Celebrating our 10th anniversary at The Allanton Inn on Sunday 8th March 2019, speculation and disbelief of a global fast-spreading virus was already circulating. William suspected things might get bad here too, but I was more complacent. Of course, no one ever could imagine the scale of what was about to come.
We attended a Tourism Conference in Berwick on 10th March excited about plans to boost tourism in and around our area and we were extremely upbeat and buoyant about our business and the year ahead.
We were finalising plans to expand our bedroom capacity with the addition of 6 new bedrooms and were just awaiting the building warrant to start our works.
But then as the next week went on the concern about the spread of the virus was growing, WHO declaring the virus a pandemic on 11th March.
Our restaurant bookings evaporated overnight.
We reassured guests we were still open and were taking extra safety precautions and that the Borders was the perfect place to visit to enjoy social distancing, but the cancellations just kept coming in. Early spring is always a lean time in our industry as any savings are usually depleted over winter but usually secure in knowing the prospect of the busy months will fill the tanks again.
On the Monday 16th March, the Prime Minister asked the public to avoid pubs, theatres, clubs, and other social venues. We had no choice but to start cancelling shifts for staff. We were desperate and dismayed that the future of our bright business may be in jeopardy.
On 18th March, one local couple who had booked a Seafood Platter to celebrate their anniversary lunch with us asked if they could have the platter to takeaway and enjoy at home. We of course obliged willingly. And then saw this could be a glimmer of hope for us. With fridges full of stock optimistically preparing for the upcoming Mother’s Day Weekend, the idea of our takeaway restaurant service was born. So that evening, we posted our current menu online offering a hot takeaway collection with 7 starters, 6 mains & 4 desserts. What a crazy night that was! The orders flooded in, our local community full of admiration for our versatility/resilience and willing to support us. A small kitchen team adapting to a takeaway service with a full menu of hot food in one day was quite a challenge and a bit hairy to say the least.
We got through the evening just as stock ran out, we refined the menu to continue the takeaway on to the next few evenings.
Working with our fabulous Fishmonger we decided to offer Seafood Platters for Mother’s Day so families could still celebrate despite the current circumstances, and we could continue to support our suppliers. Our family pulled together to help, and we were booked out, on our middle son’s 16th birthday too!
Then came that dreaded – Friday 20th March. All schools were to close, our 17-year-old had his last day at school. Mid-way through takeaway that evening, William came through to the kitchen and announced that Boris Johnston had just addressed the nation and stated among other things that all social venues including hospitality were to close indefinitely as of midnight that evening. We got through service in a state of stock then sat drowning our sorrows with a handful of locals in the bar until the clock struck midnight and we shut our doors.
The next few days things got much worse as the nation was told on Monday 23rd to stay at home, essential journeys only were to be taken.
We were sick with worry at how our business would survive long term with very little or no income. Like so many others in our industry and many other industries, we had no idea how we would pay the wages, our suppliers, our mortgage, or any of our bills for that matter. The relief when the Chancellor announced the Furlough Scheme was such a weight off our shoulders.
Taking stock of our situation, our only option to continue to operate was to continue with the takeaway service (as we never thought once about not doing something!)
On 1st April we posted our hot takeaway menu for collection that weekend and we have continued to do weekend takeaways since! Thanks to the tremendous support of our local community.
On 2nd April, we decided to raise the spirits of our village and offered a complementary fish supper for all residents. We managed to source potatoes donated from Greenvale Potatoes along the road and some haddock donated from our fishmonger. William, I and our 3 boys had a VERY busy night cooking and delivering fish & chips to the WHOLE village (bar 2)!
Through trial and error, sweat and tears we have created a whole new side of our business which has prided itself on offering seasonal menus using local suppliers and produce.
Week after week with COVID cases increasing continually and no sign of being able to re-open, we were delighted our takeaway service was continually fully booked. William & I established a new weekly routine, taking orders, then spending our week prepping and cooking for the weekend ahead, looking forward to our relaxing Sundays with our boys.
Having 3 teenage boys at home for many weeks on end with no sport or change of scenery plus juggling work with home schooling was quite challenging and rather fraught at times. The boys were a big help to us though and would come and help us peel potatoes and run orders to cars. Then we would sit down as a family in the restaurant after service and eat whatever was left (with an 8pm clap for carers on a Thursday).
5pm most days, we would sit in front of the Daily Briefings, (the boys getting interested watching the politicians too) and watch in disbelief and dismay as the number of COVID deaths continued to rise day after day. Once schooling stopped (exams had been cancelled and their grades were dictated by the SQA based on prelim exams – what a mess) the older two managed to get jobs at a local disinfectant company.
Infact, the Senior Management from this disinfectant company moved into the inn as resident key workers as their factory had increased production so much, they needed to be based up here rather than South England where they lived. We quickly realised this was another opportunity for us and our COVID Service Adaption Number 2 was born. We advertised on our website and contacted all the local large key businesses (mostly food producers) offering B&B accommodation for key workers with an trayed evening meal in their room. We had a variety of workers staying with over lockdown from many industries and between the two of us, we served many early cooked breakfasts, trayed meals and cleaned rooms in addition to the takeaway service.
Mid May the takeaway service got so busy we bought 2 members of staff back off furlough parttime to man the phones taking orders and to help pack meals.
In May on the VE Bank holiday Weekend we helped organise a socially distanced coffee morning for the village to boost morale and bring the village together remotely. With scones, jam & tablet made by members of the village being donated to every household.
Both May Bank Holidays Weekend Takeaways (our busiest takeaway to date) we offered a more celebratory takeaway service with themed Box meals, Cocktails & we donated Seeds of Hope Wildflower Seed packets to all our customers with their aim of creating a patchwork of beauty and wildlife bringing a bit of joy at this difficult time.
We started to find that for many our takeaway was the highlight of their week. In fact, food was all most people had to look forward too. Looking forward to a hot meal they had not cooked and was a little bit special. For the older generation, phoning to order was also an opportunity to talk to someone especially those living alone.
As we had no problems getting supplies of food, we were also taking orders for produce such as pasta, flour, yeast, vegetables that our customers were struggling to find in the empty shelves of the supermarkets. We sold wine and anything else we had in stock that our customers fancied! We delivered to anyone who was too worried to leave their homes.
As June progressed talk about reopening was growing. The summer had arrived with some lovely weather, and everyone was starting to feel more positive. Dates started to fly about on both sides of the Border as to when beer gardens could potentially open to serve with social distancing, but England got a date first (as seemed to be the case all though the pandemic as Scotland always takes a more cautious approach!).
I did get a bit excited and hope we might mange to hold our annual Midsummer/Father’s Day Beer Festival but sadly this was not to be, and we again offered a takeaway version with Pig Out Takeaway boxes instead of our usual Hog Roast, takeaway draught beer, cocktails, and a link up online to the band who should have performed with us.
We were disappointed on 18th June in Scotland’s Phase 2 of the Route Map out of Lockdown, that still the First Minister was not setting a definite date for hospitality like England had. It was so difficult and frustrating to plan and think about reopening and ordering stock when there were no timescales to work towards. However, a provisional date of 15th July was given when Scotland could start welcoming guests in hospitality.
Finally, on the 24th June we were told at last that we could open our beer garden on 6th July and so all systems were go with our businesses adaption number 3! A marque restaurant in the beer garden to allow for diners to enjoy a meal out in a well-ventilated space with great social distancing. Opening indoors was always going to be financially limiting for us with social distancing as the space would not allow for many diners.
As our stocks were severely depleted (we had drunk/sold most of the wine and had used many spirits for cooking and cocktails), it was exciting to see deliveries arrive again. And we could start to offer draught beers and ciders with our takeaways.
On the 3rd of July, the marque arrived and was installed for the duration of the summer.
We decided to continue with our weekend takeaway service once we opened, as we have many customers either vulnerable, shielding or not comfortable being in a public place. But also, we felt anxious that we may have to close again, and we did not want to lose the momentum.
Quite nervous but excited, we opened our doors again on Monday 6th July. We were registered as “Safe to Go” with a compliant and safe environment for both staff and guests, with table service only, updated staff training, risk assessments in place including a one-way system, track and trace detailing, employee temperature records & hand sanitising stations.
What a success that was. We are so lucky having outdoor space that we can utilise and adapt to our advantage. We gave residents priority to dine indoors once we could welcome them back 117 days since our last guest.
Through July 2020 the marque was well used by many enjoying safe, spacious, dining al fresco with views over the rolling Borders countryside. We offered a full restaurant menu still doing what we do well, making everything homemade using local & seasonal produce with weekend specials like Lobsters, which we would also offer for takeaway. We had to recruit more staff to help us cope with the extra workload the marque created with further distances from the kitchen and bar and the larger volume customers.
Mid July, the government announced the Eat Out to Help Out scheme which we registered for straight away. Wow, now that was a crazy month. The phone never stopped ringing with bookings. Our normal quieter days of Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday now became the busiest days of the week. Organising bookings was nearly a fully time job. With our business up 100% some days, we were working crazy 16 hours days, 7 days a week and we were pushing ourselves to the limit. But we ploughed delighted to be open, welcoming guests and offering the best hospitality we could.
We were rewarded for our efforts with articles in national press such as a review by the Inspector Calls in the Daily Mail, SAGA magazine review, shortlisted for Community Pub by Daily Telegraph, a review in Golf Monthly and I was flattered and honoured to be listed as one of 100 Top Women in Tourism in Scotland!!
At the beginning of September, we held a graduation “ceremony” for 7 of our staff leaving us for further education, including our eldest son who we took up to Glasgow University. Not the first-year university experience anyone could or would wish for them with all teaching online but have certainly made the most of the different experience (despite contracting COVID in the first week of Freshers!!).
Summer turned to autumn, and we carried on being busy with the Great British Staycation, guests enjoying the marque and it’s ventilated & safe space and our takeaway service still being well supported, even extending to catering for a small wedding. However, towards the end of September, COVID cases were rising again after the summer of increased freedom, and we could see across the country that people were getting anxious again. On 22nd September the Scottish Government announced a work from home order and a 10pm national curfew for pubs, bars & restaurants.
As the weather turned cooler and the nights drew in, we felt it time to take the marque down too. A bittersweet moment as the marque had saved our business and been such a success.
On the 1st of October we launched our Christmas Takeaway Menu as already we could see ahead that Christmas was going to be very different this year. With no Christmas party of group bookings, we decided we could take Christmas to the workplace or home with our takeaway meals.
On 7th October, we again awaited the government to announce temporary measures to hospitality restricting how we would be allowed to operate our business as Lockdown No 2 was announced. This time we could only open 6am-6pm, a maximum of 6 from 2 households and with no alcohol indoors for a 16 day “firebreak” (Central Scotland Hospitality had to close completely!) So again, bookings were cancelled (although the takeaway could carry on). With no marque and the autumnal weather, we bought a fire chimney to keep the hardy drinking guests warm while in the beer garden!!
Autumn saw a few fun & themed takeaway services with Halloween & Guy Fawkes Night and once into November, and furlough was extended again until March. A new 5 level COVID strategic framework was established for Scotland and operational goal posts changed again.
The Government put the Borders into Level 2, allowing us to open until 8pm and alcohol could be consumed indoors again but with main meals only.
We then felt lucky to live in a rural area with less COVID and therefore be put into a lower level with less restrictions (although feeling desperately sorry and frustrated for our friends in the cities who could not do dinner service or any alcohol at all!).
December saw the orders for Christmas Takeaway flood in and we were delighted that we could help companies and families still celebrate with some a bit special.
We were given an early Christmas present on 8th December when Nicola Sturgeon announced that the Borders would go be going to Level 1 on 11th December for the remainder of the year, meaning no restrictions on alcohol and allowed to open until 10.30pm.
As England was in stricter restrictions, as was most of the rest of mainland Scotland, we were in a strange and unique situation of having a sense of freedom and normality leading up to Christmas.
However, it did not last long as COVID finally caught up with the Borders. Some argue it was a result of the relaxation of restrictions, others think inevitable due to crowded shops of Christmas Shoppers. Whatever the reason we were not sure we would make it open until Christmas as the cases rose rapidly in the area. Our boys were told to isolate from school from 11th December due to a case on the school bus and the school itself pretty much emptied overnight as parents keen to keep their children away so as not to jeopardise Christmas.
And so, the Borders & the rest of the UK entered Lockdown No 3! Yet AGAIN all hospitality was forced to close indefinitely from Christmas Eve. Not many other industries were experiencing such a roller coaster ride to operations! What the country struggled with most though was the restrictions of travel and meeting family at Christmas. The rules chopped and changed a bit as family plans did too and the whole country seemed bereft as Christmas was going to be different from any other.
The country and us felt 2021 would bring a new beginning and we all felt a sense hope for normality and re-opening as the NHS worked tirelessly to roll out the COVID vaccine programme. The hope did not last long though.
Through January & February we had week after week with no signs of getting the country open. We desperately watched and waited for the Scottish Government to announce reopening dates for us or what hoops we would have to jump through next!
The second week in January we resumed our takeaway service which was followed by a quick succession of themed takeaways – Burns Supper, Valentines Weekend & Mother’s Day.
As time went on, not knowing or having dates to work towards was unsettling, but we found routine in lockdown which we quite enjoyed and kept ourselves busy with the takeaway service & accommodating/feeding key workers.
There was so much organising and planning for the inn for the summer ahead, knowing that when we do open it will be like opening floodgates. We decided we would do the garden marque restaurant again due to the foreseeable ongoing restrictions. We erected 3 heated wooden pods in the beer garden which were an instant hit especially with the younger crowd and extremely good forward planning on William’s part with the way the re-opening was allowed.
Finally, a roadmap out of lockdown was announced at the end of February with dates of phased reopening for hospitality from 26th April 2021.
We look forward to reopening and are excited to see the Allanton Inn bustling and busy again with the sound of laughter and people enjoying themselves once more. We are also a tad apprehensive of opening too if being honest, as it involves recruiting a whole new team, many long hours, and no doubt a few extra grey hairs. Everyone is constantly talking about the “new normal” and what that will look like as the world continues to fight the pandemic through social distancing, face masks and sanitization measures but here at The Allanton Inn we just hope we can continue to do what we do best, offering the best hospitality we can.