How Steel Cauldron Successfully Launched in Lockdown

19th March 2021

As we now reach a year of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we wanted to look at some of the positives the situation has brought many people; particularly business owners. While there have been many new challenges to face, it has proven a hugely popular time for people to open their own businesses. JMW Solicitors has interviewed a number of different businesses that launched during the first national lockdown, about their experiences, what difficulties they faced and what they would do differently. 

In this blog post, we speak to Steel Cauldron, a Sheffield-based wizard themed cafe inspired by Harry Potter. Husband and wife Robert and Nicola Downham launched their business after visiting a similar venue and drawing inspiration from it while on holiday in 2019. 

Was there something in particular that inspired you to launch your business during the pandemic? 

My wife and I decided to launch The Steel Cauldron after visiting a wizard themed café. We soon found the perfect premises and were well into the planning phase when the pandemic really started to have a significant impact. 

We felt confident the business would be popular and although we knew we wouldn’t be able to open our doors straight away, we felt the additional time would give us an opportunity to refine our business ideas and bring forward some of our development plans for the building. 

Why now? 

We knew that finding the right property would be vital to the success of our business. We’d spent six months scouring the local property markets and when one came up in the Broomhill area of Sheffield - an area that is quite popular with students - we felt it would be snapped up pretty quickly. 

We knew if we stuck to our business plan and adapted as and when the new government restrictions started to kick in, we could make it work. We jumped in feet first and I think it’s fair to say we weren’t fully aware of just how radically different the economic environment would soon be. 

When we opened our doors in 2020, the Steel Cauldron was an instant hit, with 93 bookings twenty minutes after the booking services were up and running! Each week, the café attracted over a thousand visitors. As restrictions tightened, we were able to adapt to the various requirements which, although challenging, encouraged us to innovate. 

What do you feel makes your business unique or special? Why are you passionate about it? 

I am passionate about our business, simply because of the smiles on the faces of our customers and the memories we help them to make!

When you enter through the doors of The Steel Cauldron, you’re stepping into a magical world where anything is possible - and quite often does! We initially thought our target market would be families who were looking to make memories with their young children. To our surprise, we’ve also attracted quite a large adult following and during evenings The Steel Cauldron becomes home to a wonderful world of witchcraft and wizardry accompanied with live music and good food. 

We have a great combination of offerings; from a bustling tea room, family crafting sessions, to music and quiz nights, The Steel Cauldron offers something for everyone whilst remaining committed to providing a fun, family environment. 

Have you had to adapt your products or services along with the regular updates and change in rules etc? For example, do certain restrictions mean you have to change the way your business works at all? 

Absolutely! Like any hospitality business, we strictly enforced the social distancing rules when businesses were permitted to re-open. Right from the off, we had an online booking system, which meant we could be better prepared for busy periods without increasing customer or staff risk. 

Throughout December, as South Yorkshire entered into a tier-three lockdown, we were unable to trade as a tavern or tea room. We adapted by opening a Christmas Market and Santa’s Grotto so children could still meet the big guy, whilst also offering locally crafted gifts, takeaway drinks and treats. Both of which have been very successful, and allowed us to reach out to a new audience whilst also seeing our existing customers. 

Tell us something positive that you have learnt or experienced throughout the launch of your business during what has been for many, a difficult and uncertain time. 

Flexibility has been vital. Although our business and many others have been unable to reach their full potential, we have been able to adapt swiftly to a challenging situation. 

Throughout this process so far, I have personally learned the difference between planning and reality. Balancing what you plan for and remaining adaptable to change is vital. Without rigorous planning, our business would be threatened from many angles, but if we were unable to adapt and react to new situations quickly, we would not have stood a chance of getting through this pandemic. 

As a small business, we are exceptionally flexible, which allows us to reinvent ourselves quickly to match the ever-changing restrictions and adapt our products and services to continue attracting new and repeat customers.

What were the biggest struggles or challenges that you faced? 

The pandemic and economic fallout has created more than its fair share of new struggles and challenges! 

The main challenge for The Steel Cauldron has been the uncertainty. The lack of clarity and ability to plan has been stressful for us and the staff. Restrictions on the ability to trade and lack of clarity on some of the lockdown restrictions, often introduced at very short notice has been problematic, but like most businesses in the hospitality sector, we’ve rolled up our sleeves and done everything we possibly can to keep our customers and staff safe. 

In order to plan, we need clarity as to what’s happening in the near future, which we currently don’t feel like we have. During a pandemic, this is to be expected so we just go with it.

When we first set up the business, there was a lot of complexity with bank accounts, VAT registration, pension schemes, PAYE, licensing laws, etc. and even after 20 years in the business, I found this process as time-consuming and difficult as ever. Again, I think the difficulty was very much exacerbated by COVID!

Did you receive any financial support for the launch of your business? Or did you build the company from scratch? 

After securing the premises we knew we needed some extra financial help to get the basics (such as plumbing) sorted and create a magical experience. Recognising this need to invest in equipment, stock and refurbishments, we approached Finance For Enterprise for support. 

I knew it would be difficult to raise funds from traditional high street lenders, but when a friend mentioned the specific support provided by Finance For Enterprise, it gave us the much-needed funds to get open. They helped us to secure funding via a Start-Up Loan, which is a special type of loan designed to support new entrepreneurs. 

From the outset, Gillian Pickard, our advisor, was extremely helpful and made the whole application process quick and straightforward. The two £12,500 Start-Up Loans we received were quickly granted and in our account within two weeks, which helped ease our worries about renovating the property, buying new equipment, and having a healthy cash flow.

Do you feel that the response to your newly-launched business would have been the same had we not have been in a national lockdown? 

I really believe The Steel Cauldron’s uniqueness and magical flare would have still been popular with locals and perhaps even draw people in from further afield. Financially, the café has produced a stable turnover, but without national lockdowns, I think our turnover numbers would be well over double, maybe even treble the current figure, which makes us extremely excited for the future when restrictions begin to lift. 

Did you have concerns about the success of your business due to the current climate? 

Like most businesses in the hospitality sector, I am concerned about the short term because of the uncertainty as to when restrictions will be lifted.  

A worst-case scenario would involve lengthened or more future lockdowns and a reduction or withdrawal of government support. That scary, albeit unlikely situation would be a disaster for many businesses, especially in the hospitality sector. Let us hope it never comes to that. 

We are very confident that once we are able to open with only limited restrictions the business will be a huge success.

At what moment did you feel you had made the right decision, and the business had succeeded? 

Two weeks before opening, our new booking system went live and we took over 100 bookings in just 30 minutes! At this stage, it was fairly obvious that people wanted to come.  August was extremely busy and our first month of opening. We had over 5,000 people visit us in just one month, it was exhausting, but we did it and were confident the business would succeed. 

Has launching your company inspired you to start any other new projects or businesses? 

Since launching The Steel Cauldron and seeing the initial influx of customers and flood of positive reviews, we are considering additional locations in the future. Once we have established a successful track record, refined our systems and processes and the economic outlook is clearer, we will return to the idea. In the meantime, we will continue to develop new innovative events and activities for our current café.   

What do you think the future of your company might look like in a post-COVID world? 

We are confident that our existing offering will be successful but will constantly innovate and try new things. We are not afraid to work out that something does not work!

Once the pandemic is under control and restrictions ease, we are prepared for a wave of customers looking to make up for lost time, have as much fun as possible, and enjoy each other’s company by coming together to be crafty, creative, eat and drink! 

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from becoming a business owner during this period? 

Go with the flow. To begin with, my wife and I were determined to succeed so much that we could have burned out quite easily. We learned to pick our battles, manage our workload, and not lose sight of why it is we started this business, to make people happy! It’s much more difficult to make someone happy when you are not enjoying yourself. 

Innovate! Many of our ideas have come from our creative team and trusting their ideas might be a hit with the customers. Failure is a part of the success and if it does not work, don’t worry, learn from your mistake and go again. 

What advice would you give someone that is thinking about setting up a business now? What are three things you wish you’d have known? 

  1. Do something you love! Think about your true reason “why” and then set up a business that is consistent with this and you never have to work a day in your life. Many entrepreneurs think setting up a business is about earning easy money.From my experience, it’s incredibly hard work and it’s more worthwhile and effective to value the positive impact you can have on the local community and customers than being fixated on the balance sheet. 
  2. As an entrepreneur, you have to maintain and monitor the financial aspects of the business but there is just so much more to it than that, creating something from scratch and seeing customers thoroughly enjoying your services and coming back for more is incredibly rewarding. 
  3. In terms of hindsight, I try my best not to focus on ‘what ifs’, it’s healthier and more effective to concentrate on what’s here now and what we can change in the near future, step-by-step.  

Read about other successful businesses that launched during the pandemic. 

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