Before lockdown, on average we were buying three drinks from a coffee shop each week, spending over £10 billion in coffee shops yearly –  most of that contributed by the digital Blackmore Vale team when they’re on a deadline!

So, is our county of coffee loving connoisseurs, deprived of our café caffeine kick during lockdown, heading back to our favourite coffee houses or are we still in hiding? Fuelled with a flat white, BMV went to find out.

Julie Harris, owner of The Black Cactus in Blandford, told us her reopening on 12th April was positive. “Luckily, we have some green space so people really enjoyed finally meeting friends again, so lots of happy customers. People just seem to be happy to be out and treating themselves to great barista coffee and yummy cakes.”

Like many coffee houses, Oliver’s in Sherborne, is still operating reduced hours. Director Jane Wood says it’s definitely busier now customers can sit down. “We’re hoping the next step when customers can sit inside will bring things much closer to normal.”

Young entrepreneurs Emily and James Delport-King got the keys to Seasons of Shaftesbury in November 2020 and have been open merely twenty-six days of those six months.  “The unpredictability in our first few months was tough. People have called us ‘crazy’, ‘mad’, ‘brave’ for opening a business in the pandemic. We would both do it again in an instant – we won’t let the pandemic stop us!

“We’ve been blessed with lovely weather and the opportunity to have outside seating while the High Street is closed. We’re thrilled with how busy we’ve been and seeing so many friendly faces returning.”

Covid guidelines mean it’s not just about booting up the coffee machine and turning the sign to ‘Open’ again. Behind-the-scenes efforts have included major menu rethinks, new equipment and lots of PPE.  “It’s been a huge learning curve that has been ever-changing. With each change to Covid rules, we’ve had to re-invent ourselves. This has meant financial investment to change the set-up,” explains Julie Harris.

Jane Wood agrees: “At the moment it feels like I’m having to relearn my job after nine years. It’s been hard constantly adapting to new rules and regulations and constantly explaining them to customers.”

And do these small independents feel they have been supported by the government and, closer to home, local councils? Jane Wood feels help could have been better co-ordinated. “The restart grant would have been more helpful if we’d had it before we reopened instead of two weeks later. Sherborne Chamber and Sherborne Indies have been circulating useful information but otherwise we’ve had to dig for help we need.”

Julie Harris: “The government responded quickly and the process was clear to follow. Due to being able to open for takeaway and with such great support from Blandford folk, we didn’t need to furlough the team but kept them all employed on slightly shorter hours. We’ve had great support from our landlord and he understood the difficulties we faced with a reduced income.”

As new business owners, Emily and James were unsure of what support they would receive but told us the communication and advice from Dorset Council and Shaftesbury Town Council was valuable and members of the Town Council were “great at advising what to do.”

And how are we, the customers behaving? Seasons of Shaftesbury have the NHS Track and Trace QR code stuck to every table outside as well as on their café door. “If customers don’t have the app, we have slips available to fill out their details.  Our customers have been really good at co-operating and so far we’ve not had to refuse anyone service.”

Jane Wood at Oliver’s agrees: “Most people are pretty good at Track and Trace, although we’ve had a few people think they don’t need to do it because they’ve had both vaccines.”

“The priority all the time is the safety of our staff, who can be anxious about working with the public and with other staff,” says Julie Harris. “Black Cactus has an amazing team and we’re constantly adapting to create a safe environment for them and the customers.  It’s been constant brainstorming to survive. The positive feeling in the town is that we’re all in this together and we give each other confidence to survive. We’ll get through this. We look forward to a new normal.”

We’ll all drink a cappuccino to that!

By: Tracie Beardsley


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