Our story begins in March 2020. Everything at Coljan was looking bright, several months of hard work was starting to pay o . 18 months after opening our dream cafe, restaurant and bar, here in beautiful Ashburton, we had found our feet and we were starting to stride forward with pace.
Our team was in place, the menus practised and polished, and creativity was rife. Our bookings were electric and we were already looking at creative ways to fill and re-fill the dining room on key dates like Mothering Sunday and the upcoming Easter Bank Holiday weekend. However, surrounding our positivity was the start of the pandemic Coronavirus.
In early March the pace had changed dramatically and whilst we were still taking lots of booking for future nights and events, there was an air of caution from our customers.
The Government announcement was soon to come. “Go out, do go out, but if you do go out, don’t go to cafes, bars and restaurants”.
From mid-March, the pace in the cafe had changed dramatically and the evening restaurant had gone from an electric mix of excitement for the creativity coming from the kitchen to a more poignant and refined feeling. We still had a lot to look forward to, but revenue dropped so dramatically, life became very tough, very quickly.
Michelle, my wife, co-owner and the true creative force behind the business had already started planning the next phase of the business if the cafe was forced to close. The following days had a raft of cancellations for events and postponements, and then came the announcement and the inevitability of turning around the closed sign, not knowing when we were open next.
Of course, we were aware that
shortages in shops and panic buying had affected our customers. So, within 2 days,
we had a menu, all the takeaway containers needed, leaflets, a new logo “Coljan @ Home” thanks to Mark Burley at Sherewood Gallery and the makings of a way of at least keeping busy. Meals were cooked and 26,000 engagements later on Facebook the local area and world knew what we were into. Most importantly our loyal customers knew, and we were providing a service for them.
At £4 a dish, we were never going to make money, and business-wise it made little sense, but for the community, for our customers, and for
us in that moment we were providing a service, we were cooking, and doing something we loved, albeit in very different ways. We also turned the excess
of bread donations for the Foodbank into home-made bread and butter pudding supporting those in need as only we knew how. This continued or many weeks. We managed to stagger and store enough cooking to survive the kitchen re-fit. So, if I hadn’t mentioned it before, as things were looking so buoyant, we had planned and
paid for a kitchen refurbishment programme; new range, new tables, new ventilation system, new electrics and much more. We were committed to this and pressed ahead. We thought no better time to do it! We were lucky that the contractors managed to work, whilst maintaining the distance required, working in teams and
were family units that had all taken the decision to isolate and work as sole traders or small businesses to keep going.
We were fortunate that we had unknowingly chosen the professionals in this way and it paid dividends. Within weeks, after many days of cleaning, the kitchen was back operational and ready for use. In addition, our amazing new tables and chairs from In a Nutshell Antiques provide a re ned dining experience for front of house and supports the best of local sourcing and recycling/upcycling.
Throughout the refurb, Michelle and I continued to support our community. I was on the helpline taking calls. Michelle said it was nice to hear me being nice on the phone for a change. I really enjoyed it. At the same time, we were supporting the Chamber of Trade in their endeavours to help keep the town informed and alive, ready for the next phase whenever that
By mid-April, we were cooking again. Our team was furloughed and we had committed to keeping their jobs safe for as long as we could. I was ever the optimist, “we will be open again next week”, whilst Michelle, the realist, was saying “we won’t”! Throughout April, things were getting really tight. We never gave up even on the darkest days. Like everyone else, we were missing family. For a good month, we shopped for food on credit and gave more meals away than we
charged for, we never wanted any of our ladies or gents who depended on us, to go without, or go hungry. I was meant to be shielding and doing badly. I couldn’t only stay in and not help!
We had had a pizza oven for a year or so, and so in April, we knew we had to do something more, our survival instincts were high and we were never going to give up on the dream. Our community wanted to support us, and we wanted to serve
them. We were missing them dearly. So, in May our pizza oven became operational, a simple menu done well. It wasn’t being true to the values we hold dear as a business, but we were committed to our values of quality and affordability and providing value for money.
May was really busy, we continued the investments in the kitchen and equipment and kept all the staff informed of what we were up to. Looking back now, it was probably a good thing not to know that we were going to be closed for 4 months. If we had known that, different decisions would have been made and we probably would not have been as creative as we managed to be. Our journey has also allowed us to work with some amazing new local producers which we couldn’t be more excited about. We launched a competition which saw Rose from Ashburton go on to win a meal for 3 months.
By June, the ‘CookieUnicorns’ was born. Michelle had turned an old haberdashery unit
from a gentleman’s store (sourced from Kelly at Odds and Suds) as one of our first antique purchases into a full blown sweet treat counter. This delighted many a customer, again growing our audience and reaching new customers, some discovering Coljan for the first time.
It’s July and we are looking forwards. We are excited to be back doing what we do, Chris and Michelle are a formidable creative team in the kitchen, creating honest and tasty cuisine for our customers to enjoy both home and away.
We may have had to adapt and change our hours, our offering, and how we do things slightly,
but the true values of Coljan have never been more apparent than today. Today marks an important milestone in our journey back to providing high quality affordable mouth-watering meals, for our Coljan family (our community) to enjoy time and again.
Coming soon! We will launch a new dining concept on providing the best of local meat and fresh ingredients in our friendly and warm dining space, which seems to have grown up a little during lockdown.
Thank you for choosing to be part of the Coljan family and dine with us tonight and share in our story. We hope that this is first of many visits to come.
Finally, our thoughts throughout have been with our Coljan customers and friends in this community and locality, some of whom may not have been as fortunate as ourselves. They are the inspiration for Coljan to do more!
Nathan & Michelle