‘A crisis can bring out the best in us’: Meet the small businesses creating hope

We continue the Brave New World series by looking at the inspiring ways businesses are adapting, from the dog trainer to the chocolatier

woman and boy at craft table
The Old Bank Residency, a community hub, is running courses remotely to help keep users occupied at home Credit: Fiona Finchett

A dollop of kindness, a smattering of creativity and a generous helping of patience begin the recipe for weathering the difficult times. Dip into the small business community and you’ll uncover these traits in abundance. In the first three years of starting a company, 60 per cent fail. The resilient survivors are just what we need in this crisis.

So, just as the livelihoods of this workforce are put at risk (with social distancing slowing or halting most operations), many have put their professional turmoil aside to assist those in greatest need. From a one-woman-business in Bristol to a 100-strong team based in Scotland, we’ve unearthed uplifting stories of good deeds by small businesses and social enterprises across the country. The NHS, the vulnerable and those feeling a little despondent at this time (and who isn’t?), will be buoyed by their efforts.

Social Bite

Delicious food for the homeless

Josh Littlejohn, co-founder of Scotland-based Social Bite, has previous experience when it comes to helping the more vulnerable members of society. At his social enterprise, which employs around 100 people and has five cafés and a large production kitchen, a third of the workforce has experienced homelessness – and all profits also go to homeless causes. Its work has even gained recognition from George Clooney, who visited one of the cafes in 2015.

“The homeless people we feed are going to be the worst hit,” says Josh. “We felt there was going to be a desperate situation and a lot of food poverty.” In response, the business is using its central kitchen and cafés to create a food distribution network across the UK. All staff are following social distancing guidelines and the necessary precautions during food production. On March 25 alone, it sent out 3,500 supply packs to small charities and community groups. Josh also set up a JustGiving page to raise funds for food deliveries during the outbreak. At the time of writing it had gathered nearly £91,500. 

Josh has been contacted by a number of local organisations that are keen to muck in. “It’s great to see such community spirit,” he says. “The reality is people need to eat, most of us have the luxury of going to the supermarket. Homeless people [aren’t able] to socially isolate, let alone stock cupboards, so this is a really vital service."

Social Bite made headlines when George Clooney paid a visit in 2015 Credit: Social Bite

Edinburgh Holistic Dogs

Remote training for bored canines

While Suzanne Gould’s old English sheepdogs, Erick and Ally, have been enjoying her devoted attention, she's been finding ways to continue her business. Following the tighter social distancing rules announced on March 23, Suzanne suspended the usual strolls, training classes and one-to-ones of her dog walking and training enterprise. “As I’m not an essential service, I feel I should help to stop the spread and stop going out,” she explains. Instead, she’s providing help for rescued and nervous dogs – and their frustrated owners – through daily videos, tips for boredom busting and advice on training. These resources are free to access via the "Edinburgh Dog Owners Lockdown Survival Group" Facebook page, which she set up on March 25. “My aim is to help the dog-owning community stay connected, prevent boredom in dogs and humans and generally just have fun,” says Suzanne. It’s also the ideal space for owners to share pictures of their pups, which is sure to bring a little cheer to fellow animal lovers.

One of the dogs that usually joins Suzanne's walks

The Old Bank Residency

Virtual classes for all

In Manchester, The Old Bank Residency, housed in the former Co-op bank, has taken its usual mishmash of classes and community groups online. This community hub is keeping the civic spirit alight with a range of resources, including a living room dance club, choir sessions and ceramics workshops. Jess Higham, creative projects manager at Standard Practice (which runs the residency), says the team has seen a broader range of people showing interest now classes are available online. She hopes this will continue, in person, once this crisis is over. What’s the feedback been so far? “That it’s great to be able to connect,” says Jess. Each Friday the team will release workshop options for the following week. An eggless pasta making session is on the agenda – the ideal replacement for this stockpiled item. Meanwhile, you can tune in to pot throwing sessions from the back garden of Jess’s colleague Joe. 

The Old Bank residency is offering pottery classes remotely Credit: Conrad Ohnuki

Fiid

Healthy meals for the NHS frontline

“We knew that we needed to do something,” says Shane Ryan, who runs food startup Fiid, of the coronavirus outbreak. Shane and his business partner Elliot Cantwell, who are based in Dublin, wanted to assist those in the trenches of the pandemic, but spent around a week working out the best approach. “To start off, we pledged 1,000 free meals for front line healthcare staff; we soon realised we were not the only ones that wanted to help.” Fiid’s business model includes retail sales – its plant-based meals are sold in supermarkets, such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco – and online orders. The orders are delivered by an external service, so the business already had a built-in distribution network covering the UK and Ireland. Some of this resource has now been diverted towards delivering meals to hospitals, for NHS staff.

Ryan explains: “We decided to create a feature on our website where customers can press a button to donate.” The donation is added to a customer’s online shopping cart, but they don’t have to buy anything from Fiid to give money – there is also a standalone “donate” button. With each donation, Fiid delivers six meals to a hospital on the customer’s behalf. “We felt that was an easy way for people to give back.” Some 46 per cent of website orders between March 23-25 included donations, which Ryan says is “really encouraging”.

Chocolateeha

Care packages for the self-isolating

Wajeeha Husain’s skills are covetable at the best of times. But in a period of upheaval, they’re particularly precious. As a chocolatier, her main source of income is trade sales and events. These have dried up in recent weeks, so she’s switched focus to her online shop from which she sells letterbox-friendly chocolate packages. Customer interest has surged. On the week starting March 23, Wajeeha received 120 orders in two days – it would usually take two months to amass that many. She offers affordable, postage-fee-free packages for diabetic people (sugar free), for children (complete with puzzles) and for the self-isolating (extra indulgent versions for loved ones to send as gifts), and is also giving away five packages for free each week. On social media, she’s asked that customers nominate someone to receive a bumper selection of chocolates. While she manages orders (periodically halting online purchases to keep up with demand), Wajeeha hopes to continue these giveaways during the crisis. What’s the feedback been so far? “I’ve got lots of emails saying that it’s a good idea – eat some chocolate, and feel a little bit better.”

Wajeeha: her chocolate-making skills are being put to good use

Karshare

A ride-sharing fleet for essential services

Andy Hibbert, founder of Car & Away, usually deals in airport car hire – customers can rent out their vehicles while on holiday. As the coronavirus took hold, prompting flight cancellations and postponed trips, the company’s usual business began to fall away. “Our operation has now closed down, but we didn’t want to all sit twiddling our thumbs,” says Andy.  Community efforts in his hometown of Bristol inspired Andy and his team to launch a city car sharing service that could help workers deliver essential services and supplies.

In four days, the developers at Car & Away built a website for Karshare, which launched on March 25. Beforehand, they brought the usual business partners on board, including insurers and professional cleaners to deep clean vehicles before and after each trip (both essential for safe car sharing). Now he’s asking members of the public to temporarily donate their vehicles. “With swathes of volunteers coming into the NHS, we can help them get around,” explains Andy. He hopes that food banks and other charities will also be able to make use of the service. As for whether it will continue post-crisis, Andy says: “This is a response to a need right now, we want that need to dissipate.” Like many small business owners, this is an uncertain time for Andy and his team, but he has found local efforts heartening. He sums it up succinctly: “A crisis can bring out the best in us.”

Andy: he's set up Karshare to provide vehicles for those working in essential services

Miles Morgan Travel 

Deliveries for the over 70s

“We have strong bonds with a lot of our customers, a lot have become friends,” says Miles Morgan, the founder of Miles Morgan Travel agency. His business, which has 18 branches and almost 100 employees across South West England and South Wales, is offering food deliveries to older or self-isolating customers. The team hatched the plan over Whatsapp. It was a quiet Saturday evening on March 14 and Britain was starting to come to terms with the scale of the crisis. Miles’ team were already firefighting as customers raced back to the UK and put holidays on hold. Messages pinged back and forth. The team wanted to support the local communities on which their business usually relies. 

On the following Monday, Miles posted a video on social media in which he encouraged those over 70 and without local friends and family to get in touch. “We have a higher age demographic of clients, including those with pre-existing medical conditions,” he adds. Since then, from Monmouth to Chippenham, Miles Morgan employees have been taking shopping lists, trawling supermarkets and then dropping off supplies – while abiding by the government’s social distancing rules, of course. As supermarket delivery slots become evermore precious, the travel agent is offering a valuable service. 

Have you noticed your own local initiatives with small businesses doing innovative, creative and kind things to adapt? Share your stories below or email [email protected] with pictures.

Read more: Welcome to a Brave New World: Heartwarming ways hotels, pubs and more are helping their communities