Surviving The Storm (Fingers Crossed)
Updated: Sep 18
Like many young children, playing shops was a solitary pastime I frequently enjoyed. Gaga’s tins and jars would be removed from the larder and set up on a makeshift counter in the hall; an old tin was the cashbox. My customers were imaginary and always pleasant and courteous, including the needy ones requesting things I didn’t have; they simply chose something else and were very happy with their butter beans in place of the raspberry jam they had sought. Payment was in cash and never correct in either direction, however a final ‘thank you very much’ on both sides concluded the deal and it was on to the next customer. I tidied the packets and tins and customers away for the last time when I was around seven or eight years old and yet the memory of those shop days remains vivid and comforting.
I’ve packed a lot into the intervening years but I still have to pause before answering the ‘career’ question on forms, because I’m never quite sure how to respond. I don’t think I’ve ever had one. There has been no vocation and no calling. I’m good at lots of things, but not great at any one in particular; a true Jack of all trades and master of none. To date I have set up, and given up, three businesses and a charity. Until recently, my children and marriage were my first and only constant. And then presented the opportunity that became Yellow Hare.
The formation and delivery of Yellow Hare was no accident. I knew exactly what I wanted and what it would provide. I knew the size it would be, the shape it would take and the custom it would attract. It wasn’t a seed to be nurtured and it wasn’t blind ambition. The seed had been planted decades earlier. I was under no illusion about what it might become or grow into. Digression, development and growth were not in the plan.
I had lists on everything. A list of potential sites. A list of possible names. A list of launderettes and washing machine suppliers to visit. A list of all the best coffee machines. A list of stock. A list of costs. A list of holiday-home and second-home owners on the island. A list of Tiree’s changing demographic over the preceding 15-20 years. One of the most important lists was the statistics on movement between ‘indigenous’ families – in this context, families that go back more than three generations on the island; and transients – those who stayed no longer than 10 years. This was important because Yellow Hare’s success would be dependent on tourism and most transients began their association with Tiree as visitors; tourists by any other name. How long they stayed was irrelevant; it was the two-way traffic that mattered, and who they brought with them or encouraged over their time on the island. A population that moves and shifts, that makes room for fresh perspective, however unwelcome it may be at times, has more chance of long-term survival than one which has a steady generational stream and no transients; the chances are higher that the generational stream will die off or move off. And that’s not great for business. Not great for the island either, mind you, but definitely not great for business.
Nowhere, in any of this plan, was there a list of what I would do with all the money to be made. Nowhere. Money had to be made, of course, but it was not what drove me forward. I don’t believe it’s what drives any small retailer forward. There are easier ways to make money if that’s your principal goal. Images of creativity and baking and chatting and smiling and selling and exchanging and coming up with ideas for providing what customers wanted, are what drove me forward.
It has exceeded expectations. There is no question that running one’s own business, particularly a retail business, is hard work. But whilst the hours are long, the maintenance continuous, the planning relentless and the book-keeping a perpetual balancing act, the rewards are plentiful. Greeting and chatting to customers from all walks of life is an unexpected joy I never tire of and having staff on whom I can rely and that customers compliment is an added bonus I don’t take for granted. Contemplating what we need and when we need it is a constant challenge that I happily rise to. Getting to bake. I adore it. All of it. Every bit. I don’t regret a single nanosecond of Yellow Hare’s journey into the unknown.
This year is our third; it’s the year when many of the initial build costs would be paid off, overheads would stabilize and with it, our profits. Lockdown has altered that, but not irrevocably. I don’t subscribe to the view that island businesses will suffer more than their mainland counterparts simply because mainland footfall is greater, or because we are more remote. When it comes to footfall, turnover and accessibility, being located on a remote and sparsely populated island unquestionably puts Yellow Hare at a disadvantage next to its city-centre counterparts; but it’s also what may ultimately save it. Losses this year as a consequence of Covid-19 – as bad as they will be – are unlikely to sound the death knell of Yellow Hare. It may take a couple of seasons to get back on an even keel, but it ought to be achievable. A lot of this is owed in no small measure to the government assistance packages that have allowed staff to be furloughed and at least three months’ overheads to be paid courtesy of a £10,000 grant.
Don’t misunderstand me; when lockdown happened and everything was forced to a halt, I was struck by panic of a magnitude I’d never known before. Everything I had worked for, invested in and gambled on was under threat and I was powerless to prevent it. Financial commitments, staff, stock, and my sole source of income; all of it in jeopardy in one televised announcement. It took two or three days of rationalizing and deep breathing and ummmming to calm myself. During that same week, someone local got in touch to ask if I would donate towards hand creams for key workers and I thought they had lost their mind. Hand Creams??? They hadn’t; it was just me losing mine. They were doing good whilst I was going mad.
But desperation is cunning. It focuses the mind and forces you to ponder solutions you might never contemplate under normal circumstances and presents possibilities most sane people would deem, at best, idiotic. But sometimes the craziest solutions are not so crazy when put to the test. And that’s what saved Yellow Hare.
The clock in the shop remains an hour behind. At first I forgot to alter it when the clocks went forward at the end of March, and then made the conscious decision not to. It was the thing about everything stopping. We were permitted to remain open for takeaway coffees, which is principally what we sell in any case, but with more than 90% of our custom coming from tourism, and residents in lockdown, business stopped almost immediately. Every other day, baking went from the oven to the bin via the shop, stale and unwanted. Three staff were furloughed and our opening hours reduced from forty per week to six. The £10,000 grant would provide much needed immediate relief for the business but was less helpful for me. Plus I wasn’t even certain at that point that it would materialize. I grappled with this state for two weeks, desperately trying to come up with ways to weather the storm until it was over, which at that time I hoped might be a month or two.
Easter was approaching and I began promoting Easter packs made up of products on our online shop, but I knew this couldn’t last indefinitely. I had toyed with the idea of mailing cake but wasn’t confident it would work. I checked online and couldn’t find anyone else who did it, and I guessed the reason for that. There were a few who sold baking online for collection, but not delivery by mail in the format I wanted to do. Meanwhile I offered home deliveries of coffee and cake on the island, and then Easter cake boxes; a selection of cakes only ever intended for island delivery by hand. In order to let Tiree residents see what was available, I created a webpage for coffees and another for cakes. Out of the blue, my niece, an NHS Staff Nurse in Glasgow, ordered an Easter Box of cakes, and Yellow Hare’s “Cakes & Biscuits” Baking-by-Mail was born.
I’m not sure I would have attempted it had I not been so desperate. It was a lot of work for little return, particularly initially. For the first three weeks I worked tirelessly day and night; testing different ways of mailing cakes, biscuits, sponges and loaves. Friends, neighbours, the binmen and posties – I forced it on them whether they wanted it or not. Some things travelled well, others didn’t. I used friends and family to practice on and got them to help promote it via social media. I monitored delivery times and the condition of cakes when they arrived. At the same time, strangers began placing orders, some of whom had never heard of Tiree. To begin with I was mailing more boxes to the South of England than anywhere else, then Wales and Ireland. Average delivery time was two days. I had to admit defeat when it came to the Outer Hebrides, our closest neighbours, which took up to four days due to the convoluted route it would take.
I love to bake. It has been my therapy for some years, and continues to be.
Each day my time is divided between baking and doing the administration for orders. By the end of the first month I had mailed 80 boxes to the mainland, which at the time I thought was phenomenal. I would have been over the moon with 50. Better still, some were coming back for more, which was a huge and unexpected surprise. I had spent an awful lot of time worrying about how it would be received. Baking for the shop is one thing; sending it off in the mail to complete strangers is quite another. But it worked. Inexplicably, it worked. And I’m grateful for it.
As the world slowly unfurls and things begin to return to something approaching normal on the mainland, we all know it’s early days and that for now, we are being gifted time in lieu of the storm brewing further down the line.
And in many ways it has been a gift, albeit one with grave associations. We’ve been given time to do all the things we previously considered unimportant; we have been given time to waste; and given time to realize, whether we want to or not, what’s important in life. Watching nature reclaim the peace and tranquility of an undisturbed land has been a real pleasure, and running in solitude along empty shores both calming and therapeutic. Not for us, cramped conditions in over-crowded cities. Few of us here can begin to comprehend what it must be like for families without outdoor space.
But some of us are tiring of it now. As lockdown begins to ease for others, many here have close family members on the mainland that they can’t yet see because of continued travel restrictions to and from the islands. The sun is bright and warm, but there are no visitors to share it with; no compliments to be meted out and accepted graciously about how beautiful Tiree is and how lucky we are to live here; and no familiar faces to welcome back. Posting images of our sun-blazed beaches on fabulous days seems selfish, goading and unfair, particularly for the many residents who normally spend half their lives here but are not permitted home. The island is eerily and unnaturally quiet. So many familiar faces are missing and missed. By and large, residents have adhered to guidelines fastidiously, with a select few taking up self-appointed and spuriously applied policing roles to monitor those they consider errant defaulters. Most of us, however, are enjoying a bit more freedom whilst melancholy for those who can’t be here and eager to see them return. We are fortunate to have beaches to stroll over and a low population to allow it without risk.
Those of us in rural areas operating seasonal businesses depend on a healthy spring and summer season to get through winter. With almost four of the season’s six months spent in lockdown, there’s little likelihood of any winter pot far less a healthy one. Social distancing rules on the ferry, limiting capacity to around 20%, will curtail that even further. Consequently, many in the islands will struggle with growing debts, added to which will be the end of the furlough scheme currently supporting employees. The government will continue to contribute 80%, and the employer nil, until the end of this month. After that, it’s 60% from the government and a statutory 20% from the employer until October. Well – that sounds a terrific deal if you have the means to pay the 20%, which many of us don’t. And so our only option is to lay off staff. It’s going to be a tough time for a lot of us, and many businesses won’t weather the storm. Thus far, baking by mail has saved Yellow Hare from that fate.
Given time, I suspect that the great majority of island businesses – the ones that were doing well before lockdown – will rise and thrive again, but not effortlessly and not without financial difficulty. Even with government intervention and a forced re-think of how and what we provide, lockdown has cost Yellow Hare dearly, and we are one of the smallest small businesses. Larger, more established businesses with greater overheads must continue find a way to pay them, whether or not the businesses is operating. Insurance, licensing, utilities and maintenance all demand their cut and don’t have a cost-free option; plenty of help in the way of deferrals, loans and advice, but no write-off.
Local support has been invaluable, particularly at the beginning when all seemed lost. Witnessing the kindness and compassion of others has been the best thing to come out of all of this. I know that some people ordered things they didn’t really need purely to support the business. But we’re not the only business on the island trying to eke a living and there’s only so much cake one can eat. Especially now that we are all professional bakers thanks to lockdown. Takeaway coffee, the one thing we would normally do most and endorsed throughout lockdown, is down 98%, and it has been frustrating on the days we are open to see our empty picnic tables on beautiful blue-sky days, as yet not permitted to be used even with social distancing.
Still, we are hugely fortunate here on Tiree, and most of us know it. Tiree is an island of tremendous wealth. We have a wealth of breathtaking beaches, a wealth of open spaces, stunning sunsets and fresh sea air, and a wealth of kind, generous and knowledgeable residents eager and willing to help without being asked. It’s not always about money.
It’s now eight weeks since Yellow Hare’s baking by mail began. Yesterday the 350th gift box was mailed to the mainland. We have had orders from Australia, India, Germany and Belgium, all for UK delivery. I’m about to trial a delivery to the Netherlands. Consequently, I’m inspired to press on. And then, when the shop is up and running again, I hope to incorporate “Cake & Biscuits” By Mail as part of our day-to-day service. Which will prove that not everything wrought by Covid-19 was bad for business. And that will always be a good thing to look back on.