Why office workers need to support our independent shops - Ismail Mulla

In the process of putting together last weekend’s special report on the impact of home working on companies, workers and the region’s economy, I got to do what I enjoy the most – meet small businesses.

Monday, 17th August 2020, 4:45 pm

However, when small firms such as La Bottega Milanese coffee shop in Leeds laid out their predicament – once bustling establishments serving office districts that have been left marooned by the switch to home working – I could not help but feel a deep sense of sadness.

It’s a difficult situation. On the one hand, the majority of businesses have made a successful switch to working from home. But that comes with consequences and one of those is that workers are no longer frequenting coffee shops, bars and restaurants.

In the middle of a global pandemic, it’s entirely understandable that firms won’t take unnecessary risks by hastening a return of staff to offices.

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Independent businesses that served bustling office districts like La Bottega Milanese in Leeds need support now more than ever.

As I left my meeting with Alex Galantino, owner of La Bottega, I couldn’t help reflect on the impact that the pandemic has had on my own work patterns and behaviours.

Like many others, we have also made a seamless transition to home working. I’m more productive now than I was when I would traipse into the newsroom as I no longer have to waste time on a commute.

Not to mention the cost savings on the aforementioned dreaded commute.

But all of this is coming at a cost. It’s at the cost of the businesses that serve people like me on the way into work.

Ryan Fraser, owner of Mad Frans, says they have even contemplated whether they reopen the restaurant and bar.

I’ll usually pick up a coffee on the way in to work. At lunchtime I’ll venture out for a sandwich.

There was a huge outpouring of love for independent businesses in the initial days of lockdown. It became vogue to profess our love for small firms and how we really care about them.

Yet as Mr Galantino rightly points out, when lockdown was lifted, the likes of Starbucks and McDonald’s were greeted with massive queues. Independents were not.

He said: “McDonald’s, Subway and Pret will still be here next year. I can guarantee you this. I can also guarantee you that if people don’t support us, we will not be here. Independents won’t be here, so make a choice.

Lots of people have shown support on social media but that support now needs to be backed up with action.

“It was very good when people were showing support on social media, when it was very fashionable and on trend to talk about supporting independents, yet when these places open we have two-kilometre queues at Starbucks. We didn’t have two kilometre-queues here.

“So it’s a case of following up words with actions but at the same time I’m not saying you should come and support me because I’m independent. What I’m saying is that you either mean it or you don’t.

“If you want to live in a homogenous world where everything is part of big chains then you are on the right track for it. Those businesses are going to be here next year.”

On the flipside, early indicators show that hospitality firms are doing well in the suburbs as people venture out for lunch breaks from home and choose to shop on their doorstep.

No one knows what’s going to happen for certain in the future. While it looks increasingly likely that businesses will most probably head to a hybrid model of home and office working, wouldn’t it be a shame if our once vibrant businesses districts were hollowed out? If the diversity from already struggling high streets was stripped out. In the interim, the onus is on all of us to ensure that there isn’t a hollowing out, which remains a very real risk as the country grapples with this pandemic.

Ryan Fraser, owner of Mad Frans bar and restaurant, says that they’re only able to open at the weekends because for the rest of the week Wellington Place, where they are based, is eerily quiet.

If the situation stays as it is, the restaurant will have to start considering its future by November.

So what can we do? Many of these establishments have added an online element, where they can be supported. If you’re comfortable and healthy enough to venture out, it might be worth considering paying these businesses a visit.

It’s time for us to put our money where our mouths are to really support small businesses.