With restrictions lifted, how are restaurants able to cope with the pace of change? We spoke to three different founders as part of a three-part Q&A series about their businesses to understand how the pace of opening has affected them, and what they think the future holds for the hospitality industry. See previous instalments here.
The week before national lockdown Mandy Yin, owner of the popular Malaysian restaurant Sambal Shiok in Holloway, opened a takeaway concept, Nasi Economy Rice, to enable those working nearby to get accessible, flavourful lunch dishes. Of course, with the arrival COVID-19, Yin has since adapted her offering, and each careful change has occurred in response to her loyal regulars, and the health and safety of her team and family. On social media, Yin has been transparent about the rollercoaster the industry has gone through with the pandemic, Brexit, landlord negotiations, and the lack of support from the government. Yin has been cited as a voice and leader of the industry; many wish she would be listened to more.
We caught up with Yin a few days after the relaxation of all restrictions, as she recounts the emotional toll of trying to keep Sambal Shiok open, observing the first flickers of pre-Covid dining, and her new Sambal To Go and catering businesses.
What have been the shifts for your business in the last year?
We have developed a delivery and takeaway offering, which is something we were not able to offer previously. So, from June 2020 to May 2021 we had delivery through Uber Eats, Deliveroo and Slerp, and online meal kits and jarred sauces through Pezu. Our regular customers were really thankful that we could offer this, and it was in high demand.
I am always trying to look at the positives, and we had a lot of interest in delivery, but it wasn’t something we could offer in the space – and run a restaurant. So, this year has allowed us to be able to create that offering.
It has all been a big shift though. Last year, 90% of income was from delivery and now it is 80% from in-house dining. That is a massive change of business style.
Now that you have opened the restaurant, you have been able to keep the laksa delivery and takeaway option – but that has meant not running your Nasi brand. Has it been sad to let go of that concept?
Yes and no. Sometimes you have to cut your losses – it’s not failure, it’s the nature of business. You have to follow the numbers and Sambal Shiok was the strongest brand. We have kept some of the dishes developed for Nasi though – curry puffs, rice dishes and the tomato sambal are very popular.
So now, it is Sambal To Go. That space was always going to be a production-style kitchen with the hope of being able to pump out dishes to other sites as we grow and expand. And those plans can still happen – we will continue to plan for the future!
At the moment, on our best weeks we are doing about 70% – 80% of what we were doing pre-Covid, which I think is pretty good. It has been hugely helpful to have the outdoor space as we have lost 50% of capacity indoor – 40 covers down to 20 – and I plan to keep that spacing for the foreseeable future, as well as our staff being masked. We haven’t officially heard from the Islington Council, but there has been talk of this pavement dining being a longer term offering.
Before, the cost of having a license to have outside space cost about £1,500, and now they have a pavement license for £100 – it wasn’t something I could have applied for previously. And if things continue as they are, then having this outside space for a long period of time will allow us to slowly make up for the lost revenue during the last 18 months.
“At Christmas, I almost had a breakdown. The stress of dealing with the landlord was almost too much.”
We have also launched a catering arm of Sambal Shiok because we have the capability; there is no shortage of new ways to take the business!
How has the emotional toll been on you?
At Christmas, I almost had a breakdown. The stress of dealing with the landlord for the site that is now Sambal To Go was almost too much [read here for full details]. They were so unhelpful in trying to find a way forward. But credit where credit is due – the grants in the new year came through very fast via Islington Council and allowed me to clear all the back dated rent and I am now able to pay each quarter in advance, and being able to push hard on the indoor dining means we can plan for the future. I am hoping for the best.
How has this period affected staff?
Some of my core team didn’t come back – a couple left the industry entirely and one who has been with us from the beginning left for new things – which is all very normal. So, I have been aggressively hiring the last few months. Because of this we have been running everything from one kitchen – the Sambal To Go space – so that we can do training, and manage everything together. We are almost at the point where we can split the kitchen – run the in-house dining from Sambal Shiok and the takeaway offering at Sambal To Go – but I am not in a rush. Let’s see how the current situation [of relaxing restrictions] goes.
I try to be transparent with my staff with sales and future planning, so that we all know what to expect. I’ve said that if they think now is busy, wait until autumn, which is really the laksa season! And I have my book coming out in October, which will hopefully bring in bookings. I feel like the morale is positive and high, much better than three months ago. The team feels stable.
How do you plan for the future, in times like now where everything still feels changeable?
I do think ‘I’ll deal with that when it happens’ when thinking about the future. But, I need to crack on with my life, and that includes making decisions on my personal life as well as business. I hope that we have seen the last of the constant changes and it is such a relief to see our regular guests coming back. We have seen a number of first timers, so that means that people are starting to travel again, which is so nice!
You have to be hopeful, and we can’t give that up. I try really hard not to read the news and just try to look after my little lot. I am excited about the future.
- Through the Pandemic, Restaurants Have Supported Others. They Deserve the Same Support in Return
- Celebrating the Labour of Asian Women
- The Resy Guide to London’s Chinese Restaurants, By Those Who Know Them Best
- Running a Restaurant In a Pandemic Is Hard Enough. How Do You Manage Ten?
- London’s Restaurants Have Reopened Again. So, What’s Different This Time?