WITH the Covid-19 pandemic shaking up the hospitality industry in a big way, forcing closures due to lockdown measures and reducing footfall in the town centres, local cafés have witnessed huge change over the past six months.
For some of Ballymena’s most loved coffee shops, these times have presented both challenges and opportunities, but one thing they have in common is they are all glad to have survived and be back serving their customers.
Take Follow Coffee in the town centre. It had been open for less than three weeks before it was forced to close due to lockdown.
However, having put her life savings into the business, owner Lesley McCaughan took an innovative approach to ensure hers would not be a story of failure, but one of success.
Using a horse cart as a takeaway coffee service, Lesley was able to grow her customer base over the lockdown period and has exciting plans for the future.
“Being such a new business, we definitely would not have survived had we not used the horse cart and it worked out really well for us in terms of getting our name out there. It was an excellent way to become a part of the town centre community so quickly as we came across so many friendly faces,” Lesley explained.
These sentiments are echoed by husband and wife team Jonny and Emma Hickinson, owners of Middletown Coffee Co., another popular coffee spot in the town, who have thanked their customers for their bolstering support.
“Our customers kept us going without a doubt. If it weren’t for them, things would have been a lot harder for us during lockdown. For me, our customers support our staff. They support our children. They support our families.
“This is what running a local business is about. It’s about the sense of community. The pandemic has really shone a light on this, and I am so grateful to all of our customers and we are delighted to be back in action, serving them again,” Emma said.
Chocoa, also in Ballymena’s town centre, a local chocolate and coffee shop, faced a lot of uncertainty too, but owner Laura Elliot took decisive action.
“I taught myself how to set up a website and payment system, and I learnt a lot about social media marketing in this time as well – I knew I had to do something to keep Chocoa’s name out there. Starting the website allowed me to expand our customer base, and as a result I’ve seen a lot of new faces in here since we reopened,” Laura said.
Known for its Instagram-able décor, the café is a popular destination in the town. Since reopening, Laura has managed to keep the place looking beautiful whilst also introducing key safety measures.
“Going forward, I think people are keen to get out and about a bit more now, so I hope that we can offer them a safe environment to do so without losing our local charm,” she explained.
Lesley also demonstrated this focus on looking forward, detailing Follow Coffee’s plans for the future.
“My husband and I worked extremely hard at evenings and weekends to refurbish the kitchen to get it ready for reopening. With this on top of home-schooling my children, it certainly wasn’t a blissful or relaxing lockdown but I’m hopeful that it will all pay off. I have introduced pizza nights on Fridays and Saturdays too, so I am excited to see what the future holds for us,” she said.
The local business owners’ comments come as Mid and East Antrim Borough Council continues with the rollout of its extensive town centre recovery campaign which aims to promote the borough’s towns as safe and welcoming places to shop and spend time.
Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Cllr Peter Johnston, said: “Local business such as these are a critical aspect to the regeneration of the local economy throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, providing employment for many.
“It’s fantastic to see the hard work paying off and customers returning to their stores, which have put enhanced and comprehensive safety measures in place. Outlets like these also provide community engagement during this uncertain time and their dedication to their customers encapsulates why we believe this campaign is so important.”