Recorded and edited by Audrey Coggins
The Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global Pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
Julia Skupchenko from Lockdown Economy finds out how South African Claudia Deken has dealt with the lockdown crisis in June 2020. Claudia runs the first vegan sushi restaurant, Plant Based Sushi, in Amsterdam. Plant Based Sushi opened its doors in January 2020, only weeks prior to the lockdown.
Can you tell us more about Plant-Based Sushi?
Claudia: I’m the owner of Plant Based Sushi, the first vegan sushi restaurant in Amsterdam, and we opened on 2 January 2020 in the West. The first three months were very positive as word got out. Unfortunately, we had to go into lockdown in March because of the Coronavirus.
Plant Based Sushi’s main idea is that we don’t replicate fish. We really want sushi to be a completely different meal; you don’t need fish or fish alternatives to make sushi work. This is how we stay unique within the market.
The restaurant industry is probably one of the most hard-hit industries. How did you, as the restaurant owner, respond to it in the early days of the lockdown?
Claudia: I can recall the moment when the news hit. We were about to open for service. The full staff at the ready. We were then told that we had to close within 30 mins.
It was pretty tough. Devastating. As a whole, the staff and I were pretty upset; things had been going so well! But it was also a good moment for the entire staff and I to come together as a community. You feel helpless, powerless and it’s not like there’s something you can do to fix the issue.
What we had to do — shut down — was something we’d been told to do. As an entrepreneur, you actually want to do that which you’ve not been told to do! Entrepreneurs want to do that which has not been done.
What was the reaction of your team? The staff, the recipe developers and business partners.
Claudia: We are a big team. We were all concerned and didn’t know what to expect. It was shocking and confronting, that suddenly we had to close. We were all pretty upset.
But this motivated us to move into deliveries and to see what we could do, now that we were no longer operating as a restaurant. I think a couple of the team were also relieved that we could have one night where we got home early and could get a full 8-hour sleep! We’d been tired from being so busy at the restaurant in its first few months.
Yes, I remember your presentation at Team Academy, where you shared that you had super long days — and nights — at Plant Based Sushi. The business was now at a point where you could see it truly taking off. Apart from food deliveries, what else did you do to keep the business running during this lockdown period?
Claudia: We started offering deliveries almost immediately. We were told to close on Sunday. On Monday, we were ready in the kitchen trying to do deliveries. Initially, for a week, we used platforms like Uber Eats and Thuisbezorgd. We soon realised that if we did our own deliveries, we’d get more orders in. As a concept, we found the platforms very difficult because we’d have to prepare the kitchen ready for ordering by 5 pm but never able to be sure if and when an order would stream through.
Within a week, the team and I decided that deliveries would become our mainstay. And it saved our business.
So we wanted to see if we could change this. There were also staff health concerns. So within 2 weeks of the lockdown announcement, we’d set up our own delivery service and took our own orders. This made a big difference in our sales. Third parties also, of course, take a share of the revenue. In addition, we felt that our customers were enthusiastic because they were buying — and communicating — directly with us. They’d be speaking with me or one of the staff via Whatsapp. This kept morale up.
So, basically, delivery became your business stream. You chose self-delivery rather than the third parties. For me as a customer, it does sound like it would be easy to just Whatsapp you and say what I want rather than to go to thuisbezorgd.nl which has thousands of choices.
Were there other decisions you made about the business? E.g., protecting employees or reorganisation within the team.
Claudia: Because the nature of the business had to change so fast, there was a lot of adjusting. The staff had to cope with changes all the time. It was almost like we were running, and we were faced with the path changed and deciding who would be running along with us. On top of that, in the restaurant business, you also have customers every day. On top of trying to run smoothly whilst making all these swift adjustments, there’s no break; a weekend off where we can regroup or make plans or strategies.
These situations inevitably caused some interpersonal conflict, but that’s understandable when compounded with a global pandemic and lockdown. All of the above, made communication even more important. You’re going from knowing the staff professionally to knowing them personally because we were all anxious. We really had to focus on checking on each other and making sure we were all feeling well and healthy.
We had to take health seriously. If someone wasn’t well, they couldn’t be in at work for 2 weeks. Also as a business owner, I had to compensate for that.
That was an interesting time for us, but I think it’s made us all closer now as a team. We know each other far better; we’ve worked through this difficult time together.
That was the biggest change we noticed during this time.
It’s good to know there was a positive thing coming out of this period. Growing closer as a team, going forward, is a good thing.
How is the business doing now — 4 months on? The lockdown in Amsterdam has now been lifted and the restaurant has sort of now been back in business within some limitations. How are you dealing with this new climate?
Claudia: We chose not to open on 1 June. We wanted to give it a little more time to see how everything else pans out, the situation with other restaurants and how we pivot again. We got into deliveries extremely fast and that saved the business — otherwise, we wouldn’t still be a business.
The financial pressure is quite high right now. While shifting into deliveries meant that we are still profitable, we are still very tight. We have taken things slow. We will open for the first time after the lockdown on 27 June. We took out time searching for a new location as we wanted an outdoor terrace — which was important to us, given this is now summer and people want to sit outside. We’re now making sure that the set up is Corona-safe yet that our customers have an authentic plant-based sushi experience. We’re really missing our customers. We’re looking forward to seeing everyone again.
Did you involve your customers in searching for the right location?
Claudia: Our customers were really happy when we started delivering our plant-based sushi. As the team had to operate as all-hands-on-deck — even myself, the business owner, did deliveries. So it was nice hearing from them how they were handling this lockdown.They were feeling trapped but nervous about the whole Coronavirus situation.
Now that the lockdown has been lifted, I do see people adjusting back to being able to go out for a meal. I think it will be slow though. I think people have learnt to cope (and cook) without access to going out to a restaurant.
Did you have very regular customers during the lockdown?
Claudia: Yes. Because we opened deliveries so early, we decided to add a pre-order aspect to our menu. We had a couple of customers who requested food to be brought to them every day, on arrangement — which was a good bonus! We did find, on the whole, we had a group of steady customers throughout lockdown.
Can you tell us more about Plant Based Sushi?
Claudia: What we believe is that once you remove fish from sushi, you’re no longer only limited to flavours that complement fish. If you think about regular sushi, they’re only a few flavours that can go with raw salmon or raw tuna. One of our rolls is onion bhaji. That’s unheard of, in the sushi world. But it works so well and it is popular!
Sushi to us is a packform that you can show all these different flavours and different cultures. We colour our rice too with natural colouring. One of our rolls is dyed with beetroot, so the rice is pink. That looks cool. Another one of our rolls is dyed with special algae, and the rice is blue.
And our food is cruelty-free and has minimal effects on the environment. We also avoid replicating fish with fake-fish products. Fake-fish is never 100% fish, so why try faking it? I wanted to do something different.
I also look at my team for inspiration. Diverse cultures and that goes into our sushi too.
We wish Claudia and Plant Based Sushi all the very best!
Visit Plant Based Sushi to keep abreast of the latest pop-ups and locations!