The butcher-baker and handbag maker overcoming coronavirus ‘tsumani’

Darts Farm, Exeter, Devon

He watched the virus unfold in other parts of the world, but nothing could quite prepare Michael Dart for the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It’s like a tsunami,” he says: “You know it’s coming and you have a little bit of time, but you don’t know how big and ferocious its going to be. 

“The whole thing feels surreal. You wake up thinking, is it going to be over tomorrow? And it’s not over, its still here.”

His family business, Darts Farm in Devon, founded by his father Ronald Dart, is better placed than many to cope with the impact. 

A ’shopping destination’ with a food hall, hairdresser, Aga business, fish monger, aromatherapists, gift shops and more, it is also a working farm producing vegetables and beef. 

Yet with about 70pc of its retail floor space closed, Darts Farm is feeling the pain. 

It has furloughed about 100 of its 150 staff – including those who are vulnerable and/or aged over 70 – and  has rapidly set up an online delivery business to try and survive.

From a standing start, it is now delivering around 1,000 boxes a day both locally and around the country. Top-selling goods include wine, beer, cider, meat, vegetables, candles, soaps, and moisturisers. 

“The restaurant team are now packing boxes in the warehouse, so everyone is doing something different,” says Dart. 

“Some people send their workers on team-building exercises; our staff now say to me, ‘we are living it’ – the morale is unbelievable. 

“The younger workers say, ‘Mum and dad are doom and gloom; the news is depressing, we have to get out and work’. 

“A building we had earmarked for new fitness classes is our warehouse. We all worked like stink.”

Darts, which specialises in local, seasonal produce, is doing free delivery for the over-70s, and also donated tuck boxes to the Exeter Foodbank, including teabags, chocolate and fruit, helped by donations from customers. 

The business is too large to qualify for grants, but can get the relief on business rates. Dart is also now sitting down with his tenants who have had to close their stores. 

“No one knows for sure how this is going to end,” he says. “We have taken a pragmatic view. The phrase I have used at the minute is ‘we will share the pain’.

“They can’t take it all and we can’t take it all. But currently we don’t know how big the losses are. It depends on how long this goes on for.”

Mia Tui, Newport Pagnall

Bag designer Mia Tui had just launched its new spring-summer collection when the economy started to go into free-fall. Sales of its handbags, shoulder bags, travel bags and baby changing bags soared to start with but then started to slide, falling to about £4,000 per day in March. 

“That’s when the alarm bells really started to ring,” says owner Charlotte Jamme. “You think, ‘where is the floor going to be? We could see sales heading to only £2,000 per day. That’s when I started talking to staff and saying, ‘We cannot continue like this. We have to take measures early on’.”

Jamme set up the business while living in Vietnam with her husband, and she remains friends with the owner of the Vietnamese factory where her bags are still made. Her bags – which feature interior pockets for keys, make-up, baby toys and so forth – are sold online (miatui.com) as well as through a small store and via QVC. 

The business was growing fast and made sales of about £2.5m last year.  But now Jamme has had to furlough her four members of staff and is doing all she can to keep the business afloat. “The shop is shut, the website is open and it’s now just down to me,” she says. 

To bring in extra cash, she has liquidated some extra stock with major promotions, and taken advantage of the VAT deferral scheme. Existing orders to the factory in Vietnam are being honoured, but new orders not being made. She does not want to get into debt via bank loans, but is waiting to hear about potential government grants. 

“You just have to try not to panic too much,” she says. “It’s a question of preserving money and cash, trying to preserve the business and brand.

“You can survive and reduce costs. But the big fear is once the government withdraws support, the sales might not go back to normal – people might not have a job. So you need to protect yourself.

“I’m sometimes at a loss to know what to do,” she adds. “If it was something wrong with the business, we could work that out. But there isn’t anything wrong with the business.”

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