tl;dr: Last year, 40 Maltby Street and Gergovie Wines (a London restaurant and wine business) adapted quickly and successfully to the unpredictably changing circumstances during the first coronavirus lockdowns in the UK. In this 20-minute audio interview, two of the owners tell us about their experience of adapting their business in response to sudden uncertainty. The interview highlights five observations that are relevant even outside the hospitality industry.
This issue is an experiment with a new format. The interview itself is 20 minutes long, and I add 5 minutes of context and some other news before and after—you can listen to everything you read below by clicking on the play button above.
Before we begin, two reminders, now that we are regrettably in giftgiving season:
My book about uncertainty and restaurants, The Uncertainty Mindset, is also available worldwide at www.uncertaintymindset.org
Mandatory disclosure: I can claim absolutely no objectivity when it comes to the business featured in this newsletter issue, for 40 Maltby Street is undoubtedly the restaurant I’ve been to the most, anywhere in the world.
Make of all that what you will.
Adapting to uncertainty
At the end of June 2020 (yes, last year), I talked to Steve Williams and Raef Hodgson about how they had adapted their business in the face of coronavirus uncertainty. Steve and Raef are from 40 Maltby Street and Gergovie Wines in London—a restaurant/bar and wine business that invested what seemed to me enormous effort and ingenuity into experimenting with its business model to adapt to coronavirus.
In the Before Times, 40 Maltby Street was an eat-in winebar/restaurant that didn’t take reservations and didn’t sell anything online. In March 2020, within just a few days, it transformed itself into a takeaway-only shop selling ready-to-eat meals and wine, and put in place a robust coronavirus sanitation and hazard management plan. It did this a week before the UK Government announced a full lockdown on March 26.
Gergovie Wines, the wine import and distribution part of the business, hadn’t previously sold wine online but launched an online wine shop on the day lockdown was announced. Between March and when I interviewed them at the end of June, the business as a whole experimented regularly with new or modified products and services: vegetable boxes with products from their wholesale suppliers, recipe pamphlets, frozen meal components, snacks for tea, ready-to-eat meals, home delivery. It seemed to be changing from week to week.
Being so responsive to a suddenly uncertain environment is difficult for any business, let alone a hospitality business.
At the end of June last year, Steve and Raef were still in the trenches, and there was no clear end in sight. The UK was then still in lockdown, albeit slightly relaxed from the first few months. No one was sure what the rest of 2020 would bring.
Fortunately, soon after we spoke, there came first a trickle, then a rush, of promising vaccine news. Then, in 2021, vaccinations happened surprisingly quickly (though not quickly or widely enough). Countries reopened to travel and restaurants went back to operating indoors. Coronavirus uncertainty seemed to be rapidly dissipating. I thought I’d waited too long to put out the interview.
Except … the highly contagious Omicron variant shows up in November 2021. Snap travel bans and quarantines are suddenly back to slow it down as everyone scrambles to figure out whether Omicron is as serious as it could be. (Let’s hope it’s not.)
What’s happened these last few weeks makes it clear that being able to adapt to uncertainty is durably relevant. Five observations made in the interview are especially important and apply even outside the hospitality industry:
Adapting to unpredictable change is unavoidably hard and tiring.
Not every experiment will work—but without experimenting, you can’t know which ideas are keepers, which are duds, and which duds need some tweaking to be keepers.
Regular customers who trust a business are the ones who will support it when it tries something new.
A diversified business model is an asset in uncertain times—even if it is complex and messy.
Being clear about your real motivations for running a business is essential to figuring out how it could adapt to change—and how it shouldn’t.
In other news
A book event (finally!): Amie Pollack will be hosting me for an online InterIntellect SuperSalon on The Uncertainty Mindset on 11 December, 2021 (Saturday). You can get details and a ticket here.
Podcast: We’ve released three more episodes of Mindshift, the podcast I host for UCL’s School of Management, each very relevant to the present. Joost Rietveld tells us about platform dynamics and competition; Angela Aristidou about cross-sectoral healthcare innovation; and JP Vergne about decentralised organisations (and pirate philosophy!).
Until next time, here’s some output from a current experiment in adaptation: