Selling home-made gelato and other specialities, this café in the centre of Loughborough has been operating since 2015. With a large student population and a steady flow of families and shoppers, it quickly became a firm favourite among locals and has been well established in the area ever since. However, 2020 has been a challenging year. The first lockdown forced Dolcino’s owners to reinvent their product offering to survive. In December we talked with owner Kirsten Arcadio.
“The national lockdowns this year have been hard on us even though we’ve done everything we can to adapt our products and reduce our costs. Government support in terms of business rates relief, grants and furlough payments were necessary for us to keep going.”
“When the first lockdown was announced in March, we knew that we needed to adapt. While we were closed in April, we used the time to develop delivery-only brands. We looked at the data and for ways to keep the cash flow going. Up until then our core products had been our coffee, including our home-roasted blends, our artisan gelato and desserts, but we needed alternatives. We identified new trends in food that no one else was doing in our area based on things we’d seen elsewhere and ended up launching three new brands - Pastarita, a pasta brand, Try Fry, a Korean chicken and poké bowl brand, and Bloom Burger, a vegan fast-food brand.
“It was time consuming and intense work. We developed the products at home, testing and tasting it all. We had a spreadsheet of all the costs and supply chains and negotiated with our suppliers to optimise our margins. We tested out the production line and sourced the best packaging to keep the food hot, including bio-degradable containers and boxes with holes in so chips don’t go soggy. Once it all worked, we organised a photoshoot, developed the menus, marketing materials and social media and were ready to go. Luckily, we’ve got some great support from the local community and we were able to call in a few favours. Some people helped us by providing feedback on the products whilst others assisted with creating promotional materials. People were brilliant in helping us out.
“We hadn’t worked extensively with deliveries before so there was a lot to learn. The change in products meant we needed to do paperwork for the council’s hygiene rating process too. We were lucky that the delivery companies waived their fees for new brands and the council’s processes were quick.
“In April we also bought a MerryChef which was a game changer! We knew that this bit of kit could help speed up cooking times and make the business more efficient. It’s useful in a grab n’ go coffee shop environment in any case, as people don’t want to wait for food, but it really came into its own when we realised how quick and versatile it was in cooking dishes for takeouts and deliveries. We learnt how to use it and programmed in all our dishes.”
“We re-opened for takeouts and deliveries in May and were busier than expected. The weather was great, few of our competitors were open and people were out and about, often with their children. Most of our staff team were on furlough so my sons came back to work in the café. It was hard work, one did front of house, whilst the other was in the kitchen. Eat Out To Help Out was good for us, too, as we were able to offer a much wider range of food than was usual for a coffee shop.
“During the second lockdown in November and now operating under Tier 3 restrictions, the store has just been open for takeouts and deliveries. We’re running with a skeleton team, only one person on the shop floor at a time, whereas previously we would have worked with three or four. During the first two weeks of the second lockdown, we even had to close three days a week. We never normally close – only on Christmas Day! But there weren’t many people in town.
“The first lockdown was easier to weather, as we tend to do better in the summer anyway. Families come in for a treat when the weather is good. We chug along in the winter but always have serious competition from the chains who have big marketing budgets for their seasonal treat products. So, to have restrictions put on us during the winter months has been really challenging.”
Challenges and opportunities
“Running a café is full of ups and downs. We love the sense of community and giving people joy through our products. However, this year has been tough. As an employer, you are responsible for people's lives and throughout 2020 I’ve had many sleepless nights.
“As a business we can never have an off-day and we must constantly ensure that the customer experience is up to scratch. Customers will share negative comments when they don’t like something. You have to be on it all the time or else customers will give bad ratings. Our delivery ratings, social media and TripAdvisor ratings are really important to us. Reputation is everything.
“I’m so grateful for my team and everything they do for the brand and for our customers. Being front of house is a hard job and it is difficult to recruit people who can do it well. They need to have a smile on their face all the time, deal with complaints if they come, enjoy talking but at the same time be able to deal effortlessly with the new delivery orders that come in whilst they manage a queue of people waiting on the shop floor. The job can be really stressful and requires people who can do all of those things at once.
“I spend time on the shop floor but I’m not cut out for front of house. I’m more the ‘engine room’ of the business. I take photos, write social media posts and emails, produce marketing materials and work with the team on ways to greet customers in order to build the brand and improve service. I also manage the business administration and finances.”
Independents in Loughborough
“There have always been coffee shop chains here but competitors here have doubled since we came. A cinema complex opened in 2016, including a large, well-known pizzeria brand, and sucked a lot business from the town centre. More recently, clothing and retail brands have been closing and generally an eatery, usually an independent one, fills the space. The independents are keeping the high street alive.
“As good as that is, it’s also true that every new competitor takes a tiny piece of the market. We have to keep innovating and keep on top of quality. We can’t tread water. When we opened, we were the only dessert place in the centre of town. Now there are 4-5 including another gelateria which does deliveries until late at night.
“Loughborough cares about its independents. The council run a network called Love Loughborough which we are part of. It provides a number of programmes we can join in with, such as recycling schemes, loyalty programmes and even an online shopping mall.”
“The challenges of this year led us to innovate in a way we just wouldn’t have been able to do while operating the café at normal levels. It was a unique time. It has accelerated our development and ability to respond to new trends. It is exciting to be able to do that and carefully think about moving forwards.
“We’ll have to see what 2021 brings for Dolcino. We’re grateful that, as a family, we’re all still here and still in one piece although there’s no denying that at times it’s been very difficult.
“Brexit, the economy, the continuing situation with Covid, all mean more uncertainties. We’re keeping an ear to the ground for new trends but we need to be careful, innovating is expensive. Running a business is about taking risks but calculated ones.
“The rise of delivery-only has been a huge change for us this year. We need to keep ahead of the game and to keep talking with our customers and keeping abreast of what they want.”
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