Surviving the earthquake
My dad is the kind of person who would sit there calmly in the middle of an earthquake. We’d all be super scared, running around, and he would be telling us that nothing was going to happen and that everything was going to be fine. That’s his motto in life, whatever the crisis. I have never worked out whether it comes from his evolved Zen-like thinking, or just plain carelessness. He’s always calm, and it drives everyone around him nuts (my mom is the opposite - a different kind of nuts - but that’s a story for another day).
In times like these, I wish I was a little more like my dad.
These past few months have made me think really hard about how we independent restaurants can get through this pandemic. Our local food blogger wrote a touching piece about how he would only be supporting independent businesses from now on. And I’ve also read a lot online about whether critics and bloggers should say anything bad about restaurants in these difficult times. That really made me think, too.
It made me realise that just being an independent business is not good enough. This may stir up some controversy, but if I am being very honest, I don’t think that every indie business necessarily deserves to survive this. We are not a charity case: it’s not fair to expect our customers to keep us alive out of sympathy. It’s totally on us to keep giving you the best so you have no choice but to come to us.
We are based in Reading, and I personally know most of the indie businesses in and around our town. I know how passionate and hardworking they are, and how ethically they run. How they treat their suppliers and their staff. For every cup of coffee you need - every burger or pizza, every beer or a great meal - there are always way better options than big chains.
But like I said, just because we’re an independent doesn’t mean we automatically deserve your sympathies or affections. Definitely not, if we dish out mediocre products or conduct our business dishonestly.
Times are tough, and there are lots of new rules. Your favourite restaurant may not be able to deliver quite the same service as before. Some, like us, may be operating very differently. But the basic foundation for any restaurant is good food, and if we mess that up people should be entitled to point that out.
Speaking as the owner of an independent restaurant, but also as a customer who spends her money with other indies, I am saying that we should be given a second chance because of the circumstances, but never a free ride. The only thing we independents dare ask is this - before spending your precious money, pause for a second and see if there’s any independent business you know of doing the same thing and, more importantly, doing it better.
So what have we been doing? The last six weeks have definitely shown me that I’m not as smart as I think I am. Imagine launching a nationwide food delivery service, sending chilled food all over the country, at a time when the temperature tops thirty degrees!
Not only that, but we learned that it’s very difficult to find new customers in parts of the country that have no idea we even exist. We are very grateful to the friends we have found, like blogger The Plate Licked Clean who introduced us to Welsh diners with his beautiful review of our food, or kind Instagrammers like Iain, Ros and Anna who took stunning photos of our dishes and said such kind things.
All of that, along with all of our customers recommending our food to their friends, or buying meals for their family, has helped us survive another month in this difficult situation. But it really is not easy, and we are existing week to week knowing that a few bad weeks in a row would be disastrous for us. We need all the help we can get, but we feel bad about asking for it.
We have also had to think really carefully about when to reopen our own restaurant and, more to the point, whether to reopen this year at all. Especially now, with cases on the increase, parts of the country going into stricter lockdown and the ever-changing guidelines from the government. To do everything required, we’d need to do even more cleaning and have a lot less covers and, even then, we’re not sure it would provide a safe enough environment for our customers and our staff given the constraints of our premises. It also wouldn’t deliver the experience we want our customers to have.
So, with a heavy heart, and completely knowing that we risk losing what we have built with so much hard work over the past two years we have decided not to open Clay’s as you know it for the time being. We are gambling on being able to survive what lies ahead, and hoping that you will support us, not forget us, and visit again as soon as we can reopen.
We have an incredibly difficult time ahead, but we are very lucky with the customers we have - both old customers who have eaten in our restaurant pre-Covid and new customers who have discovered our food since we started delivering nationwide. But the painful truth is that Clay’s, like many independent businesses, will not survive unless our customers support us and spread the word about us. I hope you all do that, but most of all I hope that we deserve it. We will keep trying our best to earn that.