have an online business that suddenly got busy so we offered work to every single person in our warehouse. We didn’t lay anyone off. From this, we have had an amazing experience of our baristas getting to work with our day-to-day warehouse team and everyone has bonded in a way they wouldn’t usually.

They have all worked so hard to adapt and help with the workload and I couldn’t be prouder of each and every one of them. We truly have the best team of brilliant, dedicated, kind people from every corner.

How do you feel the UK government has handled the situation with small businesses?

This is a difficult question for me to answer because we come from countries where governments look after people and businesses really well. The safety net in Scandinavia is high for unemployment and, compared to this, the UK government perhaps didn’t do as much.

On the flip side, though, I think the UK government did go above what I had expected for the UK (based on how this government usually chooses to invest in the social structures and to help those who struggle) so that is positive.

The one thing that stung massively, though, was that the grant to help was set at £51K rateable value, which for London doesn’t mean much due to the high rates.

Longer term, what does it mean for Scandinavian Kitchen to have this four-month period of being semi or completely shut down?

Who knows? Our online business is going well, but we have lost all the trade for the café which is really painful on the cash flow.

We aim to survive. We aim to make the best of a really awful situation. But above all, both Jonas and I aim to walk away from this knowing we looked after our teams and didn’t let them down. That we always tried to do the right thing during this pandemic and did so with kindness and support, even if it meant not making any profit.

Money really is secondary. Hindsight will be the eventual judge, as we are in the eye of the storm for now.

If you get the green light to open in early July, will you be able to open with the same team and set-up or will you need to tweak the current structure?

Our team is the same, yes. Everyone’s very excited to make coffee again. We stayed open for groceries for five weeks in the initial lockdown to help ease the pressure on local shops around in our neighbourhood.

While this was working okay, we felt that we didn’t want to ask our team to work in a customer facing environment when the lockdown first starts to end and everyone rushes out to shop. So, we took the huge decision to do a complete refurb. Seeing as all our team were busy in our web shop, nobody is losing work, so it made sense. We planned it so that we open mid-June, by which time we hope we can judge better what risks we have to deal with.

We have separated our shopping grocery area from seating area now and we have a separate take away area. We have plans for temporary plexi-screens and have based our new layout on people sitting in small groups, minimum two metres apart. We can adapt, but we will not open for eating in if we can’t protect our team and customers. We eagerly await some form of guidelines so we can plan better – so far this has not been forthcoming.

This pandemic won’t end in July, as everyone knows, so we will use our new layout to deal with the second (and third) wave. Hopefully, the world will be able to have a few decades of breathing space before the next one.

Tina Nielsen