2020 and what it did to us…
In 2020, we had a dream start and a dream finish. In between was all the stuff that nightmares are made of. In the beginning, we were just about getting comfortable with good covers even on weekdays and we even dared to think of starting to repay our startup debt. And then everything changed overnight, as it did for everyone.
Now that the last of 2020’s orders have been sent out, I wanted to share our journey this year. This year has been a rollercoaster ride for us, but with more lows than highs. We have never been this exhausted, never been this depressed and never been this worried in our entire lives. I wanted to write this post partly to share with you all about the toughest situation all we indies have had to face and partly to show our gratitude to those who helped us get through this situations.
I am not ashamed to admit that there were businesses in Reading who adapted better than us and turned into takeaway businesses overnight, like Valpy Street, Vegivores, Bakery House, the Lyndhurst, House of flavour and Kungfu Kitchen. Beloved cafes like Fidget & Bob and Geo Café became a lifeline for many people, providing not just coffee and food, but fruit and veg, bread, local beer and other much needed groceries. Phil from Anonymous Coffee started delivering coffee and brewing equipment (I don’t drink coffee but for people who do, I know he was a lifesaver).
It took us some time to realise that this was not going to end soon and that we desperately needed a new plan to survive. We did not think the traditional takeaway route would work for us, for multiple reasons: we never had the kind of margins that would let us work with the likes of Deliveroo (with their 35% charges) and many of our customers were in isolation during the first lockdown, so didn’t want to come out to collect food.
I won’t bore you with the agonising hours we spent working on the packaging, the website, the menu and the reasons we ended up adopting the model we have now, but I will say this: it was very tough. It was even tougher than planning for opening the restaurant back in 2018. We did all the required research needed for vacuum packing. I even did an online course that was developed for enforcement officers by FSA, and got a certificate too. We wanted to make sure we were doing everything in a right and safe way.
Once we had the plan, we used up the emergency funds we’d started putting aside just before lockdown, along with the grant money we received, and we invested in the new equipment that we needed for this plan to work.
Lots of kind people helped us out when we reached out. Our customer Martin did the research and suggested the best online platform for us. A very dear friend helped us with social media for few crucial months when I was fighting depression and could not face talking to anyone.
Matt Inwood, one of the kindest and talented people we’ve ever met, did the photographs for our website for free. I was asked not to say this anywhere but I cannot in good conscience let this kindest deed during one of the toughest times go unnoticed. He knew we were struggling and he wanted to help in his way which turned out to be one of the biggest assets for us: his pictures gave our food a chance of finding a new audience.
Jonathan from The Plate Licked Clean wrote a beautiful review of our food that bought me to tears, and he’s been nothing but supportive of what we do ever since. And then Kavita from Kavey Eats also wrote a thorough and wonderful review of us after recommendations from Jonathan and few others on Twitter. This opened up Wales for us, and gave us a couple of less anxious weeks.
The list of people we want to thank is so big. But the most important of them all is our very own lovely customer base - our Clay’s extended family. You all kept spreading the word, ordering for your family and friends. You kept doing everything you could think of to help support us and we are forever grateful for that. There are so many of you who have been ordering almost every week .
All this should have worked out great and we should have been safe but by the end of September, we were hardly doing a quarter of what we used to do as a restaurant. As a very young restaurant, we were already in heavy debt and were close to getting into further debt.
I could not talk to anyone about this back then but there were some extremely depressing weeks in between. While all of this was going on, I had two severe panic attacks. The first time it felt like I was having a heart attack and scared both of us really badly. The second time Sharat said that we should give up and stop all this.
We really were tempted, thinking that with the last 2 years experience we could get jobs as chefs somewhere and maybe have a life without losing our minds or breaking our hearts. But we could not do that either because we still had a massive startup debt to clear, and also because it’s next to impossible to let go of something that you have built so passionately.
The reason I decided to share all this is because I know every other independent business in Reading has been going through something like this multiple times since March. Imagine the exhaustion, the stress, the heartache, the constant reinvention they have had to go through with the ever-changing rules and guidelines. Then think for a second how gracefully they have all been conducting their businesses.
Like our beloved Nibsy’s with their doughnut kits, The Shed, The Grumpy Goat, our local breweries Double-Barrelled and Loddon. Or our lovely pubs like The Retreat who couldn’t open for most of this year, the Nag’s Head who did such a good job on their outdoor seating but are now again unable to open. And that’s without mentioning the Last Crumb and the Fox and Hounds who have put so much thought into their outdoor space and food menus.
There are so many businesses that we are proud to coexist with in this town and I want people of Reading to be proud of their indies. There are also many businesses that I have missed listing here but I know you all miss going to all these wonderful places as you normally would, and we indies are so grateful for the way you have been supporting us all.
The bad weeks kept coming for us and by mid November I was desperate and as a last resort, we approached some big names in food journalism introducing ourselves. That’s when we saw even more help coming from some very kind people out there.
Our customer and friend Jean, who loves our food, runs a PR agency and gave me a few contacts to get in touch with. I started sending out emails and we caught the attention of the Telegraph’s William Sitwell, who was so impressed with the food that he gave us a chance to appear on his podcast and even did a piece for the paper. Neal Davey did a short but very powerful and moving review of us as part of a list for The Week.
I also contacted Jay Rayner via email from his website and introduced our business and told him about our struggles. Him ordering our food and reviewing us in the Observer has been such a surprise and the most wonderful thing, and the feeling still hasn’t sunk in!
We are so thankful to all these people and so many more than I can list here. The last few weeks have been so busy for us - we keep telling ourselves that it’s probably just short term attention because of the media coverage, but it at least gave us a chance to finish 2020 on a good note.
We know everything isn’t going to suddenly become better in the New Year. I feel the next quarter is going to be much tougher than anything we have yet seen. But seeing the kind of help we got from so many people out there reinstates my belief that there may be enough good out there to carry us through this darkness into light.
So, with the knowledge that it’s going to get more difficult before it gets easier, but also with a heart filled with so much hope that this will all end before its too late, Sharat and I just want to say that we share your pain that this year has bought and that we hope our food has helped make difficult days better in some small way.
The thing I have missed most this year is the laughter I used to hear on the restaurant floor, seeing all the happy faces, hearing the sound of the clinking glasses, getting happy hugs from familiar faces. So 2021 is going to be all about figuring a way to open Clay’s for customers to eat in again.
Fingers crossed that we make it. We Reading independent businesses are proud of our town and its people, and I just hope that we’ve made the people of Reading proud too. Have a very happy New Year, and here is to a better year ahead for all of us. We’ll be raising a glass to all our customers and friends at midnight.