Letters from Cardiff in lockdown: Melissa Boothman

Today’s instalment for the Letters from Cardiff in lockdown series comes from Melissa Boothman, owner of Penylan Pantry and the Secret Garden Cafe in Bute Park. We’re looking for your stories, so please contribute to Letters from Cardiff in lockdown

Here is my version of lockdown life, from someone who runs a small independent business in the hospitality industry, and employs 17 people.

Wow, where do I start? So far, this whole experience has been a big washing machine of emotions, mainly on spin, then occasionally clicking on to drain, and sometimes pause, pausing in a big puddle of water, still, very still.

Like many I also felt like we are all living in a fictional novel, a dystopian future.

Week 1 (I think). “It’s okay, we’ve got this, together we will be okay”. In this first week, none of us really knew what we were about to fall into. Seeing the news, and how Italy was being struck down with fatality after fatality, we knew it was going to be serious. However, there is this sense of, ‘it’s not happening to us, we won’t get it that bad’ or will we? The unknown set in…….

Within the two businesses, we adapted and put lots of little changes in place. I held a meeting, to put my team’s minds at rest: ‘Your jobs are safe, I will make sure of it’.

I knew we were about to embark on something that none of us had experienced, but I told myself ‘Mel, you’ve got this, you are good with the big stuff, you are good at change and thinking on your feet, it will be okay’.

The team were amazing and took on all these new changes, turning up every day with a smile on their faces, which really helped.

Our local community, our regulars, our customers, came out and showed their support. It was super humbling, grounding and gave me reassurance.

Change was in the air.

Week 2/3 (it’s all becoming blurry). Shit, what is happening?…..okay, stay calm, react, be proactive, adapt, SURVIVE.

I didn’t really stop to think much in this, the second week, my priorities and concerns were of my staff. ‘OK, I need to keep 17 people in a job, and the two businesses alive.’ In the back of my mind, I’m asking myself ‘what’s going to happen to my little businesses?’ Fears of lockdown are looming, thick in the air, a day feels like a week. We are all in fight or flight mode.

I spent the week hastily listening to the news, to a government that were giving vague advice, that were reacting, not being proactive, and with all this vagueness, the week was a flurry of confusion, for us all. I could see it in our customers, in the ambience, the mood, no one knew what to do, how to properly behave, or what was the right and correct thing to do.

This was the week that no support, or clear guidance came from our leaders, which left many of us scared. This was my week of firefighting.

Amongst these emotions, the anxiety, the adapting, the mind whirling with ideas of survival, kindness prevails.

People were opening up, showing vulnerability, coming together, supporting each other, being KIND.

Within both the Pantry and the Secret Garden Cafe we really noticed how everyone had slowed down, how people were calmer, and more patient, the support for independents was amazing to see.

Friday 20th March, our Government finally announces support for workers, promising to keep everyone in a job, and covering wages. This was such a relief, and half the weight of worry off my shoulders (the other half, the future of my businesses still present). However, the government didn’t release any terms of this payout until the following Tuesday. I was checking the government website multiple times a day, waiting for the terms, checking that myself and my team were eligible.

Week 3/4 (Probably, I’ve stopped counting the weeks, it’s purely day by day).

This is the week that I closed both my businesses. I knew it was the right decision, and I knew it was the best thing for me, my team and the safety of our community, but damn it was hard, harder than I’d anticipated, for I did not at any point, in the years I’ve been running my businesses, expect to be closing them through no choice of my own.

They don’t tell you to plan for the world wide spread of a deadly virus when writing your business plan.

I went into the Pantry, and placed a sign in the window, I sat, had a little cry (it was very emotional, which took me by surprise), and locked the door.

That same day, Boris announced lockdown, something we’d all been expecting, and tentatively waiting for.

The next day, we closed down both sites; turning off fridges, cleaning, sorting out perishable stock and talking about the current situation. I had to call all our utility providers, some acted with empathy, and others business as normal – money/profit over people, even during an international pandemic. I sent emails to landlords notifying them of our closure, updates to customers and contacting our suppliers.

A huge outpouring of love came our way via messages, calls, emails, and comments on social media. Thank you, thank you, it really lifted me, I felt and still feel grateful for the community around me, for the people who love and support my businesses, for what the Pantry means to some people.

The weeks that followed… I felt like the rug had been pulled from under my feet, lost, not knowing what to do, and confused. Stay at home they said, but really, there’s a pandemic outside my doors, with people suffering, and I’m supposed to sit at home (this was my internal battle). I felt helpless. I knew I had to stay at home, but my instinct was telling me to get out and help.

I couldn’t stop thinking of all the suffering some people would endure during lockdown, of how COVID-19 had highlighted the huge inequalities in our country, and how the most vulnerable would be hit hardest. With all of this on my mind, I hadn’t properly stopped to think about the virus, and how dangerous it was. I started reading the news again, and realised that this virus has no rules, it can kill young people, and in some cases people with no previous health problems; oh shit.

With this urge to help, the need to be busy, concerns about the virus, business ideas and the need for rest …..

What to actually do whilst in lockdown was very confusing, and felt very unsettling. I certainly had no head space for a new early morning yoga routine, learning a new language or crocheting a blanket for my mum.

I was pulling myself back and forth in many directions. Eventually, I decided, that the Pantry needed to be on pause (in my head), I needed some rest (after six years of very few days off), I wanted to volunteer and help where I could, and restore some balance.

I’ve been keeping in touch with the team, via silly photos, little messages and the occasional Zoom meetings (I find video chat awkward). The next chapter of this situation meant I was even able to see some of the team in the kitchens.

This came about because … my two friends, Kas, founder of Waterloo Teahouses, and Kev from Holy Yolks, started separate initiatives to support our local hospitals, by providing delicious homemade food to NHS staff and key workers (Kev from Holy Yolks is running the Help the Heroes campaign and Kas set up  Feed the Heath). They couldn’t do it alone, and needed some support.

A few of the hospital canteens had closed, making it difficult for staff to access good food whilst on shift, so we (myself and my team) felt we could help out by reopening our kitchens a few days a week, cooking them some good meals, and at the same time show our gratitude.

We also do weekly deliveries of much needed supplies to Cardiff Food Bank, made possible by cash donations from some beautiful people.

I’d found a purpose and a way to help amidst this chaotic time. Even though I was keeping busy, it really helped me to relax and feel more settled about the whole thing. I started to ease into activities that weren’t work, that didn’t revolve around only the businesses. Spending time with my other half, taking walks, foraging, identifying wild plants, listening to the birds, and enjoying a calmer pace.

The calmer pace has given me a little clarity to start thinking about the next phase. Financially we have taken a huge hit, but we are safe and we will be one of the fortunate few that reopen. It will be hard, like starting over a brand new business again with zero cash flow, but lots of business won’t be reopening.

On the day we closed, I stood, alone looking out of the Pantry’s windows, when I realised, let’s fill these windows with hope and sunshine, inspired by the rainbows popping up in everyone’s windows.

The only problem with this idea, is… I can’t draw. But I know just the woman, she’s amazing, kind and very talented; Suzanne Carpenter, one half of @patternistas. I randomly, with no notice, dropped the Pantry keys through her letterbox, gave her the alarm code and planted the seed.

Suzanne asked me if I’d like a message in the window, yes, yes I would, what a great idea, can it be this – What Kind of World would you like to emerge after this crisis is over?

Suzanne did the most amazing job, it’s beautiful.

This is a question that’s been on my mind since it all started.

Positives (there’s no guilt in saying there are some), for me are: I love how little traffic there has been on the roads, resulting in a calmer less rushed atmosphere, better air quality, and less noise pollution. I’ve loved how it’s introduced a simpler way of life, how it’s slowed me down, and how I’ve enjoyed walks, listening to the birds, my garden, cooking at home, regular exercise, regular meals, better sleep, how I’ve reconnected with plants, and my local surroundings. The joy of simple pleasures. I love how Mother Nature has been able to take a big deep breath of clean air, and how we have all had to STOP.

I really hope we can carry some of these new routines into the future. I hope kindness wins, and governments start putting people before money.

I hope we start to live a compatible life side-by-side with nature, and I look forward to reopening the doors to my business with my own lessons learnt.

Love and Peace.

Melissa Boothman is owner of Penylan Pantry & The Secret Garden Cafe. Visit the Penylan Pantry website / Twitter @PenylanPantry / Twitter @secretgardencf.

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