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Flair Gougoulia, owner of El Greco, reveals the impact of the lockdowns on her Stratford restaurant

While many shops and services have opened, others without outdoor spaces are still left struggling until May. Her Flair Gougoulia, owner of El Greco, reveals the impact of the lockdowns on her Stratford restaurant.

A YEAR ago our world was turned upside down in an instant.

In one of his first, now familiar, live national broadcasts Boris Johnson announced that all cafes, pubs, bars and restaurants would have to close within the hour. Although we had thought a lockdown was on the way, we had not anticipated it to be that quick and brutal.

The whole El Greco team was at work preparing for one of the busiest weekends of the year – Mother’s Day. We were fully booked and looking forward to helping hundreds of families treat their lovely mums. The shock was just overwhelming and when we locked the doors that evening we had no idea that we would still be shut today.

Flair Gougoulia (43835212)
Flair Gougoulia (43835212)

The following days were the scariest we have ever experienced. The business we had spent ten years building up – never having a day off, not taking holidays, ploughing every penny we had into – was on a precipice. Our staff were due to be paid in two days, our quarterly rent was due in four days, our supplier monthly accounts were due in ten days and the VAT for the first quarter was due in a few weeks. Tens of thousands of pounds and suddenly no income.

To add insult to injury, we found ourselves having to dispose of £10,000 worth of fresh food that we had ordered in for Mother’s Day. Much went into charity food parcels, but the rest had to go in the bin. I still feel sick when I think of having to do this.

Our first priority was our customers. Everyone knew we were closed, but we still wanted to ring or email every booking to apologise to them personally. It took three days. The goodwill and love expressed gave us the strength in those early dark days to keep going.

Next on the list was our staff – many of them have been with us for some years and are truly like a family to us. Most are young and living away from home and therefore alone and frightened.

We needed to ensure we could carry on paying them so they could pay their rents and eat. There was talk of government financial support, but it was going to take weeks to come through.

We vowed to not make anyone redundant and borrowed money to pay them until furlough payments kicked in.

The government grant promised to businesses came through eventually and we were able to pay our suppliers – mostly local firms employing local people who were on their knees too by then. We managed to secure a bounceback loan which enabled us to start preparing to reopen in accordance with new Covid rules.

I’ll be honest – I thought no one would ever go into a restaurant again and thought we were wasting our time getting ready to reopen. Thank goodness I was wrong. Once people saw how Covid-secure we were, they started to flood back. Our local Stratford customers were particularly supportive coming back in droves. Every day was like seeing old friends again. But being Covid-secure was costly. We were operating at a third of our normal capacity and the added costs of extra staff and cleaning meant getting back onto any sort of firm financial footing was going to be tough.

We were open for three-and a-half months before lockdown two came. We were so proud of what we had achieved during that time and feeling confident for the future. Even the new lockdown did not worry us too much – better to be shut for a month and then be able to open in December and take enough money to get through the long hard winter.

Despite being closed due the El Greco Greek restaurant in Stratford has created a festive display at Christmas. Photo: Mark Williamson E22/12/20/9448. (43541332)
Despite being closed due the El Greco Greek restaurant in Stratford has created a festive display at Christmas. Photo: Mark Williamson E22/12/20/9448. (43541332)

Then came the killer blow – not being allowed to reopen in December. By the time we reopen in May we will have been shut for six-and a-half months, almost double that of the first lockdown.

And the government support during this time has been just a fraction of then.

Furlough has enabled us to keep the team together, but all other government grants combined only cover a quarter of our monthly fixed costs this time round.

With the support of family, friends, staff and customers, we have vowed to keep going – without it we might have given up by now – but to give up what we have spent ten years of our lives building just seems wrong and we know it is not just about us, it is about the 20 people we employ, the families they support and the community we serve.

We are determined to reopen in May and rebuild the business, but it is going to be hard. We are not a chain with the support of head offices – it is just us, and we are exhausted and battered and bruised after the last year... but we will not give up.

Although this is our story, it is also the story of so many businesses over the last year

and we salute you all and wish you the best for the coming weeks and months.

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