This is a guest post by Rob Copley, owner of Farmer Copley’s. A family-run, award-winning farm shop, cafe, and events business near Pontefract in Yorkshire. Rob also chairs the Farm Retail Association, an industry body for farm retail businesses providing support, sharing best practices, and developing a network of friends across the country.
I was in a bar in France during a ski trip when they shut the resorts due to Covid-19. After I finished my pint, I knew I had to get home. I flew back and started to work on how Farmer Copley’s was going to survive.
Born on the family farm, all I ever wanted to be was a farmer. I left the farm to build a career as a dairy farmer and later in cattle fertility. But when it was time to start a family, we headed back home to the farm and started to develop a new business in retail, hospitality, and leisure. And Farmer Copley’s was born.
We opened a small farm shop in 2003 and by early 2020, employed 70 people across the shop, cafe, and events business. The business now includes a busy farm shop, a cafe and function room, and year-round special events and experiences. It’s busy — more than 380,000 customers visited the farm last year.
And then the pandemic happened.
When something like COVID-19 happens, you go into survival mode. Our first task was to look at the likely impact of having to close the cafe and events business. That alone could reduce our income by 60%.
To keep the business viable, we needed to reduce the staff. That’s never easy and we didn’t take that decision lightly. Initially, we made some redundancies. But then realised we could take advantage of the UK Government furlough scheme for the cafe and events staff, without having to incur more layoffs.
Secondly, I prioritised maintaining a positive connection with our customers. For example, Mother’s Day is one of the busiest days of the year for us. So instead of canceling, we postponed it to November. We then sent gifts to those mothers with reservations and rebooked them for November.
Setting up (another) shop
We anticipated that the shop revenue would increase by 20-30%. But in reality, we saw our business triple and had to scramble to adapt to meet the increased demand.
Initially, we set up a delivery service, offering all of our products with no minimum order. It was chaos. Five staff members were picking the products from the shop and simultaneously keeping social distance from the customers. It was time-consuming and we were able to fill just 30 orders a day.
Finding a better way
It was all spiraling out of control so I took stock and focused on what I could affect and took inspiration from my network. Firstly, we added a drive-through click and collect service. Then we focused the online orders on a range of pre-selected boxes to simplify the process and fulfillment. And to avoid the in-shop chaos, we established a picking warehouse so the staff were no longer trying to fill the orders alongside the shop customers.
All these measures both increased capacity to meet the demand and improved efficiency. Now we are at 90% of pre-COVID income and have returned some of the furloughed staff to the business.
Keeping the team connected
Effectively I now have two teams — those working and those furloughed — and have had to work hard at team communication. When you’re furloughed, you can feel a little sidelined. And when you’re in the shop, you can feel overwhelmed.
As a team, we decided to make the effort to run extra meetings and use communication tools like Deputy Newsfeed, Zoom, and Facebook groups to ensure the furloughed staff are included and feel connected.
Planning for the future
Every day is slightly different, but now that we have settled into our “new normal,” we’re looking to the future. It looks different from what I expected at the beginning of this year, but the key is to continue to adjust. We’re looking at our three main pillars of our business and how we’ll pivot moving forward.
- Shop: While our drive-through shop will probably be temporary, we will look to continue the click and collect service. If so, we’ll need to invest in technology to improve performance, capacity, and efficiency. Additionally, we’re looking at what product lines we’ll expand. For example, we have box sets and “take and make” kits of ingredients so you can (virtually) cook with your favorite celebrity chefs while watching a video.
- Re-opening the cafe: Social distancing will remain important for some time, and thankfully, we have the space to do it. Our bigger challenge is finding a model to socially distance the waiting staff. We don’t have all the answers yet, but we’re looking into a self-service counter.
- Events: Events are tough. We will need to limit the number of people who come to our farm, whether to pick their own fruit or visit the pumpkin patch. To help, we will be using ticketing to manage time slots and limit the people. Additionally, we’re going to create a one-way system to ensure distance.
Transform your everyday
While this isn’t what I planned, the experience has given me a new perspective. The key for me to keep Farmer Copley’s open was to move fast, learn quickly, focus on what I can control, and leverage my network for ideas and inspiration.
The other key ingredient is a committed and motivated team who are ready to join you on the roller coaster. One day we’ll all be back together again. Until then, we’re transforming what normal looks like and looking forward to the future.
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