Diversifying a restaurant during a pandemic – by Simon Cotton, Managing Director HRH Group

If someone had told me at the turn of the year that come Spring our hotels would have shut their doors and our popular AA rosette dining food would be served in a takeaway box with myself driving around the streets of Harrogate delivering food, I would have laughed at them. We are a successful North Yorkshire hospitality business with 6 hotels and inns, restaurants full of diners, AA rosettes and a well renowned pub in the heart of Harrogate.  Additionally, on the back of 2019 being the company’s most successful to date, we had just completed a quarter million pound refurbishment of the Fat Badger Restaurant and were finalising numerous expansion and renovation plans across the group due to start as early as April; the future was exceptionally bright for the HRH Group. However, here we are, at the start of May and our hotels doors are indeed shut to the general public with no definite reopening plans, the restaurants are closed too and The Fat Badger has diversified with customers dining in instead of out. 

Hospitality is a 24/7 business, welcoming guests at whatever time of day, being on hand to deliver the best in customer service at whatever hour, it’s what we do, and it’s what we do well.  As a hospitality business, it’s anything but the 9 to 5, we never shut our doors, we are there whatever time anyone wants to check in or out and as a bar and restaurant operator we are there serving food and drink until the small hours.  But then came Covid-19 and the doors did shut, the lights were turned out, the guests and diners are now staying home and importantly, so are more than 90% of our staff. 

Early in the pandemic we knew what was coming and we had two options; we could shut all the doors, pack up and go home to wait it out or, we could diversify what we had and continue to trade in a different way.  And, as those who know me will tell you, I’m not good at doing nothing, so we chose to diversify.

For the hotels, it was rather straight forward we would turn our focus from a general public to a key worker service, providing both income to the business and equally supporting the community. I contacted the senior team at Harrogate District Hospital and some of our team also contacted other local NHS trusts and offered our rooms out at a very heavily discounted rate to NHS staff and key workers.  The intention was not to make a profit, but to keep the buildings breaking even and pay the wages of the non-furloughed staff, whilst allowing the group to support our key workers and the community at a time of crisis.  Our staff were also keen to help and many chose not to go on furlough but to work in the hotel looking after key workers, and even changing their roles to pitch in and make it work.  Within days we had a strong occupancy with key workers from the NHS, security, electricity providers and the MOD. 

Over on the food side it was very different, there was no way we could open the restaurants in any capacity. There is a famous quote by Jonathan Winters, ‘If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to meet it!’, and it is this thought that we took to heart, creating a takeaway service from scratch and delivering our AA rosette food to our customers homes in Harrogate. 

Most new business models take a while to strategise and execute, but as we had to change things almost overnight there was no time for this, we had to use what channels we had and make it work – and fast! First things first, the menu. Fine dining doesn’t always work when transported so we had to make sure that what we served would make the distance and that what we transported it in would keep it at its prime. 

To stimulate demand, the marketing team quickly asked customers on social media what their favourites dishes were and our Head Chef worked on some new items, and within a couple of days we had a full menu that was both popular and would work from kitchen to dining table. 

Once we had the product the next hurdle would be creating the demand we needed to make it both worthwhile and profitable.  Social media was our quickest method of contacting our regular customers and so we launched a competition in advance of the launch, encouraging our followers to tag others and spreading the message for us. Within a couple of days customers were excitedly awaiting the launch and combined with an email to our database we had enough demand to open our takeaway service. 

To ensure we had an immediate impact on day one, we signed up with Deliveroo to quickly tap into an established database, opening up doors into customers homes we didn’t have access to. 

On launch day we were busy with popular dishes flying out the door and the takeaway was proving an immediate success.  Now, we could have stopped there, but with high commission rates working with third party companies on orders taking up over 50% off our supply we knew we could do even better and generate much more revenue for the business if we could only get more customers coming direct. 

The Marketing team created an online ordering service linking from our website, on which customers could order and pay directly with us, cutting out the commission. Within a week we had a live online ordering service on our website, in conjunction with local supplier Appaway.  Using Appaway didn’t just tick a box of using a local supplier, but the team there were really efficient and great to deal with, helping us to react quickly and make change happen fast.

Again, we could have stopped there, but we knew we could do even better by adding more to the menu and offering more of the popular dishes to help us grow our market share.  So, by week three we launched a new menu, keeping our customer favourites but adding curries, pasta, pizzas and more burger options, matching what we were seeing in the demand across our service and what our market research was telling us.  New menus were printed and in a moment of madness I asked the Harrogate public on Twitter if they would like to push some menus through doors.  I just thought, I wonder if there’s people out there who’d be happy to combine some exercise with a bit of volunteering and helping out a local business in need.  I was absolutely blown away by the support of locals who wanted to use their daily exercise to help us post menus through their neighbours doors.  It just shows the true Yorkshire spirit here in Harrogate, Covid-19 may be keeping us to ourselves, but our community spirit has never been stronger. The changes proved another success, and business was booming with orders continuingly coming through on various channels but critically changing our market mix to direct, commission free orders, thereby helping to make the whole business work better.  I cannot thank enough the generosity of the people who stepped forward to help.  It was humbling to see just how many people wanted to help out a complete stranger reaching out for support in troubled times and it highlighted how many people were stuck at home feeling helpless and ‘wanting’ to do something for others.  I believe this will have long lasting positive effects in our community for charities and other organisations that rely on voluntary help which is a good that will have come out of all of this. 

It is now week six, and whilst we have a very successful business we are still evaluating and tweaking to improve.  In fact, what started as a temporary measure to get us through the pandemic, will now become part and parcel of what we offer at The Fat Badger post pandemic.

It’s been a rollercoaster of a learning curve and one that I could not have done without the unwavering support of my loyal team.  Working on a skeletal staffing basis to not only meet social distancing guidelines and keep everyone safe, but also ensure that we protect the revenue we are generating, has meant everyone has worked extremely hard to make this a success with long hours, managing social distancing at property and liaising with staff home-working.  I am so proud of all of my team, they have done all of this without question and with a smile on their face and I am truly grateful for their help and support to make this a success and do what it takes to protect our business long term.

Our next focus, whilst constantly evolving the takeaway business, will be how we re-open under what inevitably will be new rules.  Social distancing in Restaurants and Pubs is widely anticipated so how we do that whilst still ensuring we can deliver a fantastic experience will take a lot of thought and planning.  In the meantime, the saying of ‘We’re all in this together’ has never rung so true as it has now during a crisis that is literally affecting the world.  It’s therefore a time to reach out and help one another, support local businesses in their endeavours to stay afloat and ask not what others can do for me, but what can I do to help others. 

What is for sure, good times will come again for the hospitality industry, we just have to ride the storm and make the best of what we have.  These tough times won’t last forever, even if it feels like that now.  The HRH Group will be back up to full speed when the time is right with full hotels, inns and restaurants and we can’t wait until we can be back doing what we do best.  And as for those expansion and refurbishment plans I talked about at the start – they’ll come in time. 

More information and menu can be found at www.thefatbadgerharrogate.com and www.hrhgroupharrogate.com

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