For Arch Company tenant Steven Novak, the pandemic has been a roller coaster unequalled during his time in business. As someone who previously saw a business fail, he never wanted to be in the same position again – but the risk this time was totally different. He said: “When it happened before, I blamed myself, asked myself ‘did I work hard enough? Was there something more I could have done?’ This year everyone else I knew who had a business was in exactly the same state as I was. And there was some comfort in that.”
Having built his business up over 20 years, Steven has a total of five bars and restaurants, two of them in railway arches – Cattle Grid, Jubilee Arch in Windsor and The Charlotte, Union Street, in Southwark. He was pleased to be offered a rent holiday on both properties during lockdown.
Steven said: “The Arch Company were absolutely superb, better than any landlord I had. It was a godsend really. We have Sports Days in our bars, and it was during the England v Wales rugby game that it dawned on me how this pandemic could impact us. Before that I was thinking ‘this won’t happen to us.’ When the Prime Minister said don’t go to pubs, I thought I was finished. We all thought we were insured for this and then we found out we weren’t! The first couple of days were horrific. I cried my eyes out. I was in pieces.”
Steven jokes that it was spending time at home with his young family that drove him back out to work again. “I did three days at home with my children and thought ‘I can’t do this, I have to get back to work.’ I got trading as soon as I could. You have got to get up and go to work. A lot of people were enjoying furlough, but I just had to keep working.”
The furlough scheme was a huge source of relief. He furloughed his staff, who he says were superb, and worked alone running takeaways so that he earned some income during lockdown. He successfully applied for a government loan that enabled him to continue with a refurbishment that was incomplete when lockdown began.
Steven said: “I worked my ass off. My staff were superb, we have a family spirit. They obviously knew how it affected their jobs but understood that I have put a lifetime into this. I just kept working, refurbished one pub, sanded floors, got a loan. When you are building a new venue, you’re on the wire money wise, I needed cash flow. There was comfort in that everyone else in hospitality was the same and thinking someone will have to do something because everyone was in trouble. I have a good business, but it has to be a great business to get through this because all credit lines have gone, all the wholesalers want cash on delivery, you needed to have dough to come out of it and a lot of people don’t.”
Steve’s businesses reopened on July 4 and he immediately saw key differences in outcome for his two Arch Company businesses. “We’ve lost a few covers, but most of my venues are quite big. The one metre rule was essential, especially in London because you need a volume of customers, so that hasn’t taken many covers out, but I have got to have extra staff because there’s no bar service and I need a maître d’ at the door.
“In Windsor we are the only restaurant left, our competition – Café Rouge, Bella Italia, Carluccios – they have all gone bust, so that has helped me out. But for The Charlotte, it is still a bit weird. Southwark is like a ghost town there and I expect that to stay flat until January.”
Arch 31-32, Windsor Royal Shopping Centre Jubilee Arch, Windsor
204 Union St, London