‘We’ve seen the impact of coronavirus first-hand’: how one Newcastle restaurant served its community during lockdown

Holly Peacock-Goodwin

Jamie Sadler is the founder of Harissa Kitchen, a popular eastern Mediterranean and north African eatery in Sandyford, Newcastle.

The idea of combining a vibrant restaurant, offering superb food, service and ambience, with a social enterprise has always been a dream for Sadler. So as well as celebrating foodie accolades, such as a top rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association and a place in The Good Food Guide 2020, Harissa Kitchen doubles as a social enterprise that helps to fuel his other passion, Food Nation CIC. Sadler founded and runs the community organisation designed to inspire local people to live a healthier lifestyle on a low budget and improve their wellbeing through food.

It achieves this by providing practical and innovative food-education activities for the public, schools and businesses in Newcastle and Gateshead.

Now in its fourth year, the restaurant had been going from strength to strength. So when the UK imposed the national lockdown, Sadler was devastated, and understandably concerned about the future of the restaurant, his staff and the communities he serves. “Protecting the business was, of course, paramount – but we’re also a business that helps our local communities,” he says. “We knew there was going to be a sudden and increased demand for support, so we had to pick ourselves up and refocus our efforts – that’s why we launched Harissa Kitchen Food Rescue.”

Using the dormant facilities at Harissa Kitchen, #HarissaKitchenFoodRescue brought together a team of volunteers, from trained chefs to delivery drivers, who prepare nutritionally balanced meals and deliver them directly to those in need as a result of Covid-19.

Throughout lockdown, Harissa Kitchen has provided vulnerable people and families with thousands of free meals. Each day the kitchen prepares hundreds of breakfasts, lunches and dinners for those who might otherwise go without. The recipients are people who are isolating or who for other reasons cannot leave the house, have no support network, or are not eligible for emergency food parcels.

Sadler has been blown away by the support he has received, from generous donations to people volunteering their time and skills. “We’ve had a steady stream of volunteers, some of them customers who’ve seen first-hand the impact Covid-19 has had on the most vulnerable members of society, and are keen to support our efforts,” he says.

Even his suppliers have got involved. Despite suffering huge dents in their incomes too, they are regularly donating what produce and resources they can to ensure meals remain nutritious.

Like many businesses in the hospitality industry, adapting to the lockdown has been a challenge, and moving from a face-to-face service to working predominantly online has been important.

“Shifting some focus online has allowed our customers to purchase digital gift cards to support the restaurant. But it’s been our fundraising where our online presence has really helped us gain momentum,” says Sadler. “We’ve canvassed support on social media and raised funds via our Go Fund Me campaign for the #HarissaKitchenFoodRescue mission.”

As the government gradually lifts lockdown restrictions and high street shops, bars and restaurants can safely reopen, the team remain committed to continuing their charitable efforts for as long as their community is in need.

Related: ‘It’s about a lot more than just money in the till’: how lockdown has shifted priorities for Southsea’s purveyor of pies and records

However, the staff are also eager to get back to some normality this summer – although it might be quite a different experience to the way things were left back in March. Harissa Kitchen is set to reopen but with adaptations. Staff will receive new training to keep both them and their families safe, while in-restaurant social distancing measures will be in place.

“We’re adapting to what will become the new normal, such as avoiding cash payments to reduce the risk of transmission,” says Sadler. “We’ll also be looking at the behaviours of our customers – for example, we’ll likely see more people opting to dine at home, particularly those in the shielded categories. As a result, we plan on expanding our takeaway offering to meet a change in demand.”

The past few months have been a worrying time for Sadler, as they have for many business owners, but he says that the support from people, communities and organisations has been fantastic.

“It’s so important and inspiring to see companies like Visa supporting the high street during this time,” he says. “We’re seeing organisations of all sizes using their platforms to rally round, that’s been a silver lining in all this.”

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