This week, we sat down with Digbeth Dining Club regular Sarah from Full of Chaat, to talk all about the benefits that delivering hot meals to front line workers has brought to staff well being, as well as the strong solidarity amongst street food traders.
Whilst the outbreak of Covid-19 was a hindrance to business initially, the Chaat team have turned a negative into a positive and have come up with new ways of operating that they wish to continue moving forward. Find out how they’re getting on, what adaptions they’ve made and what advice they have for other traders.
Hi Sarah, thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to catch up with us. So tell us more about how you got started…
We started in February 2018. The other half of the company was part of the private catering sector (Tommy’s Catering Ltd) and so the street food section was just a side project to begin with, but we got popular quickly and business boomed.
We got a spot at Digbeth Dining Club and within a year we’d moved further away from private catering and predominately into the Full of Chaat side of the business. Summer 2020 was predicted to be our best summer to date; we’d been allocated a spot at the European Street Food Awards and had lots of festival work lined up, and then Covid happened.
What was your initial reaction when it became clear that street food markets would be required to close?
It was complete shock more than anything and I I cried for a few hours because everything was so busy and then literally overnight everything had been cancelled. I had three weeks off which gave me time to plan and research what other street food traders were doing to adapt.
I spoke to Mark at NCASS and applied for the NHS jobs via NCASS Work Opps – I was itching for work so when I didn’t hear back I took it upon myself to source the contact details for the relevant person at Meals for the NHS and the next day we had an order in. I could never have imagined how rewarding it would be to supply meals for the NHS – not just on the financial side but for my own mental health. It’s so easy to feel lost during a pandemic and have nothing to do apart from watch TV, so for our staff to feel like they’re actually helping in some way is so beneficial to their mental health.
I have staff working for me right now who could have been furloughed; my right hand woman, Emma, for example had just got back from travelling when the pandemic hit and we managed to get her back to Birmingham and working again. We’ve been having regular Zoom calls with Meals for the NHS to come up with strategies for helping with fundraising so there’ll be a big push on that over the next few weeks.
Do you think the services you’re offering during Covid has given you the opportunity to reach more customers?
We started doing deliveries to regular customers once a week before the NHS opportunity came along. We were only doing one drop a week to limit how much we were seeing strangers but also, due to the fact that it’s such a long and exhausting day when you’re driving all over the place.
We’re definitely reaching a larger customer base thanks to the drop-off service. Around 60% each week are new customers and we also get repeat customers coming back to us every week or two. I don’t think we’ve had anyone order that hasn’t ordered again. We get lots of lovely feedback from customers and it’s been amazing from a marketing point of view.
We’ve also been posting more on socials because it’s a way to get out in front of new people. We’ve been pushing our menus a lot more and events that we, and other traders are at; people have really come together in this industry and there’s a lot of solidarity. We had such a lovely time being back at Digbeth Dining Club because we all had a chance to stop and chat to people we’ve been trading with for years. Usually it’s so busy you don’t get chance, so it was lovely.
Have you had to adapt your menu for the NHS work you’ve been doing?
When we got a job with Meals for the NHS I wasn’t sure if they would want Chaat or something completely different like traditional sausage and mash for example. In fact, they wanted our menu because it was the ultimate comfort food – healthy, homely, nutritious and of course, it consists of one meat and lots of veg.
They didn’t know how successful it was going to be in the beginning, they were just inundated with NHS staff who had no other option but to visit vending machines halfway through a shift. The goal was to cater for night and day staff who were working 16-hour shifts, needed a hot meal and wouldn’t have to go home and cook.
The first few weeks were very emotional for us because the ITU staff working on the frontline came out looking absolutely exhausted, but they were really looking forward to tucking into a hot meal. I hope it can carry on because when they’re working such long hours, they really need a warming meal. You get to know the staff as you’re going there frequently doing drop-offs and it’s so great for my team because they feel like they’re contributing. Everybody needs a purpose to get up each day, even if it’s just something tiny like providing a hot meal. The great thing for me is we’ve been able to pay people and keep them in a job.
Hopefully, they’ll carry on getting donations and the Meals for NHS team can continue to serve the community, including hospitals and women’s shelters, long after Covid has ended.
How have you approached assessing risk and communicating with local authorities?
We did all our risk assessments via NCASS – all staff have had the NCASS Covid pack and all delivery people have been tested to make sure they’re doing everything right. It only takes one person to not wear gloves so it’s about being really aware of what people are doing. At Digbeth Dining Club you’re really on show and people are stood looking at you whilst waiting to be called, so if you do something as minor as pick up your phone and they report you then your reputation is down the drain. Hygiene is so important to us anyway so it’s just about adapting and being aware of what you’re doing. The more we do it the more it becomes second nature.
Have you made any adaptations to your business that you would be keen to maintain once things return to “normal”?
We’re going to carry on doing home deliveries as much as possible as it’s a way of getting more money during winter. We’d thought before about doing meal kits so Covid has really forced me to get it up and running.
I’d also like to do work for the NHS for as long as possible and we’ve definitely got the credentials to go out ourselves and do it now. I’ve had quite a few charities contacting me to ask if we can deliver to them too. We get texts from Meals for the NHS asking if we can make and deliver 100 meals for local hospitals on the same day and it’s great to know that we can pick things up and turn things around so quickly. It’s so nice that we can help in some way.
Thinking of offering a delivery, takeaway or collection service?
You can get all the guidance you need to trade safely during Covid-19, including food safety management, licensing, packaging, labelling and more, by downloading our guide here.
If you’re on the lookout for an online ordering platform to sign your business up to, we currently have some great deals for NCASS members with Slerp, Flipdish and Hungrrr. To find out more, or to catch up on our latest webinar: Online Ordering Systems Explained – click here.