Patricia Michelson wants to be busy. Correction. She needs to be busy.
For one thing, she is desperate that her business, La Fromagerie, does a roaring trade at Christmas, selling Stilton and Camembert aux truffes to shoppers. This would partially make up for the sales lost in the wholesale side of her business as well as in her three shops (two usually serve meals), which have been disrupted by the lockdowns. This year has seen her furlough staff and cut 17 jobs from the 80-strong workforce.
But more than that, the busyness helps her cope with grief after Danny, her husband and co-founder of the company which they started from their home almost 30 years ago, died from coronavirus. “The business [is] the thing that’s keeping me going,” she says. “I need it. I don’t know how I’m dealing with bereavement, [I’m] so busy trying to keep all the balls in the air, I haven’t had a chance to grieve.”
When we first spoke in April, Ms Michelson was trying to cope with the closure of restaurants which triggered the overnight collapse of the wholesale side of the business. She fretted about when she would receive the government money for furloughed staff. She was also frustrated at having to oversee the business challenges largely from home — and rather irritated that despite working up to 70 hours a week, as a person over the age of 70 (72, in fact) she was deemed vulnerable.
As a parting shot, she told me she was trying to cheer up her husband when he was feeling ill. “I’m making him all sorts of treats,” she told me.
A few days later, the virus sent Danny to hospital. “I said, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’. He waved goodbye in the ambulance.” While she was able to visit her husband in hospital along with her two daughters she feels regret. “We never had our goodbye, we never had a conversation again. That’s why it was so hard, we never had that point when we talked.”
Today she tells me her husband’s expertise — previous to La Fromagerie, he had run a retail menswear business with four shops — was invaluable. “He wasn’t a massive foodie type person, but [he knew] how to set up a shop, merchandise it in a stylish way and keep the book-keeping and payments in line. To say I miss him every day is an understatement.”
In the weeks and months following her husband’s death, she was determined to steady her employees’ morale. “I don’t want any of the people I work with to feel sorry for me. I’m a strong woman and I’m carrying on, and I’ll weep later.”
From a practical standpoint, her husband’s death has forced Ms Michelson into new roles at work. This year she has dealt with plumbers, electrical problems, transport glitches, maintenance of the vans, buying goods, wielding her cheese knife, doing deliveries, filling shelves and fielding calls.
“I don’t just want to see a daily spreadsheet — I want to live the business on a daily basis,” Ms Michelson says. “Like good housekeeping — you need to keep in touch and see what is going on for yourself, and keep your team motivated.” The crisis has reinforced her appreciation of her workforce, which has needed to be flexible. “The team has been brilliant. We saw who wanted to step up.”
While she wants to be busy, the myriad changes wrought by the pandemic by tiers, lockdowns and transport gridlock as the new strain of Covid closed borders — as well as the ongoing uncertainty around ongoing Brexit talks — has been difficult.
The pandemic has forced La Fromagerie to adapt to changing social distancing rules; they recently purchased sheepskin covers for customers eating outside the restaurant in Bloomsbury, only for it to be shut again due to London restrictions. “Online has been amazing — it’s made up for wholesale,” she says. While she negotiated a rent reduction, she has not taken any loans.
Though online sales are up, Ms Michelson expects shop sales to be hugely down on the previous year. December is usually the biggest month of the year for food retail. But with the national tier system in place, plus a new seven-day-a-week congestion charge in London, “things could not be more un-festive-like if we tried”.
Every time there is a change of the tier system it means overhauling business operations. “You have no idea how difficult it is to keep doing this to keep the team motivated and upbeat because they are constantly having to change the shop and restaurant areas all the time. The goalposts have been constantly moving and we are trying to keep ahead of the game or merely keep up with everything.”
During the run-up to Christmas, the business was buoyed by corporate festivities in the form of virtual tastings. The widespread use of videoconferencing has opened up new markets — in November, she held a Thanksgiving cheese tasting with a group of family and friends in the US and London: “It was marvellous.” She hopes to continue with Zoom tastings even when life returns to normal.
Over the past year, another change Ms Michelson has observed is spending habits. Professionals working from home are treating themselves to good cheese and wine. “They have nowhere to go, so they’re eating at home.” She hopes that the pandemic has made people appreciate their local high street shops.
La Fromagerie has been buffeted by the fall in sterling. “We are ruled by exchange rates and try to forward trade as much as possible, but it is always a guessing game as to when to take the plunge.” Ms Michelson has spent a great deal of time planning for Brexit, talking with producers in France and Italy, helping small cheesemakers deal with the paperwork.
“Our transport people have already increased their prices by 15 per cent.” No deal would mean the business would have to rethink its produce, becoming more dependent on the UK, “although the demand would outweigh supply, I am certain”, she says. Nonetheless, she remains defiantly upbeat, pitching for customers to take advantage of French and Italian cheese in the run-up to Christmas.
Ms Michelson hopes the business has weathered the turbulence but her greatest regret is personal rather than professional: she regrets not being able to travel with her husband. “I wish we had more time together. Don’t think it’s going to happen later — have your fun now together.”