How has Covid-19 impacted independent businesses?

We all know how testing the coronavirus pandemic has been, from missed celebrations and a new virtual way of experiencing the city to the more devastating loss of loved ones. While the ongoing restrictions can be extremely sedating, one demographic has taken a serious hit – that is the independent business owners of Leeds. Despite all of the adaptability, optimistic outlook and loyal support that has been so prevalent across the local independent scene, it is becoming increasingly endangered.

I spoke with three indie owners to get their take on how the pandemic has impacted their businesses… Vicki Anderson who founded The Hot Room Leeds (situated in the heart of The Core Shopping Centre), Tom Stafford the owner of Doh’hut (tucked away on Trevelyan Square) and finally James Abbot-Donnelly, who runs Sheaf Street and Duke Studios (sandwiched in between Leeds Docks and Crown Point).

The Hot Room Leeds offers a restorative yet physically and mentally challenging type of yoga, which follows the 26+2 sequence of postures practiced in 40°C heat popularised by Bikram Choudhury (the studio has no affiliation with Mr Choudhury who has a long history of sexual misconduct – watch the “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” documentary film on Netflix for more on this scandal). As a student here myself I cannot recommend The Hot Room Leeds enough, the teachers have expert knowledge when paired with the intense heat and humidity allows for a deeper full body work out than other traditional yoga styles. However, as lockdown loomed in the spring of last year the studio was forced to close its doors for face-to-face practice. When asked about the challenges of 2020 for The Hot Room Leeds, Vicki replied “[The pandemic] has had a massive impact on our business as it was centred around offering in person yoga classes in a hot yoga studio with a specific heated environment”, she continues “it is hard to do this at home, and that was our whole business model”. Despite this, Vicki and the other teachers swiftly took to zoom, even with hints and tips on how to replicate the fiery environment of the studio at home, a lot of members decided practicing from their living rooms wasn’t quite the same. It became apparent that in order to keep people engaged, a new experience was needed and fast.

Having already made the transition from a niche 26+2 hot yoga studio to something of a virtual version, the brand started to evolve into a wellness hub offering the likes of posture tutorials, guided mediation sessions and vegan cooking workshops, all online. Vicki told me “we developed things we would never have done before, [the pandemic] forced us to accelerate… we had to develop an on-demand library of pre-recorded classes which is here to stay, and it is a great resource for students”. This digitalisation of the fitness industry has long been happening, with big brands like Peloton® and the rise of health and fitness influencers occupying a large sect of the market. A major positive that has come out of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has driven independent studios like The Hot Room Leeds to invest in digital tools that will serve their community well into the future. That withstanding, hot yoga remains an intimate community-based sport that prides itself on a holistic approach to wellbeing with an obvious need for a physical space, I for one can’t wait to get a sweat on back in the studio. Vicki as cheerful as ever ends our chat with “I don’t think we should say 2020 was a right-off… we learnt so much and the studio really developed over this time… I think there’s a lot of hope, there are good things to come this year”. I couldn’t agree with her more.

One thing you can’t do via zoom is dine on the great food of the city’s independent eateries. The hospitality industry has suffered, probably the worst in living memory, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tom Stafford opened Doh’hut, a project three years in the making from his days of selling street food out of a trailer, at the very beginning of 2020. These donuts are the best I have ever tasted, they are simple, elegant and true to proper French patisserie. Everything is hand baked instore daily and the light fluffy dough is testament to the freshness of the ingredients. Tom explained to me that after just two months of trading “it hit March, people were taking their chairs and computers home with them, the city centre just turned into a ghost town”. Although there must have been temptation to shut up shop permanently, Tom and the guys at Doh’hut started offering a deli service of freshly baked bread and homemade pesto, in response to the supermarket shortages due the panic buying phenomenon. This and the use of online food delivery company Deliveroo was enough to keep this start-up afloat until the first lockdown was lifted.

The flip-flopping of restrictions and lockdowns has caused much uncertainty for the hospitality sector. Throughout the second half of last year the North of England was subject to some of the harshest restrictions in the country. The city centre foot fall dropped drastically in waves, nonetheless Doh’hut managed to keep a regular stream of outgoing donuts by supplying Fika in Headingley and North Star Coffee at the Docks with wholesale bakes. They have a strong relationship with North Star Coffee and like many coffee spots in the city source their beans for your cup from them – these types of partnerships offer a plus for both parties. One of the foodie highlights of last year was the Chow Down street food venture at Temple Arches which brought together some of the great indies of Leeds, including Doh’hut, for tasty food and drinks with good vibes. It has been pretty uplifting to see how the Leeds independent community has rallied together during these tough times and proves how collaborative the scene really is. So how can we continue to support Doh’hut and our independent eateries? Tom says very modestly “post on social media, interact with us there, leave us a review and just tell people about us”, I say Tom has finessed the donut so go buy them, you won’t regret it.

Leeds is not only a playground for the foodies but also those who enjoy coming out at dark, the live music and nightlife culture that exists here is something to get riled up about. Sheaf Street, the multi-purpose event space boasts one of the coolest line-ups of live DJs, gigs and events in the city. They are host to the annual summer Yarden Parties and regular comedy nights, life drawing sessions and puppy themed cafes to name just a few. James explained “we have often jumped before we were pushed by the government” as they closed before they were legally required to do so back in lockdown number one. Even back in October last year, James decided to commit the venue to delivery only for its food and café service until at least February 2021, way ahead of Boris Johnson’s decision for a third lockdown. It is clear that Sheaf Street is putting lives before profit, to add to that, they are one of the very few venues that have managed to keep supporting freelance performers, who are often self-employed with little support from the government. Sheaf Street recently took part in the virtual Shelter Me Festival seeing them host 13-hours of back-to-back Live DJ sessions, alongside Club Solo in Manchester and London’s MTCRADIO and Feed Your Head, all in aid of the housing and homelessness charity, Shelter. Nonetheless, the venue has had its challenges, with James telling me that “you are just trying to lose as little money as you can”, even raffling off the bar stock at one point.

Right behind the doors of the Sheaf Street café hides a big open plan co-working space, Duke Studios, that has been engineered and curated to specifically bring together creative people. With permanent spots, hot desks and studio space, it allows for companies and individuals to pass work and collaborate, often resulting in the birth of new start-ups. The instructions to work from home has meant a lot of friendly faces have not renewed their contracts for a spot in this dynamic space. James’ advice to anyone looking to support the independent community is to “keep an eye out for the ones you’d be really annoyed about if they suddenly were gone, they need you now”.

These three city centre staples have shown immense levels of flexibility and ingenuity throughout 2020 and I have no doubt that we will all be able to enjoy them doing what they do best, bringing people together, later on in the year. They each have had to continuously adapt and invest in new ways of operating, always taking this in their stride and giving back to the local community, I think they and the rest of the indie scene in Leeds should be extremely proud of the value they add to this beautiful city.

Photo Credit: Trip Advisor