Covid may mar Ocean Basket’s UK debut

The Bromley restaurant is being built and is due to open in early February: CEO Grace Harding.

FIFI PETERS: If you follow the CEO of Ocean Basket, Grace Harding, on LinkedIn, you’ll know that she has been quite busy speaking up the new Ocean Basket store in Bromley, London. If you are also following Covid-19 in cases in the UK, you’ll know that they’re running pretty wild, averaging just below 100 000 new daily cases.

We now have Ocean Basket’s CEO Grace Harding on the show to speak about the UK expansion and how it has been impacted by Omicron there. Grace, it is always a pleasure to speak with you. I open my LinkedIn account almost daily (I’m supposed to kind of be on the festive break). Nonetheless, when I do I always see you giving a shout out to the Ocean Basket team in the Bromley store. So just talk to us about that store – exactly when it opened.

GRACE HARDING: It hasn’t opened yet. The management team were in South Africa – they came here for training – and they went back the day they lifted the quarantine; otherwise they were going to spend Christmas without family. The restaurant hasn’t opened yet, it’s being built. It’s due to open early February. We’ve been excited about the build up, enculturating the new team, working with them. We are not there yet; we are close, but we are not there yet.

FIFI PETERS: All right. From your updates I jumped to the conclusion that you were already there. Thank you for providing that clarity. Nonetheless, let us talk about the impact that the Omicron variant has had on your plans.

GRACE HARDING: Well, everyone’s got Covid fatigue, I think, psychologically and physically. But what was really interesting is I was chatting to a colleague today and I said if it weren’t for Covid I don’t think we would’ve got into gear as quickly as we did. In May last year, when we were all depressed and worrying if we were going to keep restaurants going, our founder said to us, ‘no, this is the time to think of growth’. So it’s over a year in the planning. Yes. Omicron is a concern. We really hope that by the time the restaurant is ready to open it dies down.

I do have colleagues there at the moment and they say, although people are cautious, there are some restaurants, as we’ve heard, which are closing for a few days because they have no bookings. But certainly Omicron has to calm down. It’s not going to be fun to open a new restaurant with that hanging around. In the meantime, the builders are building, people are pitching up to work, and we carry on. We fight through it.

FIFI PETERS: Just take us through the exact vision that you have for Ocean Basket in London.

FIFI PETERS: Well, we all know that a great South African brand is thriving there – Nando’s. It’s wonderful to see our colleagues or our counterparts there, fellow South Africans, thriving. After all the research that we’ve been conducting for many years, we realise that there isn’t an offering like ours. The minute we started saying on the Saffa groups – the South Africans in London groups – that we are coming, it [went] wild. One of my LinkedIn views has [registered] 20 000. I never thought I could be so popular, and it’s incredible to see how much South Africans love our brand. We’ve had tears in our eyes; we feel so privileged.

We are going to open a small restaurant. In London there aren’t lots of huge restaurants. It’s very expensive. Labour is tough. Rent is expensive. We won’t be taking sushi over, but people are craving the lemon sauce and the platters. It’s wonderful to see all the platters. I feel we are being welcomed by thousands and thousands of people and by Nando’s, which is really fantastic.

FIFI PETERS: So they’re welcoming the competition. In fact there was a CEO in the banking sector who once said that you should know when to compete and when to collaborate. So perhaps Nando’s is adopting that strategy.

Nonetheless, while Omicron might blow over, new variants may emerge. I’m just trying to understand what’s in your head, as a CEO, in planning for potential scenarios in which, after Omicron, we’ve got the next variant that stalls things in terms of recovery.

GRACE HARDING: Look, there’s going to be Omicron, then there’s going to be some weird president, then there’s going to be a terrorist. There’s always going to be something. So what do you do? You’ve got to plan, you’ve got to have your risk processes in place, but we can’t stop. What is so difficult is you can’t plan for what you don’t know.

Aside from strict protocols and promoting vaccination, we’re very lucky in the UK: over 60% of the population is vaccinated. In South Africa we are still persuading our restaurant crew to get their vaccines. So what do we do, how do we plan?

I wish I knew how, except to be cautious, to give great service, to love our colleagues and to really go in with our heart and soul and give the people of the UK a seafood experience that’s affordable. There is nothing like it.

We’ve got to give it all we’ve got, and we really are determined. We are obsessed.

FIFI PETERS: Where are the fish going to come from there?

GRACE HARDING: The seafood often comes from similar places. Prawns are farmed and they come from all over. Some of the prawns come from Ecuador. The calamari only swims in certain seas in the Falklands. There’s some calamari in Boston. Kingklip – there’s a lot that comes from New Zealand and Namibia. So the main seafood items will come from our central sources. We do have a hub in Cyprus because we own nine restaurants there. That makes it a little easier to do supply-chain work, although obviously now we have Brexit which adds insult to injury. There will always be a lookout for local fish, supporting local fishermen and sustainability.

But, for the first few months, I think we just need to settle down and make sure that we know what we are doing. We want to open really quietly. Obviously we are excited about the opening, but we don’t want to start doing lots of rah-rah until we settle down. Then we’ll certainly start to support the locals like we do here in South Africa.

FIFI PETERS: Talking about Brexit, I know that one of the issues of contention there has been the issue of fishing rights. I wonder if that is impacting your business strategy in any way – the contentious issue over fishing rights between the UK and the rest of Europe.

GRACE HARDING: Not yet. That’s because species that we specialise in are not coming out of those waters. Prawns are prawns; you can farm them just about anywhere. Calamari doesn’t come out of those waters and neither does the hake or the kingklip. So for now we’re okay.

But obviously fishing rights and supply chain – there’s no more friendliness in terms of harbours, borders. It is having an impact. Our supply chain partners in the UK are tearing their hair out, but I think we are all in the same boat…. Remember a few months ago when Nando’s ran out of chicken, and McDonald’s ran out of milkshake? It’s wild. I think all of this chaos has brought the industry closer together. Absolutely.

FIFI PETERS: Just lastly, you mentioned that you were persuading the workers here in South Africa to get vaccinated. This is coming at a time when we’re talking about making vaccines mandatory, with many companies announcing that they will be taking that route. What’s your position on mandatory vaccination?

GRACE HARDING: I’m so scared to tell you, because there’s a weird group of anti-vaxxers. It started with them sending me rude messages. What do we do? We have to vaccinate. It’s the responsible thing to do. We’ve seen how important it is. I don’t understand the people who are against it. I don’t think that government has a choice. The polio vaccine is mandatory. You can’t take your kids to school without German measles and polio vaccinations.

So we have started a process just with our support-office employees to say that we give you until the first of February. And then, if you still choose not to be vaccinated, please produce a test every Monday. It’s very similar to the stance that a lot of the other groups have taken.

But in the restaurants we are still getting our head around PPE. It’s not easy. It really isn’t. Some customers are coming in and asking if we are vaccinated? If not, they’re saying, well, I’m not happy to eat here. So you are caught between a rock and a hard place – and they are angry at anti-vaxxers.

FIFI PETERS: How are your restaurants doing here in South Africa, particularly over this festive period?

GRACE HARDING: It started to get better, and then Boris [Johnson] had to open his mouth. The tourists didn’t arrive. It’s okay. I’ve been in Cape Town the last few days and there’s definitely a lovely buzz, but not what it usually is. We still are definitely behind 2019. We don’t compare anything to 2020; we’ve sort of deleted that year. Like in the elevator – it goes to 11, 12, 14. We go 18, 19, 21. [Chuckling] We are getting there slowly, but definitely we can feel the impact that Omicron and Covid has had on the economy.

That’s our biggest challenge here. People have lost jobs, people are tired psychologically. We’ve been working with people to understand people’s psyche. It’s not easy and I respect our franchisees and our restaurant crews so much because they’ve always got to have a smile on their faces.

FIFI PETERS: Yeah. So much humour there enveloped in serious subject matter – not to take away from the seriousness of the situation. It’s well understood.

Grace, thanks so much for your time and providing clarity that the Bromley store will open in February next year, touch wood.

That was the Ocean Basket CEO, Grace Harding.

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Opening a fish & chips shop in the UK, but a corporate one, not family business. Very brave.

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