A year of pandemic – how has Chiswick fared?

Image above: Bell & Crown pub, closed spring 2020; photograph Joanna Raikes

It’s a year since Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock announced in Parliament that “all unnecessary social contact should cease”. He made that announcement on 16 March 2020 and a week later Boris Johnson told the country that people “must” stay at home and that certain businesses must close.

The Chiswick Calendar has been talking to people in Chiswick about how their year has been. For some who have lost loved ones it has been a year of tragedy. For some it has been financially disastrous. For others it’s just been a boring and depressing time. But people have made the best of it and adapted and are now just hoping that the end of this lockdown is truly irreversible, as the Prime Minister has said he is determined it should be. Most of us can’t wait to get out there and meet people and do things again. Young people in particular want to get on with their lives.

Oliver Peyton: Owner, funeral directors Exit Here 

Funeral directors have “borne the brunt” of people’s emotions

We’ve had 55 Covid-19 deaths in Chiswick, up to the end of January, according to the Office of National Statistics. For most of us, fortunately, that means that someone you know knows someone who has died, perhaps not even that. For most of us the statistics aren’t personal.

Coping with death is never easy. Oliver Peyton, best known as a successful chef with a string of restaurants to his name, opened funeral directors Exit Here on Chiswick High Rd in November 2019, hoping to make the experience better. He was planning to offer a different type of send off – a personally customised celebration of life, planned by the person who’s died years in advance, leaving none of the stress to the recently bereaved; a revolution in options for funerial style.

Instead he’s found himself catering for recently bereaved people who have been even more distressed and burdened than they would normally be and he has been able to offer them none of the social celebratory events he’d been planning.

People who have lost friends and relatives over this past year have had to cope with their loved ones going into hospital and not being able to be with them when they died to say goodbye. Then they’ve had to make decisions about who could come to the funeral, adding extra painful conversations to an already emotionally fraught time. For a period it was only ten people who could go to a funeral. Currently it’s 30.

“At the beginning we had funerals booked for 500 or so which had to be cut down to ten and people had flown in for the funeral from all over the world. They got here to discover that not only could they not go to the funeral but that they couldn’t get home again”.

He says what has made the pandemic so difficult for funeral directors is that they have borne the brunt of people’s emotions. That’s what their job is, I point out, but he says Covid has made the process much more difficult because people have had to make more difficult decisions about who was going to attend the funeral and how it should be carried out.

“The personal relationship is so much more intense because it’s so much more difficult”.

Exit Here decided early on that they would do viewings so people had at least some chance for a final goodbye.

“That was a big thing for us. Other funeral directors weren’t doing that”.

They also had to learn a new set of skills, like so many people, and get to grips with livestreaming funerals. This is one occasion where you really can’t have someone saying “turn the vicar’s mic on, we can’t hear him”. Or “I’m getting feedback”.

About 30% of the deaths they’ve handled this past year have been Covid deaths, Oliver estimates, though most of the deceased have been at the end of life or very overweight, so overall they have handled 10 – 15% more funerals than anticipated.

He’s finding now that they are getting many more enquiries about catering for wakes and people are booking memorial services to give their loved ones the send off they’d like to have given them last year.

He thinks that now the clergy are comfortable with livestreaming from churches, the live streamed element of funerals will continue. He’s also detects a much stronger sense of community as a result of the past year’s pain.

“People are pulling together and want to help each other and we’re all valuing our lives more now on a daily basis”.

Images above: Chiswick High Rd; photograph Joanna Raikes

Not as many empty premises as we feared

I’ve spent days crying and wake up in the middle of the night with panic attacks

I’ve taken out a business loan and a personal loan and I’m just praying that when we open again we will stay open

Two comments from restaurateurs The Chiswick Calendar has spoken to.

There have not been as many losses of businesses in Chiswick High Rd, Devonshire Rd and Turnham Green Terrace as perhaps we might have expected. In fact there has been much greater turn over and more gaps in the High Rd in previous years and Jeremy Day, Commercial Director of Whitman & Co, says prospects are good, with hardly any gaps currently in the High Rd.

We have lost L’Appetit Fou from the Terrace. The artisan bakery Fortitude, which opened last summer with great hopes of doing better business in the suburbs than in central London, closed after a short term tenancy, as did Bread Ahead on the High Rd. Both were ‘pop-ups’, hoping to take advantage of the much vaunted ’15 minute economy’, with people working at home and shopping locally. But the amount of trade they were able to do has not been sufficient to promote them from pop-ups to permanent fixtures.

Hush Hush on Chiswick High Rd is also a pop-up. Their in-house freshly prepared salads, filo pastries and coffee have proved popular and they are planning on staying, but they are now having to look for cheaper premises.

Pop-ups have seen us through a year in which nervous landlords preferred to have short term tenants rather than none. The new, incoming businesses that Jeremy Day is currently dealing with are all taking long term lets, he says, which bodes well for the future. But there is no denying it has been a disastrous year for retailers and hospitality businesses.

Images above: One of Chateau’s trademark cakes; Anette Megyaszai, Chateau’s owner

“All I’ve had is bankruptcy notices in my inbox”

Anette Megyaszai runs two businesses. She changed her cafe / restaurant on the corner of Chiswick High Rd and Linden Gardens well before the pandemic, from offering mainly fabulous handmade cakes (as ‘Chateau Dessert’) to offering fabulous handmade cakes, a range of multicoloured salads, all-day breakfasts and Lebanese food in the evenings, (as ‘Chateau’ plain and simple). She is currently offering a Click & Collect service (20% off until the end of November) and will be opening her outside tables on 12 April and opening fully in May.

Her other business, Chateau Dessert, is a wholesale business based in Heston which supplied hotel chains, restaurants and airlines with cakes. She has lost 95% of that business and many of the people she dealt with have gone out of business.

“All I’ve had is bankruptcy notices in my inbox” she says.

Despite this, the wholesale business has not attracted any of the business support that the Chiswick cafe has – she’s still paying rent, utility bills and rates “for a business that’s dead in the water”. This she says is because it is a food wholesaler, but there seems to be no recognition that her client base has gone out of business.

The cafe  was “crazy busy” for the duration of the ‘Eat out to help out’ scheme.

“We had two good months of trade and an OK December before closing again.”

She launched her Click & Collect service in November. For her, the Furlough payments have been ‘a godsend’ and the Business Rates holiday and the Business grants have enabled her to stay afloat. She still has both businesses, but she’s had to survive on savings made from many years of careful planning and building up her businesses and now she feels she has returned to square one.

Image above: Staff at Casa Dino in Devonshire Rd; a Casa Dino dessert

“Year of hell”

Dino Kastrati, who owns Casa Dino in Devonshire Rd, has only been able to open his family run restaurant for two months out of twelve. It has, he says, been a “year of hell” and they are really struggling.

Like Anette, he has benefitted from Business grants, the Furlough scheme and the Business rates holiday, but unike other restaurants he was unable to open in July and August to take advantage of Rishi Sunak’s lifeline for the hospitality trade, as he couldn’t get the ingredients he relies on for his home cooked Italian food – Italian cheeses, pasta flour and tomato sauce. Italy was so badly affected by Covid-19 that the supply chain was severely disrupted. His father in Trieste was severely ill with the virus and his mother in law died from it.

He will be opening his outside tables on 12 April and the whole restaurant in May, if Boris Johnson’s roadmap goes to plan. He says he can’t afford Deliveroo’s 30% commission charge, so he doesn’t do takeaways.

Like Chateau’s food, Dino’s Italian food is fantastic. I look forward to them both opening fully.

Images above: Simon Randall, owner of Headliners Comedy Club; Simon introducing Headliners in the Boston Room at George IV

“I put income ‘0’ in the box on the application form and it wouldn’t accept it”

Headliners Comedy Club, which operates in the Boston Room at George IV on Chiswick High Rd, celebrates its 20th year this year. It’s lucky it’s made it this far. It has only been open for a handful of nights in the past year, and that with a reduced number of tickets on sale, accommodating only people from the same household or bubble at socially distanced tables.

Owner Simon Randall says he has had not a penny of support from the Government as he is a ‘sole trader’ (ie. a freelance) and he doesn’t own or have a tenancy agreement on a premises. Usually he contracts the entertainment room in the back of the pub for Friday and Saturday nights eight months of the year to put on stand up comedy.

“If you fall into a category where you don’t have a high street premises then you’re in trouble” he tells me.

“I don’t know what they’ve got against sole traders, but individuals who work for themselves seem to be completely out of favour and as a sole trader I can’t apply for an Arts Council grant either”.

If he had earned less in previous years, he would have got some support, but in a normal year he earns just over the cut off point of £50,000.

“What defeats me utterly is the logic that says if you earn £30,000 or £40,000 you need help but if you earn £50 – 60,000, as I do, then you can live on nothing”.

What has particularly infuriated him is that he applied for the most recent iteration of business support, wrote ‘0’ for income and was told that the system wouldn’t accept that, it had to be ‘0.00’ to be recognised by the computer. Since he put in that application to LB Hounslow (with the correctly designated ‘0.00’ income) in November he has neard nothing, he says, not even an acknowledgement.

Images above: Headliners Comedy Club line up for the weekend of Friday 21 / Saturday 22 / Sunday 23 May

Mayfest 2021

He has to overcome his sense of humour failure by 21 May, when he will be compering the Headliners Mayfest weekend. On three nights (instead of the usual two) – Friday 21, Saturday 22 and  Sunday 23 May – and for Friday 28, Saturday 29 and Sunday 30, he will be hosting a mini comedy festival before closing for the summer, as he doesn’t have the Boston Room room in June, July and August.

“The response has been amazing” he told The Chiswick Calendar. “I sent out an email to our database of people who have booked before and in 24 hours we sold 200 tickets – over half the tickets available. That’s absolutely incredible”.

People don’t usually book stand up comedy much in advance, he says.

“People are desperate to go out and to get something booked up so that they have something to look forward to”.

The same applies to the comedians.

“Usually it takes about a week to fill the slots (eight per night for the Mayfest) but it was all done in an afternoon. The performers can’t wait to be on stage again”.

He is still waiting to hear from Ealing Council whether the Ealing Comedy festival which he usually runs each hear at the end of July, will be allowed to go ahead.

Club Card discounts

Chateau, Casa Dino and Headliners are all members of The Chiswick Calendar’s Club Card scheme. They all have discounts on offer to Club Card holders, the pandemic notwithstanding.

Chateau – 10% off food at the restaurant (reopening outside tables on 12 April) / 20% off Click & Collect. Online promotional code: Chateau at home 20.

Casa Dino – 10% off food at the restaurant (reopening outside tables on 12 April)

Headliners – Simon is able to offer Chiswick Calendar Club Card holders £10 tickets to anyone who contacts him on the day of a show for returned tickets. Ring 0207 221 4450 or email: info@headlinerscomedy.com

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Exit Here, a new concept in caring for the dead

See also: Anette Megyaszai, owner and founder Chateau Chiswick, profile

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