A row has erupted over whether a Forres business is either a cafe or a shop with the result potentially deciding whether it can remain open in the latest coronavirus lockdown.
High Street restaurant The Peppermill has been operating solely as a takeaway in the latest phase of the pandemic to comply with Covid rules.
To boost trade during the downturn, the eatery also started selling produce including bread, milk and jams, which proved popular with customers.
In recent months the premises has been operating as a shop to allow people to browse the new ranges while continuing to serve food.
Is it a Forres cafe selling shop goods, or a shop with a cafe?
Owner Sophie Rooke, who runs the operation with business partner Peter Stahly, insists they have complied with all coronavirus rules with hand sanitiser, spaces marked for distancing and a one-way system.
However, Moray Council has argued the Forres premises has planning permission to be a cafe instead of a shop so must comply with the coronavirus rules to serve from the door.
We noticed other businesses were letting people inside for takeaway food – so we started to do that too.”
Sophie Rooke, owner The Peppermill
The local authority says it has noticed compliance with coronavirus regulations “deteriorating” among the public in recent weeks with the region currently the ninth-most infected part of Scotland after being among the lowest last year.
Mrs Rooke said: “We tried serving customers from the door and we only got 10 customers a day – that doesn’t pay the bills.
“We took the really awful decision to close again, which left us with no income. We haven’t had any support since December. How are we supposed to pay bills or put food on the table?
“We had started selling bread and milk and things, and we noticed other businesses nearby which sold similar items were also letting people inside for takeaway food – so we started to do that too.
“Right enough, we got busier once we let people inside, but we still had big areas set aside for distancing.
“And then environmental health came along last week and tried to close us down, I was mortified. I asked ‘How do I become a shop?’ to get that bit of paper and just got told they couldn’t tell me.
“I’ve seen families walk past our front door with hot pies they’ve bought from inside a different business. What’s the difference?”
Moray Council has denied officials told The Peppermill to cease trading, instead explaining they instructed them how to comply with the law.
A spokeswoman added: “If the business chooses to decide they cannot comply with the current restrictions, this is their decision.”
‘Customers feel safer from coronavirus in Forres business than in supermarkets’
Mrs Rooke has also argued that it is safer to allow customers inside the building instead of asking them to wait on the street.
She added: “Inside, I’ve got about a third of the restaurant set aside for me and the rest is for the customers.
“I’ve had customers tell me that they feel safer here than they do in the local supermarkets.
“In the doorway, I’m in a confined space with only about a metre of room.”
Rules requiring takeaways to serve from the doorway are currently expected to be lifted on April 26.
Moray Council says it noticed the “clear breach” of current health requirements during a routine visit to The Peppermill.
A spokeswoman said: “It describes itself as a café and has planning permission as a restaurant and not a retail store.
“Restaurants currently operating as a takeaway can hand food out at the door, as others have been doing since Christmas when this restriction came into force.
“People who order should be given a time to collect their goods, they are not to queue up and wait for placing an order or collecting an order.
“The issue we’re guarding against is the significant risk of Covid-19 transmission, which is a concern whether people have been vaccinated or not.
“Moray is currently the ninth most infected area from Covid-19 within Scotland and, from our observations, compliance by the public is deteriorating.
“The majority of businesses, however, have shown a high level of compliance and we thank them for doing so.”