The Local Cafe Feeding Our NHS Heroes

by Sarah-Louise James on June 16th 2020

Your buzzing café must close due to a nationwide lockdown. What next? We speak to the local café owners who are paying it forward to stay afloat amid the Coronavirus pandemic…

Sam and Roberta, owners of Hot Milk café, in North London, knew that to survive as a hospitality business in the middle of a pandemic, they would need to think creatively.

They wanted to combine their love of feeding and watering the community with paying it forward to the people saving lives in their community.

And so, the husband-and-wife duo – with help from their team of chefs – have embarked on a new service: delivering hot wholesome meals, they call ‘support packs’, to staff at the nearby North Middlesex and Whittington hospitals.

People are invited to buy £15 ‘support pack’ meals for NHS workers, via the café’s website. The team then cook, prepare and deliver the meals in person. 

We chatted to Hot Milk co-founder and Bionic customer, Sam, to find out more.

Where did the idea for the support packs for local hospitals come from?

When we closed the café, we thought ‘We need to do something to keep us going’. We thought we’d just do takeaways to begin with. I’d spoken to some people, who were stuck at home, and thought we could do takeaways with a ‘Pay it forward’ element – so locals could buy meals for other people. 

It was a bit confusing to start with, though, as there are lots of mutual aid groups in the area, who are doing a similar thing. We weren’t sure how we fitted into that at first, and whether anyone really needed what we were doing. 

Then one of our customers, who’s a doctor, said it’d be great if we could get food out to the hospitals. So we were like ‘Yes, let’s do it like that.’ People can pay it forward to health and care staff.

How does it work?

People buy support packs from our website and we deliver to hospital staff on Fridays. We’re making food constantly, now. It’s not a case of ‘We have 30 orders, let’s make 30 orders’. 

There’s enough of us doing the cooking that we’re making a continuous stream of food. At the moment, we’re delivering to hospitals weekly – cooking on Wednesday and Thursday and then getting it to hospital staff on a Friday.

What has the reaction been like?

The response has been amazing. The girls from the Whittington Hospital, who came to the door to get their food today, were standing their crying, saying ‘We’re so emotional about this’. It feels like everyone’s in this together and pulling together. In some ways it’s really nice. There are some silver linings.

How have you been promoting the support packs?

We used our local Facebook group to put out the news, but we’ve mostly been using Instagram Stories. We’ve got a good following on Instagram and it’s mostly come out of that. 

Is it popular? And is it enough to keep your business going?

It’s been really popular and it’s growing more each day. We did about 50 support packs last week, which is enough for us to keep ordering stuff from our suppliers and getting produce delivered. 

While we would love to do this totally for free, we’ve also got to keep our business ticking over. We’re not profiting out of it – but it keeps us occupied. We could end up doing more deliveries a week but we’ll have to see how it pans out, as we need to balance out our time properly. We’re also having to home-school two children at the moment!

How easy was it for your business to go from bricks-and-mortar café to online delivery?

The set-up wasn’t too challenging. I have a background in digital and social media so I turned our Squarespace website into a shop, which was really simple. Then we did some promotion on Instagram. Obviously we have a kitchen and suppliers, so they were in place already.

What’s been the biggest challenge for you as a business as a whole?

Staff has been a biggie. A lot of people let their staff go straight away when the lockdown was announced, but I told all of ours ‘We’re not going to let any of you go, we’re just going to see what happens’. But, you know obviously they’re on reduced wages and we’ll just have to see what happens…

Are you still offering a delivery service to locals, too?

Yeah, we’ve been doing local deliveries since the lockdown. Some people are ordering for other people – like single mums who are not able to go out because they’re in quarantine. We take food to them and it’s nice seeing everyone, saying hello, having distance-chats.

We’ve also been delivering wine and coffee. Wine was something that never really took off in the cafe. We had a really amazing wine list but we never quite worked out how to convert from a coffee to wine offering. 

It actually, turns out that people do like having wine delivered to them at home. A box of good wine is nice pick-me-up at the moment. 

We started promoting our wine delivery on our Instagram stories, too, and people were like ‘Oh yes, actually I would like a bottle of wine brought to me at home’! 

How does delivery work in times of social distance – what precautions do you take?

We wear gloves. We wear masks. We ring the door and move two metres back. Some people are very wary and don’t want to open the door at all until you’ve gone but that’s fine. We play it by ear.

Have you joined forces with anyone from the local community?

Last week, Sunny from Edible London got in touch and we started doing stuff with him. Edible London is amazing. (Edible London cultivates organically grown fruit and veg, and redistributes surplus supermarket food to homeless and vulnerable groups in London).

Sunny is donating all of his crops to a few different places, who need it, so they have organic veg to cook with. Yesterday he turned up with boxes from Prêt – end of the day stuff, like bars and chocolates and he was like ‘Come on, let’s get this out to people.’ So we took a load of snacks over to the Whittington hospital. 

There are loads of local people wanting to get involved and help us out. We’re always being asked ‘Do you want us to deliver this or deliver that for you?’ We’ve also just set up a WhatsApp group for all the local coffee shops to stay in touch. There’s a real sense of community in amidst all the craziness of this.

Do you know if you’re eligible for the government’s CBLIS loan and how to access it?

We need everything the government is offering at the moment – but getting hold of it is harder. I don’t feel there’s been any clear advice. Do we feel we’re getting closer to working it all out? Other than spending 10 hours on hold to Barclays, no, not really. 

We don’t know how to access the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans Scheme (CBLIS). As far as I understand, the council is going to get in contact with us about the government grant – 

but the only thing they’ve got in contact with us so far is to tell us we can’t open the cafe. 

At this point you want more help from the people who know what’s going on, but it feels like we’re all on our own. Nobody really knows what’s going on. The only consolation we take from it is: we’re not the only ones.

What would your advice to other small business owners be?

Our advice is ‘Don’t freak out’. Hopefully this will all work out. We’re all in this together.

Buy a hot meal for an NHS hero, here: https://www.hotmilkcafe.co.uk/take-away