Humming Along

Ceris Hymas, Head of Marketing at PMW, interviews Ramón, the owner of Hummings Bar in Esher, to find out how he saved his newly acquired business from an unexpected lockdown. 

I don’t think any of us could have predicted or imagined being sat in a café surrounded by signs telling us to keep our distance and staff wearing surgical face masks. I can’t see Ramón’s normal welcoming smile, but I can see that his tired eyes are trying to convey his warm welcome above his mask. Ramón has been working around 100 hours a week to make sure that his bar and café survives the global pandemic and he tells me he has not had a day off in 9 weeks. My reason for interviewing him, is to understand just what this local business owner has had to do to ensure his bar survives the lockdown.

Ramón only purchased Hummings bar back in January and back then it was solely open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. For a boutique bar in a niche market, offering high-end cocktails and champagne, this was enough to make a reasonable profit. Shortly after taking on the bar, business was good and the bar was busy every week, with some people splashing out on numerous bottles of £850 champagne. Then came the unimaginable news that the bar would have to shut indefinitely due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

“January, February and March were really busy, private hires were through the roof, but then Covid happened which took us a million steps back. We were told we couldn’t actually trade at all. We decided to use the lockdown to strip back the place and make the changes we had planned, but hadn’t had the time to do before. We completely remodelled the space, found a chef and decided it was time to try day time food. We got a coffee machine and stayed up for days and nights learning how to make coffees, which is a lot harder than it looks!

We opened through lockdown, although in hindsight we opened a week too late as people were starting to go back to work, but at home. We had a very quiet takeaway service running so that we could keep the business going. It wasn’t as busy as we had liked, which was a concern as we had hired three new full time staff to operate the café, but as soon as people were allowed to sit in again we saw a huge increase in trade. We went from breaking even, to doubling that within a week! It was still a nerve racking time, just trying to make sure that we were adhering to the council guidelines and constantly offering the clients what they wanted.”

Ramón realised very quickly into lockdown that the only way he was going to survive was to start offering a food takeaway service. It was something he had always planned for the bar, but the lockdown meant that these plans had to be accelerated so that he could continue to keep the business afloat. The bar now opens 7 days a week and 6 evenings a week and has even started offering a brand new brunch menu that is proving very popular.

“It was a devastating blow to be told we couldn’t open, but I have to look at it in a positive light. The whole refurb and change over to a kitchen and bar took 4 weeks alone. Having lockdown meant that I didn’t have to make the difficult decision to close a profitable bar. It would have had the same impact on my business anyway. Lockdown meant I was forced to react very quickly and make the changes I had planned for the business while the bar was forced to be closed. In a way, it was quite positive for the business. It’s the dream to be able to successfully offer wet and dry sales, day and night and now we are able to offer that.

It’s still tough times for us and we are working a minimum of 100 hours a week. The evenings are still quiet and we are only making the same profit we were making three nights a week before. Previously I could sell two bottles of £850 champagne and it would be gone within 10 minutes. You can imagine how many espresso, lattes and cappuccinos that would take to make the same profit, not to mention the effort from staff to clean and reset tables.

I know that in the long run the business will be in a much better place and this is exactly what I dreamed the business model would look like. As people start to venture out again in the evenings I’ll start to see an increase in profits, but for now I am just happy that we have been able to adapt and continue to open.”

It is clear to see that Ramón has put in a lot of work to ensure that the business continues to function during all of this and I can certainly vouch for the quality of his food and coffee. What was also clear to see is that he is a business man that operates with compassion and integrity. When asked about where he thought the business would go next he made it very clear that, although he has great plans, he doesn’t want to step on the toes of other businesses on the high street.

“It’s a little bit scary because we keep hearing about local businesses that have gone under, businesses that we never thought would. Everyone is struggling, not just the little business, but everyone. That’s why I learn all the customers’ names and why I am here every day to make sure they know mine. I get at least 10 people asking me to make sandwiches every day and I refuse to do it, for the sole reason that I don’t want to compete with Subway, Nero or other cafes on the high street. We are in a world right now where everyone needs support, not just the independent businesses.”

Ramón has some interesting plans for the future of Hummings bar and hopefully, with the help of his landlord, he will be able to extend the business to accommodate more customers whilst adhering to the social distancing rules. For now, he is just focusing on taking each day as it comes and hoping that he has a business model in place to survive, should we encounter a second wave.

The food and drink sector has been hit hard by this pandemic and it has been those businesses that have been able to react and adapt that have managed to survive when others have failed. Hummings bar is certainly an example of this and we wish them the best of luck with their future plans to recover and evolve as the world reaches a new normal.

This interview was undertaken as part of our commitment to supporting and promoting our local food and drink industry. This commitment extends to our involvement as headline sponsor for the Surrey Life Food and Drink Awards.