When the government introduced lockdown measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 last year, those not shielding would queue up for their weekly groceries, but were often faced with long queues and delivery slots were like gold dust, booked up for weeks. With restrictions in place and office workers staying at home, we saw a shift in people shopping locally and the change in consumer behaviour is here to stay.
As the world ground to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic, Sophie Taylor, single mother and owner of The Deli Downstairs in Hackney, East London, kept going. Ensuring locals were fed and watered – sometimes even clothed. Stocking everything locals needed for their lockdown larders such as bread, coffee, cheese, pasta and more.
“A customer with a baby needed nappies after the website of their usual supplier was going bonkers and were unable to get anything for weeks, so I ordered some in. We started to introduce more organic and seasonal produce when locals wanted fresh fruit and vegetables in an emergency. Surprisingly, Soda Stream canisters have been one of our best-selling items,” Taylor tells HuffPost in an interview. “We were quick to react by getting specific products that people requested. As things started to settle down, we established what we needed to stock and extended our range in order for people to use us as a one-stop-shop.”
Aside from stepping up to the plate, Taylor prided herself in that her business was a sanctuary for many during troubled times. “Shopping for essentials became an anxiety-inducing and aggressive experience during the first lockdown,” Taylor explains. “We offered a relaxed environment where customers saw a smiling masked face behind the counter, people could recognise someone familiar and we offered them reassurance. There was no rushing or freaking out if someone had touched something. People came in for light relief and we were very flattered when customers told us we were the highlight of their day.”
Prior to this, Taylor worked full time as managing director of the artisan bakery, The Flour Station. Since taking over the reins of an already well-established family-run food shop in August 2019, this has been a major learning curve for Taylor and her rotating part-time staff of 22 – who work in three to four short shifts a week. What’s more, as a single mum, Sophie needed greater flexible working hours to accommodate her son’s school schedule and took the plunge to be her own boss.
“When the deli was up for sale I jumped at the chance to take over,” she explains. “Luckily, I qualify as a key worker – although I definitely don’t consider myself one – this meant that my son’s still allowed to go to school. Without that, I don’t think I would be able to run the business and look after my kid. Honestly, doing what I do now is a heck of a lot easier than homeschooling.”
Being a new owner still trying to find her feet, taking stock of her venture and juggling childcare during a pandemic has been a challenge, but with Square it’s made the process a whole lot smoother.
“I can stand in the queue at the school pick-up and I’m adding inventory. As I’m walking out of the shop I can see a delivery come in, walking to school I’ll be putting items on the till and by the time I get back they are on the shelf already. For me in my phase of life, with young children and always on the go, the fact that I can do everything from my mobile phone is just incredible,” she explains. “We were rapidly uploading stock onto Square, once we’d done that it was very simple to convert to Square online. In order to serve people really quickly, we went from one till to now three. We’ve got the new Square Register and Square Reader. The mobile Square payments have been really helpful for those taking payments in the queue and by the door. The contactless pay means that we’re able to keep a bit of distance between the staff and the customers as well.”
We’ve still got a massive box downstairs of old credit card equipment, which is still in contract,” Taylor sighs. “The previous owners are still paying for it because they can’t get out of the contract. Moving to Square was so much better for the business – the lack of being tied into a contract makes it not so scary to commit.”
During lockdown, The Deli downstairs began a delivery order service for the first time as well as introducing a new website and seamless payment methods to provide a more accessible shopping experience for all.
Being nimble and attentive, meant Taylor could navigate through the cycle of on and off lockdowns easier and faster than most major supermarkets. She looked to Pasta Next Door, the pop-up restaurant adjacent to the Deli which had been used as a temporary overflow stock room for a good part of the year. “It’s near impossible to know what is going to happen one day to the next right now so I decided to make the restaurant into a more flexible space that could morph into whatever was needed in the here and now,” she explains. “Hopefully, we can bring back the cafe and restaurant one day.”
Besides being able to stay open and keep providing a service for her community. Taylor’s also mindful of the locals living there, wary of attracting crowds drinking coffee and contributing to the rising problem of waste around the area.
“Being located next to Victoria Park in the popular village, the amount of waste and rubbish these lockdowns have generated and left behind in our sacred green spaces is terrible,” Taylor says. “On the weekends, the village gets really crowded with people coming in to go to the park. At the start of this year, we stopped doing takeaway coffees in disposable cups, but still which is a huge blow to sales, but it’s important to look after the environment. Locals know to bring a reusable cup and we sell keep cups too, but this means we’re doing our bit and it’s something I’m proud of.”
That’s not the only changes The Deli Downstairs have made in the short amount of time they’ve been opened. With more people working from home and an evenly spread out trade throughout the week, this means they’re able to improve customer service.
“People can do their shopping at three o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon now and I’m able to serve people better,” she explains “The limited number of customers allowed in the shop at a time means I can be more attentive and ensure safety for everyone.”
Taylor credits a lot of her success to her local community in Victoria Park, her hard-working staff and the customers who have made her Deli a staple. “It’s cliche, but it really is down to the rapport between us and the customers,” she praises. “They’re choosing to shop with us when they could so easily shop elsewhere. Customers keep coming back to us and I’m very honoured.”