Martin Charlton, owner of The Boathouse Group, which runs The Old Boathouse and The Fish Shack in Amble, Northumberland, shares the devastating effect Covid lockdowns have had on his restaurant businesses, reminding us all that we need to do our bit to help keep the North East open and #BeatCovidNE.
Q. How has your business been affected by Covid-19?
Both restaurants had to close in March 2020 and since then we’ve barely been open, or at least it feels that way. I’ll never forget watching the Prime Minister’s announcement on that Monday evening. The business generated no income during closures and both restaurants have stood dormant throughout summer 2020 and most of winter 2020/2021 too.
To say it’s been a worrying time is an understatement but we’re still here, fighting for the places we love, the food we offer and the customers we serve.
Q. What challenges have you faced?
We have faced so many challenges, they’ve seemed never-ending. From financial and operational challenges to logistical Covid-safe guidelines and managing furlough of 40+ members of staff in varying roles. Despite months of being effectively mothballed, we’ve had to keep the business in a state of readiness, manage a highly unusual financial structure with more cash going out than coming in and safeguard the jobs of our people.
Q. What changes have you had to make in response to the pandemic?
Covid regulation has been particularly tough for the hospitality sector. After months of closures and repeated lockdowns, when we have been open, like we are now, we’ve had to reduce table numbers so that we can abide by social distancing guidelines. We’ve also put in place sanitation stations and a one-way system at both The Old Boathouse and the Fish Shack. There are lots of safety screens in place to minimise any risk of Covid transmission. We’ve also invested heavily in staff training to ensure every member of staff operates in a Covid safe way.
During lockdowns, I also tried to remain positive so I worked on the restaurants, redesigning the Fish Shack, installing a new kitchen - something I wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to do in normal times.
Q. How have you and your staff coped during lockdown?
I think everyone in general, as human beings, has reacted to the pandemic and resulting restrictions on their lives in different ways. Within our team, we’ve experienced a range of responses. Some employees really struggled during lockdown and furlough and simply wanted to be back at work, doing the job they love. Others have been worried about the health risk and were a bit nervous about returning but we’ve focused on ensuring they feel comfortable at every stage of unlocking and returning to work.
Q. When people visit you, what will they see that is different now?
They’ll see a wide range of Covid-safe measures to ensure their safety while relaxing, socialising and enjoying their meal. For example, there are hand sanitisers throughout each restaurant, staff wear masks or face screens and we operate a one-way system throughout each venue. We’re also fully contactless and have created additional space between tables. We have a lot of signage in place to remind people of the importance of ‘hands, face, space’ and have erected protective screens where necessary.
Q. What has the response been since reopening?
It’s been phenomenal. We’ve been extremely busy, with big smiles on our faces, and our customers have been hugely supportive. On the whole, people understand the monumental challenges we’ve faced and continue to do so as we navigate this new normal.
Q. Why are you supporting the Keep the North East Open campaign?
The North East is a very unique and special place. It’s home to some of the most hardworking and passionate businesses and we need to support our region’s businesses as much as we can. I know it may seem relentless but we must follow the rules to save not only lives but also our thriving business community and its future.
This is our region, our communities, our local businesses and it’s up to us to look after them. Together we can Keep the North East Open.