‘We will keep working hard to get through this’: the businesses surviving lockdown in Kingston Upon Thames

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting all areas of life and business is no exception. On 7 May the Bank of England (BoE) warned that the UK was heading towards a recession and consumer spending has fallen by a third in recent weeks.

The BoE reported that Covid-19 was “dramatically reducing jobs and incomes in the UK”. However, bank governor Andrew Bailey predicted any permanent damage from the pandemic would be “relatively small”. He told the BBC the economy was likely to recover “much more rapidly than the pull back from the global financial crisis”.

So, with spending habits changing and the looming prospect of a recession, what are businesses in Kingston doing to stay afloat? 

Tony Goshawk, owner of Tony’s Fruit Stall in Kingston Market, is working round the clock to provide locals with fresh fruit and vegetables. Since the government announced lockdown in March, Goshawk, 55, has been going the extra mile to keep his customers safe. “I only serve one customer at a time and I have put barriers up at the stall,” he said. 

Goshawk has worked at the market for more than three decades, starting as a fishmonger. To protect himself, his family, and his customers, he is meticulously following health and safety measures. “I have stopped taking cash for hygiene reasons”, he said. “When I was taking cash I would have to wash my hands after every purchase which left them red raw.”

Jon Tolley, managing director of Banquet Records, has also made changes to keep his business as safe as possible. “Two-thirds of what we normally do is shut down,” he said. “We are a high street retailer with a shop front so not having any customers is radically different and we are a gig promoter so not doing any gigs is also different.”

Before the lockdown, Tolley was organising gigs and serving customers in the shop on Eden Street. He is now focusing on mail orders and developing his website. Social distancing measures have also changed how the business operates. “On a typical day, we might have eight people at the shop whereas now we’re trying to keep it to one person,” he said.

Banquet Records is the beating heart of Kingston’s music scene. The company began 2020 on a high, hosting four sold-out shows with grime artist Stormzy and an intimate gig with iconic rock band The Who. Due to the pandemic, the live music industry has been put on hold. For Banquet, this has meant postponing many of its shows and even cancelling others.

Without knowing exactly when the lockdown will be over, Tolley cannot predict when Banquet will be hosting live shows again. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. My feeling is we won’t be doing gigs as we know it this year.”

Tolley and his staff are working from 8 am till 10 pm to keep things going. Some of them have taken on different roles since gigs were postponed, including the sound engineer, who is now helping with orders. “We have always had a kind of team spirit and people are up for helping out and getting things done,” he said.

Although it is not business as usual for Banquet Records, business is still going well. “We are stable for now,” said Tolley. “People are ordering records more than they used to.”

Goshawk also said that his business is thriving. As soon as the lockdown was announced, increased demand for fresh food boosted the number of customers visiting the market. “It was crazy in the first few weeks. Everyone was panic buying. No one knew what was going on. Supermarkets couldn’t keep up and because of that we were busy and we could manage because we restock daily.”

While the panic buying has now died down, he said his customers have remained. “I’ve gotten busier and busier. At first, customers were coming to me because they didn’t feel safe in the supermarkets. Now they are coming to me because they are realising that my stuff is fresher and has more flavour.”

A caring community

Despite feeling uneasy about the pandemic, Goshawk is comforted by the ways in which Kingston residents are looking out for each other. “I think this whole thing is scary and horrible. On the plus side, people are being nice to each other. People are caring for each other and volunteering and things. There’s a lot of positivity out there coming from this and I really hope it continues.”

Sam Berry, a Surbiton-based restaurateur, is also seeing “a real sense of community support” from locals. Berry and wife Alex own neighbouring restaurants No 97 and Cento Uno on Maple Road, Surbiton. Following government guidelines, they had to close No 97 but they are still providing a takeaway service from pizzeria Cento Uno. The busy couple also runs a gin store, The Good Life, named after the 1980s television show based on life in Surbiton.

When the lockdown was first introduced, the Berrys lost a few of their staff. “All of our present chefs went back to Italy to be with their families,” said Berry. “We have fortunately got help from a friend who is just filling in for the time being. We do a certain amount of people each night to keep the staff safe and make a good product without being under pressure. We’ve had amazing feedback and we’ve been selling out pretty much every night.”

With one less restaurant to run, Berry said they have had more time to spend on their gin business. “We’ve expanded the product range mostly into pre-batched cocktails and T-shirts. We are getting a hundred orders a week which is an insane amount. We thought we would just give it a punt and now it’s quickly transformed into a business in itself.”

Moving forward

Despite his current success, Berry is unsure of what business will look like in the future. “We don’t know what trends are going to be and how people will react after lockdown is lifted. We’re just looking at the positives and taking it day by day and week by week.”

He is not alone in his concerns. Tolley is conscious of the economic impact of the pandemic and its long-term effect on the live music industry. “My main concern is the oncoming recession and I’m worried that the more we postpone things we will have to postpone them to a time when people have less money. But what else can you do?”

However, he is determined to stay positive and keep going. “Banquet survived the last big recession and we will keep working hard to get through this.”

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