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Cafes down but not out as local businesses find new ways to reach their customers

Martin McAuley at The Pier.
Martin McAuley at The Pier.

Since being told to close their doors just before the lockdown was legally enforced on March 23, cafes across Scotland have found themselves having to adapt to these unprecedented times.

Among them is Martin McAuley, director of Watermelon Catering in Aberdeen, which operates five eateries within the city (The Pier, Forest Cafe, the Corner Tree Cafe, the Bridge House Cafe, and Cafe Ahoy) said he too felt it was important to carry on in the crisis.

He added: “As we operate five venues, we felt it was important to try and bring the best of what we do, and carry on providing that in some form.

“Our Corner Tree Afternoon Teas and The Pier Big Cheese Boxes have been a nice treat for our customers during lockdown. So many of our customers are purchasing these as gifts for loved ones who are in isolation or can’t get out of the house, which is so heartwarming to see.

“Whilst producing these from Cafe Ahoy, as we have space to social distance there, we are also providing daily treats via Deliveroo in the way of all-day brunch, coffees etc.

“We feel it is really important to keep providing this kind of service as something positive during what has been a really tough time for everyone.

“The biggest thing I have noticed is that people really have the need for a treat to brighten things up a bit.

“Often things like Afternoon Tea are for a special occasion, which alot of our bookings are, but a lot of orders are just for a little treat. People are really trying to focus on the positives and have things to look forward to, and in turn, are also treating those who are close to them as well as themselves.”

Meanwhile, AliBob Cafe, based in the Perthshire town of Errol, is another businesses adapting to the lockdown. Husband and wife co-owners Bob and Ali Abercrombie have found themselves taking on a whole new task – delivering groceries and much-needed essentials to their rural community.

Chef Keanu Clark sorts bags of treats for the kids in the family box.

Ali said: “The rural nature of our community means it’s just not possible for folk to pop out to the nearest shops and there quickly became a desperate need for fresh fruit and veg.

“We got in touch with Les Turriff in Dundee and Tower Bakery in Perth and offered to supply their products alongside our own to make a ‘one-stop-shop’ solution for our customers through our delivery drops.

“Before the closures we had just started to offer Wild Hearth Bakery produce from Comrie so we added them too and are starting to collaborate with more small producers so we can support each other when we need it most.

Healthy options in this box for a family delivery.

“We posted the options on Facebook and within 24 hours we had more than 200 orders. We were still delivering veg boxes at 10pm on the first day and the deliveries had to be spread over two full days through the initial backlog.

“We compiled a list of basic essentials that we could add on to the veg boxes and then topped it off with the bit we knew best – cake. We can now deliver our AliBob produce to people’s homes and along with the essentials like bread, flour, eggs and milk, we can give people access to treats and sweet things that cheer them up and provide some happiness at a time when it’s needed more than ever.”

From left: Bob Abercrombie, Ali Abercrombie, Keanu Clark (Chef), Abigail Burns (Baker) and Volunteer Delivery Driver Ian McKeen.

As the weeks in lockdown have passed and the initial panic over food availability subsided, Ali has noticed a welcome movement towards supporting local businesses which has encouraged more small firms to start operating again.

She explained: “We have seen a recent increase in other businesses starting to offer takeaway and home deliveries after initially shutting their doors. As the lockdown continues the larger corporate supermarkets have more time to adapt, but our whole ethos for the original café was sustainable, local and seasonal and we have been amazed at the number of customers who have really embraced what we are doing and order every week when our menu options change.

“We’re not only delivering a food service, we are also knocking on doors and checking that people are doing okay. Some of the homes we are delivering to are off the beaten path and they might not have seen another living soul for days.”

Customers of the cafe, Coral and Ian Bell, who live in Errol, said they don’t know what they would have done without the support of the local business.

Ian and Coral Bell receiving their delivery.

Coral said: “We’re almost at, but not quite, the over-70s group so we were looking at moving ourselves onto online deliveries for our shopping, or even click and collect, but we just couldn’t get any slots.

“Then all of a sudden we got this offer from AliBob’s. They’re just up the road from us and this seemed to solve so much of what we were looking for, which was a regular, home-delivered supply of vegetables and other things.

“It’s a win-win for everybody as it means AliBob’s is likely to survive beyond the lockdown, but also the suppliers they have teamed with”.