"This is going to be fine" - How two sisters kept their cool in the pandemic to run a Mac and Cheese restaurant in Sheffield
As the city centre felt like it was finally waking up this week, two Sheffield sisters started to dream again.
Hatty Morris and Emily Webster thought they were in dreamland in February 2020 after opening Macpot, the city centre’s first Mac and Cheese kitchen, on the terrace in Orchard Square.
Their funky place, previously occupied by Starbucks, was what they had always wanted after changing careers to focus on food.
They started with a private party and had three weeks of good trade. But the sisters had a rude awakening as the pandemic gripped and lockdown forced restaurants to close.
At first, the former Sheffield High School girls admit they were naive. Hatty, aged 31, says: “We sat here and drank quite a lot of wine.”
Emily, 28, adds: “Part of me was sad, but I thought we’ll be open in a couple of weeks, not appreciating the sheer scale of what was about to happen.”
As it became clear lockdown was going to last, the sisters, who grew up in Broomhill, Sheffield, struggled with getting furlough payments and Covid recovery grants.
The building had no business rating, which meant no grant, and getting one proved trying.
Emily says: “Being naive helped. I kept thinking this is going to be fine, just keep your heads down and we’ll get through. Furlough gave us hope, but we had to really fight to get it.”
They tried a takeaway service. Deliveroo turned them down, Uber Eats said yes.
“We spent a month waiting for orders, but with the shutters down on Orchard Square, the drivers couldn’t find us,” says Emily.
So they went back home to their kitchens and took orders via Facebook, using Hatty’s Renault Scenic to deliver the goods. It worked as Emily and Hatty took enough money to cover the rent on Macpot.
Then came the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. Hatty says: “We opened for that and it was okay.
“August was great, September okay, October dismal. When the tier system came in it was too complicated, the weather was rubbish and it was dark.”
November brought a second lockdown and the sisters tried the online route with a Macpot meal kit - pasta, fresh cheese sauce, toppings and sprinkles.
They took any orders, including one from Milton Keynes, but couriers proved a problem and packing the food so it stayed fresh was a challenge.
A nice idea then, but it made no money. So when the roadmap out of lockdown was announced this year, they breathed a sigh of relief.
Emily says: “We knew we had to change. Originally the place was for city centre workers, but they’re not coming back anytime soon.
“The night-time trade seemed more profitable, so we spent time decking the place out, adding a bar to create an evening atmosphere.”
The terrace opened last month, complete with heaters and parasols. It has hosted live music and a wedding for 15.
Customers finally got inside Macpot on Thursday. Inside, it can seat 30 socially distanced, 60 when not, and it opens Thursday-Sunday.
The sisters don’t cook anymore. “We needed a professional chef to elevate the menu for the market we are aiming at,” says Hatty.
They don’t eat as much Mac as they used to either, the motto being don’t mix work and pleasure.
But they hope they can attract office parties and weddings.
Investment in Orchard Square, such as Sheffield Plate which has taken two units to offer five types of street food, should help.
So what have they learnt from lockdown?
Hatty says: “Be flexible, don’t have set ideas on how things are going to go.” She should know, when we meet she is nine months pregnant and on her due day.
“Don’t beat yourself up for failing. We’ve changed what we have done here so many times, we didn’t get it wrong, we just didn’t know. I still feel like we’ve been running a business even though it hasn’t been open.”
It is small businesses like Macpot which may hold the key for Sheffield city centre as the big names like John Lewis and Debenhams go.
Emily is optimistic. “Sheffield is changing daily. Every time I drive in the centre one street is closed, another is open again.
“The Heart of the City project is on-going and looks really promising. We’ve a lot of hope.
“It is a little bleak at the moment, but I feel the tipping point is about to happen in a year or so.
“Big chain stores are nice, but they are now available for entrepreneurs to come in and take over.”
Since reopening they’ve received good support, getting 30 5-star ratings online. It marks a difference from 2020. “The place was sparse, cheap and cheerful, it looked like a classroom,” says Hatty.
“People didn’t know there was food in Orchard Square, but we got repeat customers, it was like Plusnet’s canteen!”
It has been quite a journey for both women, who found themselves in their 20s in careers they didn’t like. They wanted to change.
Emily, who lives in Sharrowvale, was in corporate hospitality. “I went into admin and didn’t particularly like it, sitting at a desk, not customer facing.
“That’s when I had the idea of running a gin van while driving to Bakewell. I knew I couldn’t do it by myself and that my sister wasn’t loving life so I pulled her in.”
Hatty, who lives in Broomhill, was in communications at Sheffield University after a PR job in London. “I didn’t take to the change in pace, the way a big organisation runs. I was happier in a start-up.
“That was when Emily called. My husband said gin vans have been done, try something else. What about Mac and Cheese?”
The sisters started a mobile business called Fizz and Fromage, stuffing Masie the Scenic with as much equipment as possible before heading out to markets in Sharrowvale and Nether Edge, events at Don Valley Bowl and festivals such as Tramlines.
Maisie served them well again as they said yes to every offer of an event.
“We’d not worked in food and thought it would be competitive, like the ice cream van wars, but there was none of that,” says Hatty.
“There’s great camaraderie, if your gazebo lifts up in the wind, everyone runs to help.
Emily adds: “We’ve made lifelong connections through street food.”
They did the events while still working full time but both sisters wanted to focus fully on food and started talking to people at Orchard Square.
“We’d had enough of the mobile life,” says Hatty.
“We wanted running water, refrigeration, electricity. We wanted to give up our jobs for a career and the only way we could do it was with a physical place.
“We wanted to be doing something for ourselves that would be fulfilling, fun, challenging, that gave us satisfaction,” says Hatty.
“We’ve always been friends but this has brought us so much closer. We care about different things sometimes and spark against each other of course but we agree about more than we don’t and both want this to succeed so much it’s easy to get on the same page.”