FOCUS: Meet the expat business owners who have survived and thrived during Spain’s Covid crisis

TIMES have been hard for everyone during the coronavirus pandemic but among the hardest hit are those businesses involved in a hospitality sector that is heavily reliant on the tourism industry.

Belts have been tightened, businesses refocused and survival plans put into action. And the more forward thinking entrepreneur’s now find themselves in position to not just catch up on lost ground but to even forge ahead.

The Olive Press catches up with a resilient group of expat men and women whose businesses have weathered the storm of the pandemic.

A Dickens of a challenge

Raqdford 4
INTERVIEW: Sala boss Ian Radford (pictured with wife and daughter) talks to Dilip Kuner.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Charles Dickens may have written those words about the French revolution, but they could just as well have been penned for the British boss of the Sala Group of restaurants, Ian Radford, whose situation in Spain has been distinctly challenging over the past few years.

Apart from the spectre of Brexit, which has still not settled down, he has had nearly two years of COVID-19 problems to deal with.

Speaking to the Olive Press the 52-year-old father of three explained: “Everything was great and 2019 was our best year ever. Things went to another level.”

It came after a decade of hard work, which saw him open his seminal La Sala restaurant in 2010 and the nearby La Sala by the Sea in 2008, which was designed and is now run by his wife Claire with the help of son Piers, 19, and eldest daughter Sophie, 27. Daughter Chea at 11 is the baby of the family.

Along with the Oak Garden Grill (now rebranded as The Social by Sala) and the Havana bar in Estepona (run by Sophie) they have attracted a big celebrity clientele, including Irish superstar Ronan Keating, Premier League footballers including Harry Kane, Ashley Cole and David Bentley – who liked the restaurant so much he became a shareholder. Then there is Alan Sugar, Jamie Oliver and Prince Albert of Monaco, not to mention just about the entire cast of TOWIE who have become regulars.

This has led to an upward spiral of success – a trend that continued into 2020 with takings up 20% year on year in January and February.

But the worst of times were about to strike as COVID-19 suddenly came on the scene.

The lockdown from March last year instantly brought the guillotine down on business for three months, with no opening allowed. 

And even when things opened again the levels were far lower than ever before. “Our turnover in 2020 crashed 70% over 2019. The challenge was massive,” admits Ian, a former professional squash player and keen golfer.

“It didn’t help that we had very little help from the government. While the ERTE furlough scheme paid staff 70% of their normal salary, what a lot of people don’t realise is that we still had to pay their social security contributions.

“Guess how much that worked out as? Almost exactly 70% of their salaries. And we had 160 staff! “In effect it was costing the government nothing – the businesses had to pay it… and apart from some small payments we got very little help from the government.”

Speaking on the terrace of his flagship restaurant La Sala, he was keen to recognise the tough times his loyal staff have also suffered.

“They have had to make do with 70% of their salaries plus they have no tips, which really hurts them,” he points out.

Despite the huge drop in turnover the businessman realised that he still needed to invest in the business to put himself in a position to take advantage of the recovery. 

He has been targeting local trade, improving his terrace to avoid indoor seating restrictions and changed the emphasis of the Oak Garden Grill, relaunching it as The Social by Sala to make it more focused on being a sports bar rather than a restaurant.

And the investment seems to be paying off. “We have just had a very encouraging July – business was actually up on July 2019. On top of that we have become more efficient as we had to be if we were to survive.

“It is not just us – everyone around here in Banus is very busy. I have noticed that the customers this year have very high spending power. They have the money and they seem happy to spend it.”

Adding to the optimism is the way he was able to shore up his business financially. “We did manage to get some low-cost loans – that is something the government can be thanked for – so we can pay our 2020 costs off over the next five years.

“It means we didn’t have to approach private capital or our investors for money.”

And the rest of the year is starting to shape up nicely. “We have managed to hang in there through the bad times. Now we are in position to take advantage of the opportunities that always arise after crises. “We are expecting to finish the year strongly and to have an incredible 2022 – COVID permitting!”

Needing a santo!

After being shut for 19 months, British-run Molino del Santo hotel, near Ronda, is open again, but uncertainty means constantly changing plans, writes owner Andy Chapell.

Molino Del Santo Andy Chapell

We had been closed for 19 successive months before we finally opened again in June this year.

Such a long period of closure was tough on lots of levels and understandably, plenty of clients asked us to refund deposits paid for holidays they could not enjoy. 

Fortunately many guests decided to leave their deposits for future visits, with one couple having tried to rearrange their stay five times.

When we did finally reopen there was a lot of remedial work to do with machinery that had been left unused for so long and a huge amount of minor repair work to do. A big building creaks a little after 19 unloved months.

However we have a great team here and we all worked hard together to get the show back on the road.

We have been reasonably busy for the weeks we have been open without being in danger of overloading our bank accounts with profits. 

August is shaping up well and is likely to be topped up with last minute bookings from local sources.

Going into the autumn, September is normally our best month of the year for income and we have lots of reservations already in the hotel.

However we are relying on people feeling more confident about travelling from northern Europe and in our case, especially from the UK. 

If international travel is perceived to be safe then we are very optimistic for a great autumn and will stay open longer than normal – until December. 

If travel restrictions are still in place then it is very likely that we will close or limit our opening to a few days a week. 

Very uncertain times lead to very difficult, and constantly changing, decisions. 

Optimistic travel will fully recover

After dropping to just 30 staff, key costa hotel Sunset Beach is back at 120 workers, writes Kirsty McKenzie.

Mark Wardell

The manager of one of the Costa del Sol’s most emblematic hotels is feeling ‘more optimistic than ever’ as tourists finally return to Spain. 

After a very tough 18 months, the tourism industry is starting to get back to ‘some kind of normality’ Sunset Beach Club boss Mark Wardell (pictured above) told the Olive Press.

The Irish-owned hotel in Benalmadena is finally starting to get back to its former staffing levels of 180 employees, who usually cater to over 2000 tourists at this time of year.

“We are back up to 120 staff and gradually things are starting to pick up again. 

“We’ve seen an improvement this month and then in September we will see a return to some kind of normality. We are very optimistic about that. Actually we’re feeling stronger than ever.” 

In particular he is bullish on a recovery in the hotel industry as COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available.

While bookings will continue to face headwinds over the next few months, more consumers will be confident and ready to take trips, he explained. 

The 4-star hotel, whose sisters include the Castleknock Hotel and the Heritage Hotel and Spa in Ireland, has mostly been serving Spanish customers this summer.

“But we’ve also had some guests from elsewhere in Europe and are getting ready to welcome a lot more,” adds the father-of-three, who lives in Benahavis.

“The lack of certainty over travel restrictions and tests has made the UK market more hesitant but there is definitely a real pent up demand and I think we’ll be busier than ever come September or October.” 

He adds: “The last year has really given us all some perspective and made everyone appreciate things more and I truly believe the tourism industry will come back stronger than ever. 

“People are really looking for a better quality of life, whether for a holiday or a more permanent move, and it’s clear that Spain can offer that. 

“The spotlight is back on the Costa del Sol and we’re going to see demand skyrocket. There’s no better place to live after all.” 

An Oasis in the storm

When the pandemic storm broke, Stephen Grange and Alex Hemingway bosses of the Oasis in Benijofar weren’t too worried.

Lockdown Legacies Steve Grange Oasis

“When the pandemic hit, we just didn’t know what to expect,” admitted 61-year-old Stephen, a former advertising executive (pictured above).

“We thought it was going to be an enforced two week closure at first, so we took the chance to enjoy a well-earned holiday.” 

“As we planned for the reopening, we designed new menus and operations to get back to some sort of normality.”

“Menus had to reflect what people wanted, and when they wanted it.”

Alex, a 52-year-old former teacher and trained chef, added: “Lockdown also made us review a lot of what else needed to change, so there were benefits.”

Like many restaurateurs Alex and Stephen had to think outside the box to survive the crisis. “We created a new brand called Oasis Heat&Eat; a range of wholesome meals to go, that just needed warming at home,” said Alex.

Stephen continued: “We did everyday meals, curries, Sunday lunches, and even Valentines and Mothers Day options.”

The concept is turning into a new string to their bow.

“Certainly the Heat&Eat menu will return in the Autumn as people choose to eat in more and out less,” said Stephen.

“We pride ourselves on being here for everyone, whether it’s a coffee, a nice meal, or just a chat – that will never change.”

“Those chats have been dominated by three topics in the last five years; the EU referendum, Brexit and then COVID.”

“All three have left such a legacy, they will never go away.”

“But because of them, we are stronger and more focussed about the future.”

We learnt a lot

The team behind Triple Brew in Rojales picked up some valuable tips during the lockdown.

Lockdown Legacies Faith And Michael Triple Brew

Seasoned restaurateurs Michael and Faith Lindemann (pictured above) actually opened their restaurant and nano-brewery in the middle of the pandemic, November 2020, just as takeaways were being introduced as the only option available.

“We took it week by week and news-release by news-release,” explains Michael, who has previously held front-of-house and restaurant management positions in New Zealand.

“With the planned wine-tastings and beer brewing demonstrations on hold, we needed to find a different way of bringing customers in.

“We worked on making our takeaway menu something special, offering beers and wine samples in smaller bottles and QR Codes meant we could still showcase different options safely.”

Knowing how busy the area can get, the summer influx of tourists was really missed.

But they discovered that takeaways are still a growing sector and they have vowed to continue with the QR codes as they save printing costs.

Faith, who has 20 year’s experience as a head-chef in native New Zealand, the UK and in Spain, admitted: “Customers’ loyalty and staff dedication really shone through during the pandemic – that’s a great legacy.”

“That support ensured we were still here once the restrictions were lifted.”

Lockdown shocker, but now stronger

Rumours Formentera was only open for three weeks when COVID struck.

Lockdown Legacies Tracey Faulkner Rumours

Tracey Faulkner (pictured above) loved her local so much she bought it and transformed it into Rumours Formentera in 2020.

After working in her native Belfast, Magaluf and in New York hospitality, the 34-year-old had even built a portfolio of how her perfect bar would look.

“We’d only been open for three weeks following refurbishment, when lockdown forced us to close,” she lamented.

“On that first night, the front window was smashed in and we got broken into.”

It was an awful start, but friends and customers rallied round to help fix the damage, after the insurance company’s attempt wasn’t up to scratch.

Steve Howells Transport gave us some strong wood, and my boyfriend got a group together to do a secure job at fixing it.

“Those kind actions gave a hint of what was to come from the pandemic,” continues Tracey, 

“Lockdown gave me time to focus and get ready to launch a takeaway menu, when the government allowed.

“Knowing a second lockdown was coming, we were ready for that, too.

“Getting through December 2020 was essential, so we delivered a three-course Christmas menu for €14.95, which was very popular all through the month.”

While little money was made from it, keeping staff in a job throughout winter and reminding punters that their local was still trading, proved a worthwhile investment.

“I feel very lucky to have come through this pandemic, but that’s down to hard work and long hours,” adds Tracey.

“Even if customers didn’t order from us, we kept in touch with Facebook videos showing people how to make exotic cocktails.”

A new pizza oven meant Rumours could be even more diverse with their menu, and free deliveries meant essential contact with customers was maintained.

“We’re open now, and after we introduced home-made tapas every day, we’re even looking to recruit extra staff to cope with the demand.”

But Tracy admits, “I can honestly say I would not be here without the support of my parents and loyal customers who are now coming back in droves.”

“It’s been a long wait, but the legacy of lockdown is a better business and a stronger relationship with the community.”

The Olive Press wishes them all luck, and hope that our readers will support them in the coming months and years.

Interviews by Dilip Kuner, Kirsty Mackenzie and Simon Wade.


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