Sep 08, 2020

Startup diary: Elizabeth Haigh

Michelin-starred chef Elizabeth Haigh launched her restaurant Mei Mei in London to rave reviews before the pandemic forced its closure.
1. Mid March 2020
Closing the restaurant

‘The day we have to officially close the site to the public is probably one of the worst days I’ve ever had. On the last day we did a flash sale of everything in the shop and gave stuff to charity – I didn’t want anything to go to waste. The next day there was this bubbling anxiety. I’m a control freak, I need to know exactly what’s going on but there was nothing within our control. Information is coming in trickles – our life savings have gone into this project.’

2. Mid March 2020
Furloughing conundrums

‘I don’t put the staff on furloughed leave straight away – I decide to pay them in accrued holiday. I feel like there’s so much misinformation out there. Then we get more info about the furlough scheme and I’m able to make the decision to do it. The staff are all very relieved and it gives me a huge sense of relief. It feels like there’s a bit more security for the team – that was my main worry. I can work for nothing, but they can’t.’

3. Late March 2020
Looking at financials

‘Being part of Borough Market means we don’t pay business rates and are zero-rated, so we can’t even qualify for any business grants or loans – we’re just too young a company. It’s a kick in the teeth that there’s no financial support despite losing all our income. Not hearing from our insurance company is also driving us a bit insane; we pay so much for it – we pressed a claim straight away, but we just haven’t got any response.’

4. Early April 2020
Pivoting

‘Our brand is quite nimble and phase two of the company was always going to be the retail side. I spend almost two weeks researching what’s the best produce, what will sell and come to the conclusion it’s the Sambal chili paste, the Kaya coconut jam and spice mixes. I research into subscription services but it gets complicated because of postage. Luckily I’ve already done a lot of the legwork for the e-commerce in terms of recipe testing – that’s easy.’ 

5. Mid April 2020
Launch day

‘We launch the site to our newsletter subscribers, which is about 200 people; our hardcore supporters. The website crashes because of demand – we have £1,000 of orders within six hours. It’s a shine of positivity; it makes me feel that people want to support Mei Mei, because all of this is going to support the company. It helps us cover our rent. Everyone is messaging us really positive things and seem really excited – knowing there’s demand there is a really positive thing.’

6. Mid April 2020
WFH

‘I’m loving spending time with my son and seeing all his changes but it’s really difficult. It’s like you’re wearing two hats all the time – trying to be a mum but my brain is somewhere else, thinking about getting all these orders out. Every lunchtime is spent together and we go on our daily walk. Stuff like explaining to a two year old why a park’s closed – managing that brings up your stress a lot, and coming back into work afterwards is tough.’

7. Mid April 2020
Production challenges

‘We have all these orders come through and I have to make about double what I have in stock, because I didn’t set a stock level. I have to make 14kgs of coconut jam! I get a lot of messages like “the website’s crashed” and “can you help us?” I’m not an e-commerce, distribution or packaging expert, I’m just a chef. My phone is bleeping and bleeping. There are only so many arms you’ve got, especially with our staff furloughed. I’ve counted on asking favours of my sisters, mostly for moral support.’

8. Late April 2020
Delivery trial and error

‘On the first day of using our courier service, two of the deliveries go missing and a customer angrily messages me. I’m livid. I try to get hold of the company and the driver, but they just treat us appallingly. I feel so much anger – we should all be looking out for each other right now. I find a new company but it means I have to increase the shipping costs. It feels like we’re sticking our finger in the air to see which way the wind blows at the moment.

Find out the latest news from Elizabeth at @Meimeilondon

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