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Alan Wood, joint managing director of Trevor Mottram in Tunbridge Wells, is looking forward to reopening his cookshop business on June 15. He shares his lockdown story with Dawn Hopkins.

Trevor Mottram is a well-established independent cookshop in the Kent spa town of Tunbridge Wells, that has been run by joint managing directors Alan and Sarah Wood since 2000. It was founded by Sarah’s uncle Trevor Mottram in 1975 The 1,100sq ft premises is located on The Pantiles, which is in effect an 18th century shopping precinct: a raised paved walkway shaded by lime trees and fronted by a variety of shops behind a colonnade.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the business has stayed in contact with its customers. On day one of the lockdown, the shop’s phone line was diverted to the couple’s home phone line and the email address was displayed in the store’s window.

Although Trevor Mottram does not have a transactional website, it has continued to trade since March 23. Alan says: “To start with, I had a few email enquiries from customers and sold a set of saucepans, cake tins, a KitchenAid and a few other bits and pieces.”

Then he started receiving calls from locals who were interested in buying products. He decided to Facetime them while in the shop so he could show them goods. They paid for their wares over the phone and he dropped their purchases off on their doorsteps. This then progressed to Alan offering appointments for one person at a time to look around the store with him, following social distancing rules.

He explains: “One local man called and wanted a pizza paddle. I showed him our range in a Facetime call, he chose one and I delivered it. He then phoned the next day and said: ‘This one isn’t going to work for me.’ So, I said: ‘Well, I’m in the shop tomorrow: shall I meet you there because they’ll only be the two of us?’ The chap came along, brought his paddle back, chose a different one, and asked: ‘Do you mind if I have a wander around while I’m here?’ He looked at several items and ended up buying a few more bits.”
More one-to-one appointments followed. “Another chap phoned and asked for a garlic crusher. He came into the store – and bought a lot more than a garlic crusher! Then a woman rang almost in tears because she had broken a plate. She visited and bought three. And just this morning a chap dropped off nine knives to be sharpened and bought a couple more to add to his collection.

“Now I’m getting two or three phone calls a day with people saying: ‘Oh you’re open!” I say: ‘No – but we can be: I can make an appointment to see you. And people have been delighted to come in on a one-to-one basis. But we are, of course, open to everyone on June 15.”

To this end, Alan has been busy ensuring the premises is COVID-secure. “We’re lucky,” he says, “because we’ve got two doors in the shop. So, people will come in the back and go out through the front. Effectively we will have two one-way systems on the go.” But, he points out, this will be manageable because customer numbers will be limited to two at a time. Hand sanitisers will be at the entrance, staff will wear face visors and gloves, and there will be two-metre arrow markings on the floor.

However, as Alan notes: “It’s difficult because we’re not self-service: we’re not a supermarket or a department store. We’re quite an old-fashioned shop; people will often come in, walk straight up to the counter and ask questions like ‘I need a new frying pan. Which one should I have?’ or ‘can you talk to me about your knives?’ We need them to feel safe in our environment now though, so we’re making all the necessary adjustments.”

He adds: “We’ve also got loads of alcohol wipes too because if two people come in and rummage through the potato peelers, do we clean all those peelers after they’ve touched them, even if they’ve sanitised their hands? In theory, with only two customers in at any one time, we should be able to go in after them and clean everything they’ve touched.”

Other health and safety measures put in place include protective screens at the two tills, where only contactless payments will be accepted. Opening hours will be reduced too, from 10am to 4pm.

“I can’t see there being a mad rush though,” says Alan. “I doubt we’ll have a queue round the block. But I think we will have to play it by ear. During lockdown, we’ve had some beautiful weather, so I think a lot of people have been spending time and money on their gardens. But they’ve also been eating like kings and drinking like fish!”

Sarah is a keen home cook and Alan has been consistently posting photos of her impressive culinary creations on Trevor Mottram’s social media sites “just to try to inspire and engage people”.

After a picture of one meal went online, Alan received an email the following day enquiring: ‘Where can I get that sauté pan?’ Fortunately, he had one in stock.

“Everybody has been cooking,” he says. “In fact, I think there are a lot of people cooking now who didn’t before. I’m sure there are millions of knackered frying pans out there ready to be replaced! And it will be interesting to hear what cooking catastrophes people have had when they come in and start talking to us.”

He is looking forward to conversing with customers face-to-face rather than online but concedes that social media has been a boom in these coronavirus times.

“It’s kept us in touch – and 99% of customers have been totally understanding and would rather wait until we’ve safely reopened. You’ve just got to not lose contact with them, because that’s what it’s all about.
“We’re prepared and fully ready to reopen on June 15,” he concludes. “We’ve got all the right health and safety equipment in place. But I think it’s going to be a ‘suck it and see’ situation for everybody. It really is crystal ball time isn’t it?

“Our personal shopping patterns have changed to using more small local businesses such as butchers and fishmongers, and hopefully a lot of other people are going down that route too – and cooking more, because sadly I predict you’ll not get a table at a decent restaurant until next spring…”