Business owners on Lockdown 3: ‘We are tired, fed up, worried and helpless’

We asked SMEs how they were coping, and their hopes and fears for 2021. Here’s what they had to say

Aashim Bajaj, Cinnamon Garden Restaurant: ‘The impact of this third lockdown is undeniable.’

Aashim Bajaj, Cinnamon Garden Restaurant: ‘The impact of this third lockdown is undeniable.’

 

‘Opening and closing a business is not easy’

Aashim Bajaj, The Cinnamon Garden, Co Meath
Laying off people who have stood by me for years is a hard thing to do, especially when none of us know what the future holds and when business will resume. The pandemic has shown me the value of good communication with my suppliers and the loyalty of my customers.

There has been opportunity in the turmoil of the last few months. We have launched our own range of Cinnamon Garden homemade chutneys, freshly ground spices, fresh mango lassi, BBQ boxes, and Fill your Freezer deals, which have been a big hit.

The impact of this third lockdown is undeniable. Like many other restaurant owners I had stocked up for Christmas, but it was very disheartening to close up again at 3pm on Christmas Eve for indoor dining when we restaurant owners were doing our bit to keep everyone safe. Opening and closing a business is not easy. We have lost lot of our wonderful staff as they have changed profession and found jobs elsewhere. It will be very difficult for all small and medium size business, especially in hospitality, to source staff, do training etc again. As it is, there is a big shortage of skilled chefs in Ireland.

The reduction in VAT rates has been a great help for restaurants. Unfortunately, many supports require businesses to have sustained steep losses. This threshold can push these supports out of reach for struggling businesses.

Cinnamon Garden restaurant has been trading for 11 years and 2020 has been most stressful. Whenever I look at my empty restaurant and miss the conversations and laughter of my customers, I remind myself how amazing it will be to welcome them all back. Cinnamongarden.ie

‘The tourism industry needs more sector specific financial help’

Noel Carroll, Carroll’s Tours
We are an Irish inbound tour operator offering an extensive range of tour packages to international travellers visiting Ireland. Covid-19 has decimated our business with revenues down over 95 per cent in 2020. We have not traded since March 17th last, which normally marks the start of the tourism season. We were lucky in a sense that a lot of our customers postponed their trips to 2021, but since the third lockdown and the current travel restrictions into Ireland, we have lost all our Q1 bookings and there is a huge risk of mass cancellations in Q2 unless there is a swift rollout of vaccinations, easing of travel restrictions and a reopening of the economy. Current financial supports such as the CRSS are not applicable to most tourism businesses like ours. The tourism industry needs more sector specific financial help in order to survive 2021 and beyond. carrollstourgroup.ie

‘We will continue to grow our home delivery service’

Daniel McCarthy, Star Seafoods, Kenmare

Daniel McCarthy, Star Seafoods: ‘The recent restrictions will put another big strain on our company.’
Daniel McCarthy, Star Seafoods: ‘The recent restrictions will put another big strain on our company.’

Star Seafoods has been in operation since 1974, set up by my father. We supply 350 hotels, restaurants, care homes, and cafes. The first lockdown effectively closed the majority of our customers overnight with only a small number electing to stay open for takeaway.

The previous year we had started selling and delivering directly to consumers in Cork City through our website, using our own delivery van. During the first lockdown, it was one of our only sources of income. We decided to expand to Limerick and Kerry, followed by Dublin. There was a lot of added logistics, a large area to cover and a lot of houses to deliver to, but the move was such a success that we decided to roll out to parts of Galway, Clare, Kildare, Laois, Wicklow and Louth, with plans to grow the delivery network further in 2021.

Supplying the food service sector is still by far the biggest part of our business and the recent restrictions will put another big strain on our company. But we will continue to grow our home delivery service while so many people are staying safe at home. 2020 was a very challenging year and 2021 will throw up its fair share of difficulties, but when we finally get the food service business back, we will be happy to have a whole new side to our business in our online fish shop. starseafoods.ie

‘Our classes are running successfully online’

Lisa Halpenny, Kids Cook Cookery School
We were devastated to close our cookery school premises (in Clonee, Co Meath) last March, but now, with such a different business model, we can react in a positive way and give more to the children in our virtual cooking club. Our classes are running very successfully online, and we love that we can still teach children how to cook in a safe, fun way. Our business is growing. Each time there are restrictions on movement, we can add extra content and engaging live classes for our customers. kidscookcookingclub.com

‘It’s hard to know what to do’

Ken Reddin, Hungry Bear Café, Gorey, Co Wexford
We opened our 90-seat cafe in July 2018. Our first year was very tough but by our second year, it started to take off. We closed on March 15th to keep our staff, customers and community safe. We opened for takeaway in mid-May which went well, and for 50 seated guests when we were allowed. We had a busy summer and a good autumn, but we all knew what was coming.

We had to lay off 10 staff in October for the Level 3 restrictions and we did takeaway again for eight weeks until we were allowed have seated guests again in December, which meant having to hire and train new staff. One tested positive on St Stephen’s day, which meant we had to close for two weeks. Thankfully everyone else tested negative.

Looking ahead, it’s hard to know what to do. There isn’t much State help as it is all based on takings in 2019, and we were a new business that year, so we don’t really qualify for Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme. With positive tests now at an all-time high, it’s probably better for everyone that we stay closed for another few weeks. Longer term, I’m more worried about how long the vaccine will take to roll out. Most businesses like ourselves have had to sacrifice a huge amount this past year and facing another similar year in 2021 doesn’t bare thinking about. We are all tired, fed up, worried and helpless.

‘There are so many companies falling between the gaps’ 

Anonymous, Cork
A lot of companies won’t talk publicly for fear of spooking creditors. There are thousands of companies that do not qualify for the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme as we do not have a business that the public are restricted from accessing. This is a ridiculous loophole that is not being spoken about much in the media. To date the only support we have received is the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme for two members of staff. The rest are on temporary lay off.

There are so many companies falling between the gaps, not entitled to supports. We are sinking. It feels like one section of business is being supported and another is not. It’s lonely. It’s isolating. It’s deeply upsetting. Companies like ours have effectively been closed since March and entitled to nothing under current eligibility rules. I am not sleeping. I worry about the future. And nobody is coming to help.

‘My approach to business is much more proactive than before Covid’

Gerry Breen, First Aid Supplies

Gerry Breen: ‘We have spent almost a year in survival mode. It has been tough and exhausting but it is time to start forward planning now.’
Gerry Breen: ‘We have spent almost a year in survival mode. It has been tough and exhausting but it is time to start forward planning now.’

As a team, we met the first days of Covid-19. As managing director, I got the views of my staff and took on board their suggestions. It was their choice how to work while achieving sales. This worked for them and their families and our customers, and the company benefitted enormously.

My accountant Grace who lives in Donabate has not come into the office since last March for example. She runs the full accounts of the business from home with LogMeIn. I do a weekly exchange of papers at her front door. One of our representatives, if not running emergency deliveries to customers, worked sitting in his car in his driveway during the first lockdown, dealing with customers by phone or email. Three children under 10 at home may have guided that choice.

We got ahead of the demand for alcohol hand sanitisers, PPE and thermometers in the early days of the pandemic, which put us in a good position to cope with the unrelenting demand. We added 1,100 new accounts, achieving our 2020 budget by May and finishing the year in a very positive place. Into 2021, my approach to business is much more proactive than before Covid, which has made me see greater potential for my 18-year-old business. firstaidsupplies.org

‘I haven’t had one bit of help’

John Ruane, taxi driver, Roscommon
My taxi has been parked up since last March. I know I’m only small fry and big companies are suffering more but I haven’t had one bit of help or offers of help from the National Transport Authority. Every time I ring or email them there is no reply.

‘Collection and delivery will be our bread and butter until August’

Barry Donovan, Trieste Café Wine Bar, Galway

Trieste in Galway delivers charcuterie boxes.
Trieste in Galway delivers charcuterie boxes.


My wife and I opened our dream venture four weeks before the first lockdown. Since the initial three weeks of not knowing what was happening, we’ve been flat out busy since April. We starting doing collection and delivery of charcuterie boxes in Galway City and the response has been amazing. “Shop and support local” has been a slogan for as long as I can remember, but you can see it in action now. Big corporations in Galway are actively supporting local business.

We went online after the first month, and it was best move we made. Our orders doubled, coming in from all over the world. We have always remained positive and that’s the key. We are lucky that we can still offer a service. I feel sorry for genuine folk who want to reopen but can’t. I believe our collection and delivery service will be our bread and butter until August at least, and hopefully we get some tourism moving from then on. trieste-cafe-wine-bar.clickandcollection.com

‘My business almost closed completely’

Seán Ó Cearrúlláin, SkyHigh Produtions and RippinStudios, Drogheda
I own a commercial video production company that helps businesses sell their products and services through audio/visual content. Last March I was just about to sign up my first retainer accounts after five years of hard work to find a sustainable business model. Then the pandemic hit, and every business tightened their purse strings. Events shut down, weddings couldn’t go ahead and customers began cancelling and looking for refunds.

With a team of 14 people, I was devastated. With three lockdowns and having no true sight of an end to the uncertainty, my business almost closed completely. Personnel had to be let go.

With a family, the reality bites that even if I went looking for a job right now, in my 40s I’d struggle to find paid employment with the level of competition out there, particularly in the media industry. We have no income other than Pandemic Unemployment Payment.

For a while I couldn’t see a solution, but speaking with former mentors that have experienced recessions and difficult times has helped me to see that you have to take stock of what you can make the best of, who “needs” what you have to offer. So that’s what we are doing. Sometimes we need to step back to move forwards.

Being able to pivot and reshape meant light at the end of the tunnel. Instead of producing content for others, we made a creative space and top quality equipment available for hire to independent artists, filmmakers and creatives in Drogheda.

I am excited about the future. Reshaping and taking stock of our inventory, facilities, experience, knowledge and service capabilities allowed us to see a future in extremely tough times. Going online is the best thing we’ve ever done. We are now building an eCommerce section to our website allowing people to book studios and equipment and our creative skills too; this will be live soon on rippinstudios.com.

‘My concern is for my staff’

Shay Murphy, The Dragon Inn, Tallaght

Shay Murphy: ‘Many in the hospitality game wont survive this lockdown.’
Shay Murphy: ‘Many in the hospitality game wont survive this lockdown.’

My family has two bars and a cafe with a great customer base of regulars that are the salt of the earth in Tallaght Village. We have 26 staff. Since the beginning of March we are all but closed up in both bars, except for a few weeks here and there. We are fortunate to have no big loans, which takes the pressure off, but this is not the situation for a lot of businesses. Many in the hospitality game wont survive this lockdown.

My concern is for my staff and the general worker. At a Licenced Vintners Association Zoom meeting, I addressed the seminar and said I felt that we are not all in this together. How can a group of well-paid people make rules for people to live on €350 max a week? This is a lost year and may end up being two for these people. The hospitality worker doesn’t matter as they are not big tax payers. But they have loans and rent to pay.

‘Businesses don’t work in isolation’

Michael Lennon, Westport Woods Hotel, Co Mayo

Michael Lennon, Westport Woods Hotel: ‘‘Meitheal’ is an important word for the Westport community spirit.’
Michael Lennon, Westport Woods Hotel: ‘‘Meitheal’ is an important word for the Westport community spirit.’

My family hotel business has been in operation for over a quarter of a century, with 122 bedrooms, leisure centre and wedding reception venue, and employing nearly 100 people. We have suffered from this pandemic, with loss of sales, loss of repeat customers, loss of colleagues and loss of profits, but not a loss of hope about our future.

Many of our colleagues have adapted to new flexible work practices, implementing Covid safety guidance, opening and closing our business based upon Government and Nphet instruction, and only opening to a small numbers of essential business travellers. We have innovated looking for new streams of business, cleaned out the cobwebs, listened to our Industry leaders, and availed of reopening grants. We have worked together with our local council, Chamber of Commerce, Failte Ireland, the Irish Hotels Federation and the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC), listening, making suggestions and helping each other. Businesses don’t work in isolation. “Meitheal” is an important word for the Westport community spirit. westportwoodshotel.com

‘Our revenue dropped by 90 per cent’

Barry Prost, Yala.ie

Barry Prost, Yala.ie: ‘I have been impressed with how quickly the Government set up supports for businesses and how easy they made them to access.’
Barry Prost, Yala.ie: ‘I have been impressed with how quickly the Government set up supports for businesses and how easy they made them to access.’

As a new entrant to the recruitment industry in 2018, we had grown the business from two to 15 staff in 18 months, but were severely impacted by Covid. Our revenue dropped by 90 per cent in Q2 of 2020.

Our customers were primarily in the construction and life sciences sectors. Looking at new ways to connect during the pandemic, we hosted our first webinar on employee resilience, and produced a whitepaper to help employers to build and identify this quality in employees. We also conducted a survey and shared our findings in a report - “Recruitment during Covid and Trends for 2021” - in partnership with Enterprise Ireland and Trinity College.

To allow start-ups and SME’s compete for talent against large corporates, we launched a new platform called Yala Connect to produce, publish and host videos, pictures and authentic stories about what it is like to work in the company.

I have been impressed with how quickly the Government set up supports for businesses and how easy they made them to access, not just in terms of salary supports or rates waivers, but also with schemes run by local enterprise offices, such as the business continuity planning or trading online vouchers. At the start of the pandemic, we wanted take the time to work on our strategy and emerge from Covid as a stronger, more robust business; Government supports were a great help in achieving this. yala.ie

‘We have spent almost a year in survival mode’

Raymond Gibbons, BMS Accountants Ltd, Navan
We provide bookkeeping, payroll and accounting services to over 90 clients throughout Leinster. With three full-time staff and one part-time we offer SMEs operating in a variety of sectors from retail to services.

I set up the business at the height of the recession in 2009 with a view that SME owners, regardless of size, need the support of an accountant to help them manage their business, rather than an accountant who merely prepared financial records and offered snippets of advice along the way and generally only at annual client meetings. That hands-on and personal relationship has served us well.

We worked tirelessly during the first lockdown to ensure clients got much needed information on the support schemes available to them. The stress that we as a business were under was immense, providing clients with updates, dealing with revenue on their behalf, managing the payroll changes and also ensuring that we missed no tax deadlines.

I invested in new hardware and software to enable remote working. With limited resources from cash to time, we really tested our ability to prioritise and manage our workload. I wanted to protect three full time jobs and I did that, with the support of my staff. We are a small but strong team and I like to think we are helping our clients through this difficult time too.

We have spent almost a year in survival mode. It has been tough and exhausting but it is time to start forward planning now. With the new software, hardware, website and restructuring of our business model which allows us to work flexibly and remotely, we can compete with practices many times our size. bmsaccountants.ie

‘Many of our customers are still busy trading’

Ronan Horgan, Capitalflow
Capitalflow is a specialist business lending business established in 2016. We mainly focus on property, plant and equipment, vehicles and debtor financing for small to medium size businesses. We employ 53 people and in response to the pandemic we have invested and pivoted to a digital portal through our website www.capitalflow.ie. We have stayed close to our customers over the lockdowns so we could understand how they were coping, and that has helped us to react quickly.

The next three months will be a challenge, but we see the second half of the year being very positive and many of our customers are still very busy trading despite the restrictions. We believe our purpose is to treat our customers, who are small family firms and entrepreneurs, as business people with the emphasis on people. They deserve our respect due to all the risks they take to employ so many people and keep the economy alive. We want to create a special lending business that goes on the journey through good times and bad with them.

‘We are ready for the hard work once more’

Mary McCabe, KDL, Co Meath
My husband Ken and I set up KDL to supply restaurants, hotels, pubs and coffee shops in June 2010. Last March brought news that the hospitality trade, our main source of income, had to close. Like any business owner who has worked through the past 10 months, laying staff off, taking staff back on, sleepless nights and conversing with banks has not been easy, but we got through 2020. We had to diversify, sourcing PPE which our customers needed. We now also deal with more schools and nursing homes, and also do full fit-outs of student accommodation.

Our customers doing take away was our lifeline too, and has kept us going though lockdown after lockdown. Our staff, which was 10 and now five including ourselves, have been outstanding their dedication and willingness to adapt. Ken and I contracted Covid in early October I am still struggling to get over it fully. Even though we are in lockdown again, through sheer determination we are ready for the hard work once more. kendermar.ie

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