Covid-19: ‘You have to be two steps ahead of the Government’

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  • From fine dining, I switched to take out food to survive.

“We watched what was happening around us closely, and three days before the announcement of restaurant closures, we completely shifted our business model to prepare for a take-out eventuality.”

Speaking to the Malta Business Weekly, Alex Aquilina the owner of Shakinah restaurants, explained as a family business the utmost creativity they had to adopt since the onset of Covid-19 to stay operating.

Shakinah was already one of the first eateries in Malta to make use of logistic delivery services such as Bolt, before the Covid-19 lockdown in March. “We expanded with additional delivery services; these partnerships were truly pivotal to our survival. We went from 12% take out services to 100%”.  Alongside his wife, Alberta Aquilina Manche, the pair strived to keep all staff employed. “It was important for us to retain the relationships we have developed with our team. We didn’t want to be in a situation where the restaurant re-opened, and have to train new staff, or the customers wouldn’t recognise a familiar face serving them. We were able to make use of Covid-19 Government schemes which were also a lifeline to us”. 

Speaking about other ways to remain afloat given the challenging climate, both of the couple’s sons have played an integral role in pushing the business forward. “Both Matthew and Nicky are very forward-thinking; they invest a certain level of energy that connects with younger generations. I can honestly say as a family business, we work together and respect one another very well. The boys focused a lot on digital mediums and campaigns. One initiative where we saw great success, we the introduction of a 5 euros voucher to be redeemed within the restaurant with every 50 euros spent on a takeaway. This was an incentive for those customers who were spending almost that amount and a great way to reward our customers. We printed 800 of these vouchers, and within ten weeks they were gone. Now we have re-opened we have started seeing those vouchers come back to us, with people spending in the restaurants. Moving forward, take-out is still a huge part of our business model, and I strongly believe dining culture is changing, and we will remain operating at 50% take out for the foreseeable future.”

The Malta Business Weekly also spoke to Chris Sant, Executive manager of another popular family retailer, JB Stores, Sant explained, “During the weeks leading to the mandatory closure of non-essential shops we could feel the tension and worry building up among ourselves and our clients. We were preparing for something that before this year was unimaginable, JB stores after 37 years of continuous operation and all other establishments whatever their size, were forced to close”.

“We knew there would still be a demand for household products locally, especially since nearly the entire population were now confined to their homes. We finished an e-commerce website that we had been preparing slowly a few months before and assigned key staff to maintain it and other forms of which our customers could contact us such as social media messaging and telephone lines. The response from our customers was strong and intensive. As the number of staff that could stay in the shop communicating with customers and preparing their orders for delivery was minimal, it was challenging to keep up.

Sant added, “Everyone in the family had a role from communicating with customers to picking items for orders to delivering contactless. We managed to keep going with a huge thanks to the staff who gave their assistance during this period.  As restrictions where being lifted all legally required social distancing and prevention measures were implemented at all branches of JB Stores, the e-commerce website and social media communications continued to be an essential part of our operations”.

When it came to any changes in purchasing Sant noted “One interesting shift was in our clothing fabric department, as no events or social activities were allowed. Many people did not purchase fabric for dresses suits, but we saw a surge in simple cotton fabric, elastic and non-woven fabric- all for the fabrication for face masks. We also shifted our then almost idle seamstresses and tailor’s production to three-layered facemasks for the public, which proved so successful, many times we could not keep up with the demand”.

Last Week Minister Schembri stated during a family business webinar, “I urge these businesses to be bold and innovative in order to strengthen their competitiveness and enhance the skills of our workers. We want family businesses to continue to grow and flourish in such a way that they continue to be passed down from generation to generation”.

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