‘It will kill the city centre’ – Sheffield businesses struggle to cope in wake of Covid crisis
The coronavirus crisis has been tough for many businesses in Sheffield city centre, but perhaps none more so than Zooby’s deli and coffee shop in the Winter Garden.
After trying to keep his 13-year-old business open as long as he could at the beginning of the pandemic in March, owner Richard Young eventually bowed to the inevitable and closed just before lockdown.
The council-owned space is normally a hive of activity, with hundreds of tourists and office workers taking in the beautiful surroundings of one of Sheffield’s best-known buildings every day.
But when the rest of the city emerged from its three-month-long hibernation in June, the Winter Garden stayed shut, and then, two weeks before it was due to open, Zooby’s suffered a flood.
The extra delay meant they couldn’t take part in the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme which brought millions of people back to the city centre in August, leaving Richard even further out of pocket.
“It has been absolutely shocking,” he said.
“It is currently about 70 per cent down on where it normally is. Where we are doesn’t help as all the theatres and the library are still closed. And the snooker is a massive thing for us as well.”
As well as a reduction in footfall, the extra costs associated with coronavirus are also mounting up, with screens, masks, visors and social distancing all eating into what meager profits they are making.
“The council have been really good at letting us use the walkways but we are still four tables and 10 chairs down,” said Richard.
“And the grants and bounce back loans from the Government have been good as well - but I’ve still had to get rid of six of my staff.
“I am hoping we will be okay. I had a Zoom meeting with the accountant and she is going to see if we are making enough to weather the storm.”
City centre newsagents, phone shops, mobile coffee stalls and gift shops all reported similar tales of woe.
Julie Essom at GT News on Surrey Street said they had tried to open three times since June, each time giving up due to lack of custom.
And Taylor Garwood at the Motore Cafe on Howard Street said the recent influx of students to the city had helped them a bit, but that last week’s Government announcement on home working had hit trade yet again.
Up on Division Street, The Alternative Store would normally be welcoming as many of those new students through the doors as they could, but not this year.
Owner Stuart McAdie has been trading in the area for more than 25 years, and in that time has seen boom and bust in equal measure, but nothing that even comes close to the scale of coronavirus.
Like Richard Young, he is ‘really appreciative’ of the help the Government has provided, but urged policymakers to provide longer term support for business or face many going to the wall.
“I got the support grant but I am still having to pay high rents and rates because I am on Division Street,” he said.
“If we can lower the costs of running shops then that might be able to help more survive on lower footfall. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme actually brought a lot of out of towners here and they were all saying we don’t have things like this in our town. Sheffield needs its independent shops.”
It is not students but a lack of office workers which is hurting businesses on Church Street, where two takeways have seen trade badly hit after companies such as Plusnet on Pinfold Street moved to home working during the pandemic and have not yet returned to normal.
Burritos Y Mas near Orchard Square has been open for just over a year, but in that time owner Hector Hernandez, of South Anston, has built up a successful small business serving Sheffield’s city centre workforce.
They re-opened in June, and like other businesses have taken advantage of a Government grant to stay afloat, but say this can only go on for so long.
“The last four weeks before lockdown was the best month we had and then Covid came,” said Hector, who is originally from Colombia.
“Since we reopened we have been running at about 60 per cent of our normal trade, maybe even 80 per cent in the last few weeks.
“But business depends on cash flow. If there is another lockdown and no more support from the Government, then a lot businesses will close.”
But while Burritos Y Mas is recovering fairly well, Deli-Shuss a few yards up the road is still struggling.
They tried to open in July only to give up after a week as it just ‘wasn’t worth it’, and have been trading at about a third of their normal level since they opened up again in early September.
“It is just about enough to cover the lease for this place,” said owner, Vaughan Steel.
“We were doing really well before coronavirus but at the moment all we can do is batten down the hatches and hope for the best.
“I wish we had taken out a bigger loan from the Government but I never thought it would last this long.”
Vaughan said other sandwich shops in the area such as Grace and Flavour had already closed for good and he knew that QC’s Bagel Bar next door was thinking of doing the same.
And he worried that far from being ‘over by Christmas’, the changes brought about by the pandemic could well herald a more permanent shift in working habits.
“Places like Plusnet bought all their staff computers during lockdown so it is not going to come back any time soon,” he said.
“That’s what has killed us and it is going to kill the city centre.”