The Muddy Duck steps up to lockdown challenges
A month ago, The Muddy Duck was a highly rated pub and restaurant. Two weeks later, it re-opened as a thriving local grocery store. Jack Courtez reports on how the business adapted to the lockdown
The Muddy Duck
Main Street, Hethe, Bicester, OX27 8ES
After the public were first told to avoid pubs and restaurants on 16 March, The Muddy Duck owner Nigel Harris and general manager Kevin Bloomfield were determined to protect their staff and their community.
With more than £15,000-worth of stock written off by the closure, Nigel and Kevin pushed forward with a plan to reinvent the rustic on-trade setting in Hethe, Oxfordshire, as something different.
Kevin explains: “We’d planned to add a café and farm shop element to the pub, and had already put in our planning application and had it approved. When the shutdown came, we reacted very quickly. The entire team stepped up to the challenge and we opened three or four weeks earlier than planned.”
Nigel also owns speciality fine foods stores in neighbouring towns, which helped the team with knowing what to stock as well as providing a supply of deli goods from their butcher and cheese counters.
Describing the initial plan before the outbreak, Nigel says the restaurant was loss-making and the addition of retail was to help turn around the site’s fortunes. He said it would “offer great-value fresh produce and grocery, a multi-award-winning butchery, sundries and treats”, to allow customers to do a weekly shop under one roof.
“We’ve got more than 20 staff and many more local suppliers depending on us,” reveals Kevin. “We wanted to make sure we’re all still a team when this is over. Because of the shop, nobody has been stood down and everyone is being paid for the same or very similar hours.”
Describing the response to the business’ transition, Kevin says: “It’s been incredible. As a restaurant, what really makes your day is the response you get from customers when you know you’ve given great food and service. With retail, it’s exactly the same feeling – helping those self-isolating with deliveries or giving people what they need to continue sharing special meals together makes all the difference.
The first battle was to save as much stock as possible. “Our chefs were repurposing as much as we could into soups, but we had limited freezer capacity. Fresh has always been what we do, so we never had the need for it,” says Kevin.
The Muddy Duck had already secured an off-trade alcohol licence, but ensuring the existing lines didn’t go to waste required a different approach. “A bottle of wine sells for £25-£26 in the restaurant, but for £13 in the shop. You’ve got to think differently about overheads,” he adds.
Going online was crucial, with Facebook, Instagram, Google and The Muddy Duck’s own website highlighting its new offering to more than 7,500 followers. One customer wrote: “It looks incredible – fresh fruit and vegetables and lots more. We’re so lucky to have this in our village. The staff are lovely and a few old faces has really made the place feel welcoming and friendly.”
The store sells hampers matching the needs of local residents stuck at home.
“We provide Sunday roast boxes – it’s got everything from topside of beef, right down to the flour for Yorkshire puddings and breadcrumbs for cauliflower cheese,” says the general manager.
He adds that 70% of sales come from fresh produce.
“People already have freezers full of goods – they want fresh.
Places being sold out of flour and yeast is a sign that customer habits are changing, people have to cook at home and that can only be a good thing.”
Despite the shortages in nearby convenience stores, the company’s network of small local producers has given it full availability.
“We’ve got fresh bread, incredible pasta, cakes and more, even when others have struggled. The relationship is there with the supplier, so we can alter orders or delivery times to meet demand,” Kevin explains.
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