In early March Jill Theobald visited The Milestone Group founders Matt Bigland and Nina Patel-Bigland at a bustling Cutlery Works for our planned unLTD cover story to talk about their business back story and plans for future growth.

Then COVID-19 struck, temporarily closing the hospitality sector across the country, including all the Milestone sites.

Now, with lockdown easing, we can finally revisit the story after Jill grabbed another chat with Matt at Cutlery Works which has received ‘amazing’ feedback after re-opening with safety, cleaning and social distancing systems in place.

Read on for an update on how Matt and Nina used the lockdown ‘downtime’ to get a major app up and running – and why the Make Yourself at Home campaign ties in perfectly with their ethos of treating customers as ‘guests in our home!

“It’s about building up confidence in businesses, confidence in the area and creating that ripple effect.”

That’s a direct quote from Matt Bigland, founder of The Milestone Group from my first interview with him and partner and wife Nina Patel-Bigland back in early March this year.

Pre-COVID, we were sat chatting in Cutlery Works – the largest food hall in the north, and home to 14 unique, independent vendors all showcasing some of the finest in world and cultural cuisine. The pair had recently added a co-working space and were embracing tech with an app for ordering (and loyalty cashback for Milestone venues) that turned over £1m in just over a year.

Matt was talking about building confidence in the area through the incubation space he and Nina rent to those vendors and how some had already flown the coop.

But his ‘confidence building’ and ‘ripple effect’ quote fits in perfectly four months on, too, in their delayed cover story which we can now run. Indeed, now more than ever, as the city returns to the ‘new normal’ with the venue re-opening and The Milestone Group a major player in the Make Yourself at Home campaign which is all about giving confidence to residents and businesses a toolkit they can use to communicate to customers.

Or, in Matt and Nina’s case, ‘guests’.

“Make Yourself at Home is a perfect fit for us,” Matt tells me. “We actually train our team that people are not customers, they are guests in our home! So the synergy was there from the start.

It is the independent businesses that make Sheffield wonderful, diverse and different. People are loyal to them and now’s the time to visit – we love our city and we need to show it more than ever.

“We need to build confidence – people need to know that they are supporting local businesses. There are amazing operators here and they are doing everything they can to mitigate any risks to their guests, staff and their team so we all need to get off Amazon and get back into Sheffield!

“The best thing people can do is get out and visit businesses and spend their money locally, that’s where jobs are coming from and will be retained. We cannot risk our local economy tanking – but with people taking their own precautions and Sheffield businesses, too, the city will flourish.

“From pandemics will be born new ideas and businesses are now thinking ‘actually I can pivot my restaurant to be a deli too and sell local produce from local businesses’.

“Make Yourself at Home is bringing everyone together to support each other – literally, Sheffield is our HOME.

“It is the independent businesses that make Sheffield wonderful, diverse and different. People are loyal to them and now’s the time to visit – we love our city and we need to show it more than ever.”

It’s not surprising to hear such fighting or perhaps empowering (more of that later) talk from Matt – during our first chat I found out all about how enterprising and dedicated he and Nina were after they founded The Milestone in 2007 – less than a week before the Sheffield floods.

“Kelham Island was hit hard but because we had our ethos of everything made daily like our fresh bread that ensured we had flour on site. We turned flour into sandbags, and it set like concrete and stopped the flooding for us! But the rest of the area was badly hit and so everyone assumed it was under water and no-one visited.”

Necessity was the mother of invention for Matt and Nina, however.

“We got reopened in seven days, purely as a necessity because we had no cashflow. We started cookery classes at the weekends because we had chefs on salary, but the local area was quiet and that led to The Milestone Cookery School.”

Bringing us up to date in July 2020, it was a similar spirit when Matt and Nina re-opened Cutlery Works, INC and Craft and Dough in Kelham Island (The Milestone and Craft and Dough Campo Lane being too small to re-open at time of writing) when the hospitality sector started up in England on July 4 as lockdown eases.

We can give power back to hospitality as it’s opening back up. Rather than being penalized for going digital and doing deliveries, it could actually empower them.

Despite describing it as ‘like opening three new businesses in one day!’, Matt and Nina did it and Cutlery Works is currently open Thursday to Sunday, with walk-ins welcome but bookings preferred to control numbers. Strict cleaning and safety policies have been implemented including social distancing, one-way system, table separators, and table and app ordering. Tables and chairs are cleaned between seatings and the whole venue is deep-cleaned and disinfected once a week to hospital grade standards.

“Cutlery Works was the first choice because we had 10 independent businesses wanting to re-open but also it’s big, it’s airy with a double vaulted high roof in sections, and it feels safe so we cracked on!
“We got our heads down, deep cleaned, created our own systems! Then ramping up the energy for the team, getting them back to work, shaking off the furlough fatigue – they’re back in the swing of things and they love it, it’s what they enjoy doing.

“Everyone comes to reception, radios through to a manager who comes to greet them wearing a mask and explains the rules. Some of the managers were then running up and down the stairs seating people and did 15 miles that first Saturday, which was a bit of a shock to the fitness levels!”

But while the energised team are back, Matt is very honest about the darker days of the first few weeks of the pandemic.

“On the Tuesday, Boris said do not go to bars and restaurants but he didn’t say we had to close. That was a night of thinking ‘oh shit’. Wednesday sales plummeted 70-80 per cent across the sites and on Thursday morning we met staff at 8am and said we can’t open – it’s not viable, sales are dropping and it’s the safety of you, our team, and our guests coming in. We made the hard decision to close and secured sites, boarding them up and moving stock to secure warehouses, preparing for the worst.

“Cutlery Works was a hard one as we had 10 independent businesses in there but we met with them and explained what we’d told staff and they were completely on board and understood it was a hard decision but the right decision.

“The Friday night Boris started talking about furlough which we’d never heard of. We asked staff to give us until Monday morning and we spoke to our HR advisors who explained everything to us so we were able to put quite a lot of people on furlough, including people who had left for other jobs, too.

“Before any grants had been announced we thought we were going to lose everything we’d built up as a business over the last 12 years. We couldn’t see any support at that point and without trade coming in couldn’t service our debts. That was a lot of stress until things became a bit clearer and we tried CIBIL loans but that took three weeks and it didn’t look likely with hospitality sector.

“We applied for the Bounceback loan but the bank needed a lot of data updating so that became a bit of a nightmare. But because we have good relationships with all of our suppliers, we paid what we could and explained we’d pay the remaining as soon as we could access support. By keeping dialogue open with partners in the supply chain I think it has actually built a stronger relationship and more trust – we did what we’d said we would do, that’s helped cement that and we’ve placed new orders on re-opening.

“The first two weeks, not helped by the mainstream media scaremongering, were spent wondering if it’s all over, where’s this all going to go and drinking a lot more wine than usual! But by digesting it all and coming to terms with situation we decided to pivot.

“We had this app in development iBe, and what we’ve found with our own app is when people use it they spend more per head especially with table service. You can see all the nice images which help visualize what you’re going to get, there’s no confusion about having to go stand at a till or worrying about how to pronounce a Japanese dish. We knew the loyalty element of the app worked because we’d done £1million in the first year and had given back £100,000 in cashbacks to be used within our sites.

“For iBe we decided to build in a newsfeed because Sheffield has so many festivals, events and cultural organizations which you might only find out about if you’re on social networks or in a bar or café and you pick up a copy of unLTD or Exposed! So it was essential to collate all these stories in the feed.

“The biggest bugbear we had was commission. During the pandemic everyone pivoted straight to delivery, but we didn’t because Uber Eats, Deliveroo etc take 30-35 per cent commission. If someone ordered two pizzas costing £20 we’d automatically lose £6 of that + VAT on top. It didn’t make sense for us to fire up the sites for deliveries that may not come – and then lose 30 per cent, too.

“So, we decided to add delivery into the mix of the app too but do it commission free. We did a deal with a national player delivery partner who had recently expanded into Sheffield which means we’re going to pass on that wholesale cost of delivery to a restaurant with a £2 iBe fee, the rest to the consumer. We could save a typical takeaway restaurant doing say 100 orders a week £35,000 a year in delivery fees – that made us think we can change the game here.

“We can give power back to hospitality as it’s opening back up. Rather than being penalized for going digital and doing deliveries, it could actually empower them. They would then be part of the iBe network and the loyalty again plays back in to keep the local cycle going, and they can use the news feeds so it becomes more like a social tool.

“We’re planning to use it for retail too – retail needs to be doing more deliveries to compete but the costs are astronomical so by partnering with us they can use the same at home delivery tech that the high profile national supermarket chains have.

“Amazon is making trillions from this model – let’s enable local independents to have the same bite they do.

“Similarly if you go down the voucher route with Groupon, Wowcher etc they take their commission and only pay on redemption so we’re going to do the same on the app with vouchers for each of the vendors, commission free. They control the offers, they control the margins – it’s giving power back.

“It’s due in the Apple App Store on August 6 and we want to take it national – iBe is the only app in the UK that is commission free. The guys we’ve partnered with work with Just Eat in other cities so once it’s established we want to go to Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, London.”

But back to the bricks and mortar venues.

“We’re building numbers slowly and steadily after reopening and building trust with it. People might have FOGO (fear of going out) and we understand – the media has hyped it up that everyone in a bar is out there getting drunk but that street in Soho on opening weekend was just that – one street, from the people we spoke to. Everywhere else was controlled and people were really well-behaved.

“We have to battle that perception because the good operators are doing it well and they know this is for the long term – for guests who trust you, there will be that longevity, they will visit and entertain themselves in your venues.

“The reviews and feedback we’ve had are amazing, our guests like the safety policy and structure in place. This is here to stay so it’s about how we and others reevaluate a business model so we all stay viable but still offer great variety and experiences.

“We’re planning to open Monday-Wednesday for the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out campaign from August – 50 per cent off during these times is a great way to stimulate things. There’s been some negativity about it but it’s going to get people out and spending with businesses so they can then see it is well-managed, there are systems in place, there’s still a good atmosphere.

“It’s all about getting people out of the house – the FOGO needs to be challenged so people can make themselves back at home in Sheffield!”

Food halls – a bite-size view

Matt and Nina share their views on why they knew food halls were the model for them – pre and post COVID-19:

“Before Peddler we’d become interested in street food and looked at possible warehouses but held back at the time,” said Matt. “But then we spotted the next evolution of street food, after seeing vendors lugging around equipment, was for them to get their own bricks and mortar.”

“But,” added Nina, “we knew from experience that business rates alone mean that wouldn’t always be feasible. People don’t want to sign up for a 10-or 15-year lease with markets changing all the time, either.

“We’d seen food halls on holiday in Asia and liked that experience of multi-generational dining. Families all discussing their daily woes or successes and eating together as a group, not sat with a tray in front of the TV!”

Said Matt: “Having a toddler ourselves we knew that was precious time people needed to make available, so we started shopping around again. Tim Bottrill of colloco found two to show me. Cutlery Works was the second and a 15,000 sq ft shell of a building needing electrics and everything – but when we came here and saw the sun streaming in the large windows, it was like New York loft apartments … in Neepsend!

“We knew this is it! And if we don’t go for it, we’d regret it as someone else will.”

Said Nina: “We self-funded and did it ourselves again. It was make or break again but we pulled it off. We saw it in 2017, got in June 2018 and opened four months later.”

“We’re also getting older,” laughs Matt. “We don’t have the energy that we used to have to drive those ideas! But this next generation does so we wanted to make it as easy as possible for vendors to join us. We have skin in the game with them, we drive footfall and market it – they just have to join on a short-term lease and smash out amazing food.

“We’ve just gone to legals on a food hall in Liverpool – this was going on during lockdown, we were thinking can we sign a contract for a hospitality business in a pandemic?! But we realised food halls will survive – they are big, open plan and you can get start-ups and incubator businesses in there.

“So while we’re contracting in some areas, it makes sense to grow in others like this and, like we often do, we decided ‘okay, let’s do it!’”