'It's a mad time to take on a cafe!'– the people who started new businesses in the pandemic

Sirin Kale
·10-min read

It has been a rough year for all of us, but for small-business owners it has been a bloodbath. Research from the Federation of Small Businesses found that 41% of small firms had closed temporarily by the end of April this year, while 24% of those still trading had seen their turnover decrease by more than half. The UK is in the deepest recession since records began, with much-loved high street stalwarts including Laura Ashley, Debenhams, Accessorize and Cath Kidston collapsing into administration. And yet the outlook is not all doom and gloom for the UK’s 5.8m small businesses. We spoke to some of the small-business owners setting up shop during the biggest global pandemic for a century and thriving, despite the odds.

Zodiac Bar, Archway, north London

When Jade Phoenix-Hoskins, also known as Lady Phoenix, took over a bar in Archway, north London, last July, she planned to throw occasional LGBTQ+ club nights. But her socially distanced, Covid-compliant parties proved so popular that she found she could run it as an LGBTQ+ bar full-time, with programming throughout the week. Zodiac now hosts a mixture of drag queen performances, quiz nights, bear nights, trans nights and a bottomless Saturday drag brunch. “My mission is to bring the LGBTQ+ community together,” she says. “Not like how it is in Soho, where the scene is so commercialised.”

Jade Hoskins at Zodiac Bar in North London.
Jade Hoskins at Zodiac Bar in North London. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

All visitors to Zodiac bar, which has only 14 tables, will encounter Phoenix-Hoskins herself (she will not give me her age, other than to say she is “timeless”). “I’m out front, welcoming people,” she says. “But I hate negativity. If you come to the bar, be happy and enjoy it! Don’t be grumpy. Some people are like: ‘I want to book this table and do this and that.’ They act like I’m their slave! But this is my house. You come to my house, respect it and have fun.”

Inside the bar, Phoenix-Hoskins circulates, introducing patrons to each other – from a safe distance, of course – or occasionally performing with Divalicious, her all-trans singing troupe. “I sit down with all the tables individually and check them out,” she says. “If people come alone, I introduce them to other people and they become friends.”

She has not needed to publicise her bar online, relying on word of mouth. “It’s amazingly busy … I’ve always had that power in me, to lure in people with my charm,” she says, laughing. North London’s LGBTQ+ scene is all the better for it.

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Monique Hair and Beauty, Derby

Monique Murphy has always wanted her own hair salon. The 26-year-old was working as a freelance hair stylist when the virus began to spread. Like that, she decided not to delay her dreams any longer. “With Covid, life just felt short,” says Murphy. “I woke up one day and decided: ‘I’m going to do it now. I don’t know if I’ll be alive next year.’”

She found a vacant shop for rent, viewed it and accepted it. But when she told her family her plans, they reacted badly. “They said: ‘What are you talking about? There’s a pandemic!’” Murphy called up the landlord and told him that she was sorry but she had changed her mind. “I cancelled it,” she says. “But, in my heart, I still wanted to do it.”

After more conversations with family and friends, Murphy decided to give it a go after all. “I called the landlord back and said: ‘I’ve changed my mind again! I want it.’ But he said: ‘I’m so sorry, I’ve given it to someone else.’” Murphy was crestfallen. “I started crying,” she says. “It was the perfect location.” Thankfully, the other tenant fell through and Murphy was able to open her salon in August, using a combination of personal savings and loans, which she put towards Covid-proofing the salon and fitting it out.

“It’s literally been the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I’ve been busy every day since I opened.” The salon is so popular in part because there are not many places that cater to Afro hair in Derby. “I have a lot of white people who have a mixed-race child turning up saying: ‘Thank God, I don’t know what to do with my child’s hair,’” says Murphy. When she answers the phone in her salon, it still doesn’t feel real, she says. “I have to pinch myself.”

Her advice to any aspiring business owners is straightforward: go for it. “You don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring,” Murphy says. “Make your dreams a reality today.”

The Lift Cafe, Folkestone

“It’s a mad time to take on a cafe, really,” says 31-year-old Emily Fahey. She isn’t referring only to Covid – Fahey is eight months pregnant with her second child and the mother to a toddler. As if she weren’t busy enough, Fahey opened Folkestone’s Lift Cafe with her partner, Jamie Evans, 36, in September. The pair had long worked side by side running coffee stalls across London, but this is their first bricks-and-mortar business. “When Covid hit, everything shut down and we weren’t sure what to expect,” says Fahey, explaining that their coffee-stall business evaporated overnight.

But the lockdown brought with it new business opportunities. Like many formerly vibrant British seaside towns, Folkestone has seen an influx of young professionals in recent years, drawn by the affordable house prices and proximity to London. When the pandemic put an end to commuting, Folkestone was suddenly bustling. “Everywhere was rammed,” says Fahey. “Because everyone was on furlough or working from home, it seemed everywhere was busy. We thought maybe the cities were starting to die. Maybe the satellite towns are the places to be.”

After emailing some local developers, Fahey and Evans heard about a unique opportunity: a lift building that once served Folkestone’s funicular railway stood empty. It was too intriguing a proposition to pass up and so, using savings, they obtained the lease. “The building was all dark and boarded up,” says Fahey of her first trip to see it. “It was dingy and full of spiders. But it’s beautiful.”

After a month of painting and spider removal, the cafe was ready to open – and Folkestone was ready for it. “We advertised an opening event on Facebook,” says Fahey. “We had to take it down, because so many people clicked ‘attending’. It wouldn’t have been Covid-safe.” Their first week was “manic … queues out the door. We had to call in every friend and family member to help clear tables and wash up. We just about coped.”

Fahey is optimistic that the Lift Cafe will be viable in the long term, when life returns to normal. “Everyone seems to be moving to the seaside,” she says. “So many of my friends are moving here since Covid. I think London will always be busy, but I can’t see things going back to pre-Covid times. Even on rainy days, it just feels like there are more people around. Covid has made it possible for us to open here.”

HoundPlus, Bristol

When the pandemic hit, Nick Benger had just finished consulting on a TV show for Amazon. The 26-year-old dog-behaviour expert had thought about one day setting up a dog-training business, but life always seemed to get in the way. Suddenly, all Benger had was time to research how such a business might work.

“I looked up the population of dogs in every postcode in Bristol,” he says. “I went through Companies House and read strategic reports of all the major dog businesses. It helped me to put together a really solid business plan.” Benger knew he wanted a business that could grow. “Dog-training classes are typically so boring,” he says. “It’s quite an old-fashioned industry and everyone does things the same way.”

With his partner, Livvy Brewer, 31, they came up with the concept of Scouts for dogs: all the animals receive an orange bandanna and they earn badges as they go through the classes. “It’s about making things more Instagrammable and fun,” he says. When HoundPlus launched in June, the demand was immediate. “It was unbelievable,” says Benger. “So many people had got lockdown puppies. We had a massive waiting list.” Within weeks, they were the second-biggest dog-training class provider in Bristol, running 10 classes a week, for 50 dogs.

A snag: during the summer, HoundPlus had been running classes at an outdoor horse-breeding facility. But, as the weather worsened, Benger struggled to locate suitable indoor alternatives. “Finding venues has been a nightmare,” he admits. “That’s the biggest thing that’s slowed our growth.” His aim is to find a permanent bricks-and-mortar venue, in which they can hold classes and sell dog accessories and treats. “That’s our long-term vision,” Benger says.

The Allotment Kitchen at Stepney City Farm, east London

When Betty Gilbert, 28, saw her catering company implode in March – a year’s worth of work disappearing overnight – she asked her sister-in-law, Lucy Cuthbert, if she fancied going into business with her. As it turned out, Cuthbert, 28, had been furloughed from her job as a restaurant manager and so had rather more time on her hands than expected. The pair launched the Allotment Kitchen at Stepney City Farm, with little fanfare, in May.

Opening a restaurant in the middle of a crisis that has decimated the UK hospitality sector is either brave or foolhardy, depending on how you look at it. “We thought: why not take a risk and see how it goes?” says Gilbert. The rent was reasonable and the cafe that had formerly occupied the site had been successful. Gilbert and Cuthbert hoped that there would be a market for high-quality seasonal British food in the predominantly residential area, given that so many locals were now working from home rather than commuting to central London.

Their gamble more than paid off. “We were heaving over the summer,” Gilbert says. “We had queues outside the gate all day Saturday and Sunday, pretty much.” They have extended their opening hours – they do pizza pop-ups on Wednesday nights, in collaboration with a local pizzeria, as well as offering small plates on Friday nights.

It has not all been plain sailing: a cookery class didn’t go exactly to plan. “We played it wrong, I think,” says Gilbert. “People were still a bit scared of being in a class with other people, even though it was socially distanced and outside.” The constant changes to government guidance have been enormously stressful. “Having 48 hours’ notice to turn around table service and shut at 10pm was tough,” Gilbert says. They are working on winter-proofing their predominantly outdoor restaurant, with a large order of heaters, hot-water bottles and blankets.

But, all in all, things are going promisingly for the Allotment Kitchen. “It’s been a silver lining to an otherwise horrific year,” says Gilbert. Even if high winds recently did snap one of the legs off their gazebo.

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