How a popular Leamington restaurant adapted, and succeeded, during the pandemic - with great support from its customers

As restaurants reopen, we talk to the owner of Memsaab about how he had to change in order to survive lockdown

Tuesday, 25th May 2021, 8:10 am
Updated Tuesday, 25th May 2021, 8:12 am
Memsaab's owner Manjinder Kooner (known as Manny).

It has been a challenging time for our restaurants during the pandemic. Many have had to adapt to a new world - and sadly some have had to close their doors for good. Indian restaurant Memsaab in Clarendon Avenue, Leamington, was one of those businesses that found away through the pandemic by changing its approach. As cafes, pubs and restaurants open their doors once again, Memsaab's owner Manjinder Kooner (known as Manny) talks about how he and his staff worked together to make it through - with the help of their customers.

We are a local independent restaurant based right here in Leamington Spa for now just over 15 years. We cannot believe how the time has flown by and the journey we have come along on. We have had the immense pleasure of serving our local community and become fast and steady friends. Just like real friends recent times have tested our relationship and we have come through the other side of lockdowns and closures all the stronger because of the wonderful support from our locals, without which we know we would not be here today.

We have a wonderful team in the kitchen (that makes the magic happen) that has been with us since the very first day. Something that I hear is very rare in the restaurant industry. I put it to my team and we put it down to having great open, honest conversations and treating each other with respect. The pandemic certainly tested my team both physically and emotionally. Reading through the reams of health practices and guides, putting my teams well-being and mental health at the forefront, changing the way we operated and even closing our doors for dine in guests left us all feeling uncertain at best.

Following the initial lockdown announcement in March 2020 I had some difficult decisions to make on how to spend dwindling resources and future proof the business in an unprecedented situation. At first I made the decision to close and let everyone ride out the tidal wave - it was only going to last a few months right? The theory was everyone would isolate at home and the virus would be contained and end. Wishful thinking, right! A full four months later, having had enjoyed the wonderful sun and reconnected with my family in a way I really appreciated, I decided to dip my toe into diversifying the takeaway business by using the delivery platforms.

Bringing a new and exciting challenge the delivery platforms (Deliveroo, Just Eat and Uber Eats) were surprisingly easy to connect with. The team felt re-energised but apprehensive. What if re-opening put us in harm's way? Would we be more likely to catch the virus? What if we were to inadvertently spread the virus? Is that even possible? Looking at our operating model, I decided to take measures to eliminate the stress. By reducing the staff in the restaurant to the minimum and forming a working bubble, and creating a manageable but tantalising menu to offer something interesting to our guests.

The first orders rolled in (or pinged in on the tablets) and my regular customers rang me directly to order a collection and we gently eased into our new working environment. As a business it was enough to survive. A moment of true realisation of what it is to be appreciated, when my phone rang from friends to make sure I was okay. Asking if they could buy a hundred pound or a two hundred pound gift voucher to see me through right! I was overwhelmed and speechless. We didn’t have a huge presence on social media platforms - my weakness - and it dawned on me that I had to get out there to keep busy.

The second challenge presented itself with the news that we could reopen to seated guests. How did we keep everyone safe without compromising our quality? We stripped out tables by up to twenty percent to allow social distancing, installed a new kitchen layout to encourage distance working and trained everyone to within an inch of their lives.

We had the benefit of some amazing support from BID Leamington, health and safety officers at the local and wider council and flexibility from our overhead providers. At every turn when faced with challenges like divine providence the solution presented itself. Through adjusting our expectations and outlook we stand here still today and richer for the experience.

My top tips for success as a restauranteur:

1. Be personal or hands-on. I run my business and train my staff to take pride in their work. From the smallest of tasks we strive for perfection. The personal touch goes a long way. I have come to anticipate what my customers like and often know their order by rote;

2. A commonly used phrase by me is “always stay one step ahead”, the restaurant industry is such that one can never anticipate what could happen next, one minute the restaurant could be empty with no order, and 15 mins later, its packed, its exiting really. So long as you’re one step ahead of all your jobs, one shall always find it easier even in unexpected situations.

3. Always be actively involved in the day to day, at least to a certain extent, because the motivation and encouragement I provide to my staff ensures they’re always on their toes and focused. They say “team work makes the dream work”, something I definitely would suggest to other budding business owners.