Profits were on the rise, and the family – headed by dad Nick and mum Rita – were also reaping the rewards of the successful dry-cleaning business that they had established in the shop next door. Things, it seemed, could only get better.
But then the council dropped a bombshell. Parking fees were to be imposed in the car park directly opposite the store which had previously been free.
The family tried to oppose the new charges, which they knew would impact on trade, but to no avail. Son Hiral picks up the story: “We saw a fall in customer numbers from the day the charges were imposed,” he says. “It wasn’t the cost of parking that was putting people off, it was the fact that having to pay made it inconvenient for them. Not everyone has change on them and people didn’t want to run the risk of getting caught by the wardens.” The charges forced many shoppers to drive the extra mile to Claygate’s main high street, where parking is free.
And just when the Patels thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. The family’s post office, which had operated out of the same building for 102 years, was put on Royal Mail’s closure list.
The family knew that losing their post office would have a catastrophic impact on their business and they were determined not to let that happen, so they hatched a plan.
With fortunate timing, the barber shop next to their store was put up for sale and even with their fears over the future, Nick decided to buy it. It turned out to be one of the best decisions he has ever made.
Having the extra unit meant the Patels could transform their small newsagents and dry-cleaning business into a flash new convenience store, with all the bells and whistles. However, with six agonising weeks to wait before they learned the fate of their post office, two different plans had to be drawn up for the store: one with the post office in it, and one without. In the end, despite a 1,300-strong petition by local people, the Post Office could not be persuaded to change its mind.
The Patels shut up shop the day after they learned the post office’s fate, so the rebuild could begin. And what a rebuild it was. Walls were smashed, windows were blocked and floors between the three units had to be levelled. This last job was no mean feat given that the three units are positioned on a hill. “We had to dig down in one of the units and raise the floor in another in order to produce an even surface through all three,” recalls Hiral.
Once the major structural work was complete, the team began fitting out the store, bringing in four large chillers, a freezer, and a hot food-to-go counter.
Although they closed their store for two months the family managed to keep selling newspapers from an old wooden table in the alley behind the store. “We were determined to keep things as normal as possible for our regular customers, and certainly didn’t want them going elsewhere for their papers,” says Hiral. “They didn’t mind the arrangement, and if we weren’t there they’d just leave the money on the table and take a paper. People are very honest and we don’t have a problem with crime.”
The Patels were also required to exercise their minds as well as their muscles during the rebuild. “We’d never run a convenience store or sold fresh and chilled produce before so there was a huge amount of new information for us to take in,” says Hiral. “Fortunately, the team at Musgrave Retail Partners GB were there to offer us as much support and advice as we needed.”
Now, just three months after opening, the Patels have already made a roaring success of their new hot food-to-go range, helped by a good trade from a constant flow of labourers and workmen. “This is a wealthy area and there’s a huge amount of building work going on,” says Hiral. “Our freshly baked baguettes are also really popular with the Sardinian restaurant across the road,” adds Hiral.
Even with its focus on hot food to go and chilled products, the store has managed to maintain its original identity as a newsagent by offering a large news and magazines stand, while a first-class dry-cleaning service is also offered.
“We’re all so chuffed with the way that things have turned out,” says Hiral as he coaxes another tray of baked goodies into the oven. For now, at least, his only major worry is whether he can bake enough bacon baps to keep the army of local workmen happy.
Size: 2,000sq ft
Staff numbers: three full-time
Services offered: food to go
Special features: dry-cleaning